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Glass: Experience vs. Conversation


Riding into Cambridge on a wave of 75th birthday greetings from around the globe, composer Philip Glass spoke to and performed for a full house last night in Harvard’s Piper Auditorium at the Graduate School of Design. Glass, who shares a January 31st birthday with Franz Schubert, appeared as part of the GSD’s “Design and Music Series.” Tickets were only distributed to the Graduate School of Design “community,” but the event was reportedly simulcast to other rooms in Gund Hall, with seating available on a first-come, first-served basis. Piper Auditorium, with its deceptively plush black industrial carpet and white walls, served as a Spartan yet intimate backdrop for a rather amorphous conversation centered on deciphering terminology.

The composer, dressed unassumingly in all black, took his seat at the table next to GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi and listened to the latter wax poetic about ideas of structure and repetition. Glass opened with a caveat: “Usually I talk to musicians…. That’s a different conversation.” He hoped the Dean would “act as an interpreter” for his informal comments, but it appeared that the Dean was likewise interested in acts of interpretation on the part of the composer. Glass began trying to untangle “this business of the architecture of music,” regarding concepts of space and time as two fundamental components that “we have accepted as part of the reality we can live in.” For the most part, Glass spoke about his own approach to composition, occasionally bravely offering generalities pertaining to the difference between music and architecture: “Empty space may be the thing that bedevils the architect. It doesn’t work like that with music — we don’t start from silence… I’m dealing with a sound and then I have to figure out where it goes.” This particular comment seemed to arouse quiet grumbles from several audience members, who politely refrained from any kind of audible counter-argument.

Glass recounted how he had spent most of his 75 years trying to answer the question “What does music mean?” and had found an answer only recently, in response to the query, “Where does music come from?” “Music is a place,” he offered, “as real… as Chicago.” A solid explanation remained elusive for the rest for the evening, at least in words.  After musing upon the ideas of repetition found in North African design and the photography of sacred spaces by Lynn Davis, Glass directed his thoughts toward ideas of form and content. Just as architecture in the Muslim world prohibits icons or images as a central focus, music could work the same way. He felt he wandered into this discovery “by accident,” realizing that it was a matter of “removing the narrative… making a different relationship between form and content” and “working with attention” to the repetition. It was this last comment that seemed the most provocative, given the often erroneous and over-simplified categorization of “minimalism” that has accompanied Glass throughout his career. In the 1980s, John Rockwell classified Glass as a “minimalist-structuralist-trance” composer. Glass seemed to defy this stamp last night when he said of repetition: “It wakes me up! My attention forms around sounds… I’m not in a trance.”

As evidence of his meaning, Glass performed two piano works: Metamorphosis (Nos. 2, 3 and 4) and Wichita Vortex Sutra, both from 1988. In the selections from Metamorphosis it was clear that Glass was truly attentive to each harmonic shift; while his left hand maintained a series of steady ostinati, his facial expressions and graceful release of his right hand bespoke Schubert or Chopin. Recording brings a sense of sterility to Glass’s music; the Shankarian rhythms, the harmonic changes, the undulating melodies are all there — but it is hard to engineer “attention.” When Glass played, it was easier to understand his definition of music as place, a place perhaps only realized through his own attention to it.

Wichita Vortex Sutra, which appears as only a piano track on Philip Glass’s 1989 recording of his own solo piano music, co-existed with a tape recording of poet Allen Ginsberg reading his poem of the same name. Ginsberg, who wrote the poem in 1966, showed it to Glass in the 1980s when they met by chance in a New York bookstore. The collaboration eventually expanded into the chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox, which premiered in 1990. Wichita premiered at a benefit for a Vietnam veterans’ theater group; Glass, at the piano, accompanied Ginsberg’s reading of excerpts from the poem. For four or five years after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, Glass said, he was unable to play the tape of Ginsberg’s voice, but recently has begun to use the tape in performance. Glass has also performed the piece with Patti Smith reading the text, which he felt was “better than someone trying to sound like Allen.”

