Composer Philip Glass Hones Minimalist Style, Maximalist Output
Movie soundtrack and dance opera are among his latest offerings
Philip Glass is one of the most popular classical composers in the world today, and one reason must be the sheer quantity of his output. This season alone has brought a major CD release - of a piece long enough to fill three discs - as well as the soundtrack music for a high-profile movie and the third installment of his Jean Cocteau music-theater trilogy.
Some have criticized Glass for cranking out so much music, using an updated version of the emperor's complaint in "Amadeus," the classic drama about Mozart's troubled life: "too many notes!"
But others defend the composer, citing his importance in originating the minimalist style, and arguing that high productivity is as virtuous in the arts as in other fields.
The relevant question is whether all of Glass's goodies are equally worth listening to. While some works are obviously more ambitious, inspired, or successfully realized than others, one of the remarkable features of his career is the generally strong quality of his pieces, from brilliant masterpieces like the operas "Einstein on the Beach" and "Satyagraha" to small-scale gems written for the Philip Glass Ensemble.
It's hard to say which of Glass's latest offerings will captivate the largest audience. But one candidate will surely be "Les Enfants Terribles: Children of the Game" when its recorded version comes out next year from Nonesuch. The record label has already released expertly produced CDs of his earlier pieces based on works by Cocteau, the great French author and filmmaker.
In their original productions, Glass's adaptation of "Orpheus" was staged as an opera while "Beauty and the Beast" synchronized his music with a screening of Cocteau's movie. As presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) recently, "Les Enfants Terribles" rounded out this journey through art forms by joining Glass's score to Susan Marshall's dramatic choreography.
Billed as a "dance opera spectacle," the work is modest in scale, with few settings and just a handful of characters. Marshall fleshes it out by having as many as four dancers portray a single character, and Glass follows suit by having his score performed by not one but three pianists in addition to the onstage singers.
Although the result doesn't rank with his most impressive pieces, it has some entrancing music (especially in the more dreamlike scenes) and captures the otherworldly tone of the novel and movie on which it's based. It drew cheers at BAM, where it appeared in the celebrated Next Wave Festival after previous European and American engagements, including the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.
"Music in Twelve Parts," just released on CD by Nonesuch, dates from the early '70s, when minimalism was almost unknown in the music world and Glass was struggling to achieve some attention for his style by composing wildly original pieces that only his own ensemble could be depended upon to play. This massive work brings together all the major ideas he had developed at that time, including his interests in repetitive sounds, dramatic transitions, and rhythms based on music from India.
Its length (more than three hours) is more maximalist than minimalist, and some may find its rigorous structures more relentless than rollicking. The many fans of minimalism will have a field day, though, and even skeptics will have to admit it has a better beat than any other classical music around.
Also due shortly from Nonesuch is the soundtrack music for "The Secret Agent," the current film based on Joseph Conrad's sardonic novel about inept anarchists in London a century ago. The movie is less than brilliant despite its impressive cast, including Bob Hoskins and Robin Williams, and Glass's contribution is less compelling than his music for "The Thin Blue Line" or "Koyaanisqatsi," probably his best-known scores. But its melancholy textures have a moody fascination all the same, and Glass admirers will find it a worthy if minor addition to his ever-growing body of work.