Standing next to Eno at Glass’s 1971 performance in London [of Music with Changing Parts] was the rising rock star David Bowie. On his mid-seventies albums Station to Station, Low, and Heroes, Bowie abandoned A-B-A pop-song structure in favor of semi-minimalist forms characterized by dry attacks and rapid pulses. (Glass returned Bowie’s homage by writing a Low Symphony.) – Alex Ross, “The Rest is Noise”
The recent death of David Bowie (born David Robert Jones) deprived rock of one of the stars in its firmament. His death was unexpected; even the obituary writers, who prepare for our demise long before we do, were taken unawares. Initial reports were succinct in stuttering shock, then scribbling away the midnight oil fuller appreciations appeared. One of my earlier reactions was appreciation and awe that the public figure managed a private life, keeping news of his liver cancer from the world at large and ending his days recording music and dying privately. Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, was released the day before his death; reportedly the Thin White Duke prepared albums for posthumous release so the coming years will see more music—re-releases and perhaps new tracks. Tributes abound to his influence on music, be it pop or art rock or ambient music or genre-defying combinations of all styles. He continued exploring, learning new ways of releasing music into the world and teaching us to hear it. Of all the memorials in the wake of the sad news, this observation resonated with me the most: David Bowie lived his life on his own terms, taking risks, being flamboyant, marching to his own beat, making his own music—and that meant the world to misfit kids in lock-step small towns. He declared he was gay when it was still illegal in his native U.K. (He later recanted, declaring himself a “closet heterosexual.”) He acted in erotic noir films that were more arty than mainstream. He was candid about using drugs. And his fashion choices kept evolving. What publicist today would cotton to any of that? This is one of the lasting legacies of David Bowie the icon: a willingness to buck trends and express one’s own true self. It is part and parcel of the protean performer David Bowie and the evolving musician open to all influences.
Evan Ziporyn chose to channel grief in creative ways. Composer, clarinetist, the original Bang on a Can All-Star, and MIT Professor, he pulled together last night’s concert in two weeks. In his words, “This is a way for the musical community of Boston to channel our grief and express our gratitude to Bowie in a positive way. The generosity of these top-notch musicians has been incredible, putting their time and talent toward this project on extremely short notice. It took less than a day to put an entire orchestra together, and that’s a real testament, both to Bowie’s impact and to the spirit of our community.” Organized by Ziporyn, co-produced by MIT Music and Theater Arts and Richard Guérin with Orange Mountain Music (Philip Glass’s record label), this was a labor of love as well as a fundraiser, with all proceeds going to the Frontier Research Fund for cancer research at MIT.
The Ambient Orchestra (as this pick-up ensemble style itself), featuring faces familiar to Boston audiences from a number of different ensembles, came together as a cohesive unit to present long-delayed Boston premieres of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 1 “Low” (1992) and Symphony No. 4 “Heroes” (1996)—both from the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno. Glass took themes from Low and Heroes, both albums released in 1977 (the first two parts of the Berlin Trilogy), and used them as the basis for a symphony. Glass notes, “My approach was to treat the themes very much as if they were my own and allow their transformations to follow my own compositional bent when possible. In practice, however, Bowie and Eno’s music certainly influenced how I worked, leading me to sometimes surprising music conclusions. In the end I think I arrived at something of a real collaboration between my music and theirs.” We listen to Glass listening to Bowie and Eno. It is not necessary to have the albums in mind to hear the symphonies, but if one does it is a richer listening experience. Many in the audience seemed to respond to familiar themes like old friends when they heard them in Glass’s hands. For Glass, the music of Bowie and Eno inspired him to tackle the symphonic form, one he had not previously broached. This was a fruitful musical conversation, one we are privileged to overhear and which we may hope continues long into the future.