The music is very much a realization of Ginsberg’s own poetic rhythm, however, and as the pianistic voice of Glass merged with Ginsberg’s recorded voice, sound once again became palpable and transformative.  The hymn-like opening, which Glass said evokes a solitary church steeple on the Kansas plain, was memorial and nostalgic in quality, but also very much a location in and of itself. Again one had the sense that the composer, through his own performance, had arrived in a place — not Wichita per se, but the place where Ginsberg’s realization of Wichita still survives. The poem’s energetic evocation of solitude, body, and rivers materialized through Glass’s music.

The conversation and Q & A that followed touched upon some engaging concepts, but the answers never truly materialized and were instead caught in a web of academic deconstruction and what seemed befuddlement for Glass. At one point, after derailing an ambiguous question about a direct relationship between space and time and form and content, Glass quipped, “Someone said, ‘Architecture is frozen music’…That’s very poetic, but I don’t know what the hell it means.” That captured, in a nutshell, the disconnect that had hung over the room from the introductory portion of the program. The conversation began to cohere on the topics of utility and spirit, but Glass deflected many of the more esoteric questions with “that’s very interesting” or “this is a very curious thing,” at one point admitting, “I don’t know the answer to that.  There’s a lot I don’t know.” Finally, at the end of the evening, came a question that one wished had started the proceedings, although it was overwrought with jargon and unnecessary symbolism.  The young woman requested a discussion of transcription — some way to identify the common threads of both music and architecture.  Perhaps a moderator steeped neither in music nor architecture might have facilitated this.

What was only mentioned briefly but offered a potential springboard for future discussion was Glass’s collaborative project with GSD Professor Toshiko Mori. Over the course of three semesters, GSD students enrolled in Mori’s independent research seminar are building a portable concert hall for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, directed by Carlos Miguel Prieto, and with Plácido Domingo as Artistic Advisor. Glass, who has composed works for the ensemble and sits on the Advisory Council (along with other such artistic luminaries as Martha Argerich, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Slatkin, Helmuth Rilling, and Gustavo Dudamel, to name just a few), has joined forces with the GSD to produce this portable concert hall to provide the best venue to bring symphonic music to remote places that have little to no prior exposure to such music. The Fall semester of the course focused on the testing of materials and a mockup production; and the completion of the prototype in Carmel, California is scheduled for the current semester.

Glass cited the project as a “collaboration of architecture and music,” and stated, “aesthetics are not as important as the utility.” Dean Mostafavi asked, “Why is utility important?” to which Glass pragmatically replied, “That’s how we make a living!… Until I was 41 I did all sorts of other jobs. I also found nothing unpleasant about utility…I find useful music no more shameful than having five fingers… in fact it is almost the same thing.”

Ultimately, Glass offered some sage wisdom regarding a “consensual understanding that we learn from each other” and that the “listener is in a creative relationship to the music,” his perception of music as a “metaphorical voyage” that navigates the distance between the spectator and the sound.  With a dry edge perhaps borne more from experience than humility, Glass chuckled and said, “You don’t like my music? Ok! Go listen to something else! There’s a lot of music!”

Glass has much to say, but his most valuable offerings came through his fingers, rather than out of his mouth. The GSD is to be applauded for fostering the opportunity, but one wonders if it wouldn’t have benefited from a wider audience. If music is indeed a place, then perhaps architects need to go to it, rather than invite it to come to them. Musicians no doubt “understand” architecture far better by performing in a great cathedral rather than looking at a picture and a caption. Academia is an important arena in which we exchange ideas, but perhaps a more visceral understanding could enlighten our constructs and need for definitions. That Glass often seemed at a loss for words was not an indication of age or lack of credibility, but testified to the “utility” of experience versus conversation. The real answers may come if the students involved in the building of the portable concert hall can experience Glass’s music in the structure built from their own realized form and content. That will be the true marriage of music and design.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.



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