The three-movement Low Symphony lasting about 45 minutes is scored for a large orchestra with a full complement of strings, doubled woodwinds plus E-flat and bass clarinets, full brass including three trombones and tuba, percussion, harp, and piano. Individual tracks inspired the movements: the first, Subterraneans, is the last on the original album, so Glass is picking up and continuing the conversation; the second, Some Are, draws inspiration from a bonus track cut from the original Low album but appearing on a later, remastered version; and the third movement, Warszawa, takes off from the middle of the album. As those familiar with Glass’s music know, the beauty is in the subtlety, the slow changes over the longue durée. Here that is amplified by the interaction between Bowie and Eno. The ambience of arpeggiated chords and trilling notes provided the momentum. Never frantic, this hallmark of Glass is an exploration of the power of sound, the variation between tones that is a life-affirming fluctuation, a note of change representing that which is life. This was clearest at the end of Subterraneans where the melodic brass chorale is supported by the undulations in the strings. Some Are opens with a nod of the sound waves to Steve Reich’s 1988 Different Trains: a reminder of the vast array of artists drinking from the same well. This movement quickly returns to the intensity of the end of Subterraneans, becoming a fractured waltz. (I was reminded of Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 Waltz Darling.) Here latter-day life intrudes upon the unrelenting uplift of erect posture and corseted edges of reality the dance too often is (Strauss? Strauss?). It ends as a slowed minor-keyed anthem fraught with nostalgia—perhaps made more poignant hearing it in this context. The foggy atmosphere of the original Some Are is now weightier, reveling in the musicality of bleakness and aching melody. Warszawa opens meditatively, broodingly with piano and bells tolling; low strings counter, defining the lower limits of the soundscape. It blossoms into open cadences worthy of Copland or Barber, as Glassian minimalism encompasses the optimism of early twentieth century American romanticism. The music takes a cinematic turn (or does it only sound so after his 2002 soundtrack to The Hours?), moving notes marking progress and a descending line from piccolo to flute to oboe enriching the opening tolls. Out of this grows a climbing, aspirational theme. Permutations on a three-note idea from the low brass, taken up by trumpets and flutes, give glimmers of gaiety before the brooding idea sounds again. The pace quickens, becoming energetic as the musical cells merge into a complex and polyvalent idea. Out of small ideas a protean multitude.
The Heroes Symphony (1996), Glass’s fourth, spans six movements in some 50 minutes. Scored for large orchestra (mostly as earlier—subtract an E-flat clarinet and one trombone; add a bass trombone), this work includes celesta in its forces. While working on it, Twyla Tharp suggested that it be a ballet score. Bowie loved the idea. “Accordingly,” Glass writes, “I set Heroes as a six movement work, each movement based on a theme from ‘Heroes’ with an overall dramatic structure that would be suitable for dance. The result is a symphonic ballet – a transformation of the original themes combined with new material of my own and presented in a new dramatic form.” Like a suite, it incorporates elements of many dance forms. The first movement, Heroes, takes off from the eponymous track on the album. A brass chorale opens, interspersed with a pulsing beat, the full orchestra voicing the ebb and flow of the opening theme; here there is the hustle and bustle of modern urbanity. The second movement, Abdulmajid takes off from track 11 of the 1991 album reissue. (The track does not appear on the original album although it was recorded between 1976 and 1979. Abdulmajid is the last name of Iman, Bowie’s second wife, and may be a musical portrait from the early days of her modeling career some 15 years before they married.) Musically this movement is sinuous with a recurring rhythmic pattern (think, Bolero) accompanying castanets and xylophone, while a string-heavy theme sounds with brass punctuations. The third movement, Sense of Doubt, is more mysterious yet profound. The colors and orchestration transport us to another realm, while reiterations of the symphony’s opening brass notes pull us back. Sons of the Silent Age takes on an introspective cast, as the original electric guitar theme slows to an Adagio pace and breathes deeper, expansively. The trumpet, then oboe, caress the theme. Developing in intensity and sharpening its focus, the movement relaxes at the end, shimmering away with the dying strings. The fifth movement, Neuköln, alternates between two themes, one high and one low, becoming a dance before returning to the opening section. The use of the celesta here, both timbre and theme (more or less a Phrygian dominant scale), give a cast of the gamelan here. This movement captures the essence of the conversation between Bowie, Eno, and Glass: ideas and styles merge into a reconciliation. Named after the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln (and seemingly misspelled by Bowie), home of Turkish Gastarbeiter and adjacent to the Schöneberg area where Bowie lived, this is music combining old and new, East and West. Glass continues that permutation of disparate traditions. The finale, V-2 Schneider, takes off from Bowie’s homage to Florian Schneider, co-founder of Kraftwerk; largely instrumental, this track provides Glass with musical ideas to create a rousing end to this dance. Over viola trills, flute and celesta pronounce the tune; this expands into a driving conclusion to the symphony. Throughout the six movements of Heroes Symphony, reiterated brass themes, coupled with a woodwind motif, provide continuity. We hear a Philip Glass now more comfortable composing symphonies, and embracing a wealth of influences in this creative musical response. Brass, having offered punctuation throughout, lead a rousing coda and drive the conclusion to this symphony, ending on a note of exciting optimism.
In a variety of ways, Glass challenges performers. The larger obstacle is a matter of ensemble, discerning the important shifts in the texture and building to them at the right pace. Ziporyn stood at the helm of a skilled ensemble, convened on the moment but playing like a group of long familiarity and standing. Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium at MIT gives no ground and takes all performers its prisoners, demanding absolute precision and brooking no slips as all distractions amplify (including audience rustles). The Ambient Orchestra rose to its challenges and played with a passion attesting their love of Bowie, of Glass, of Ziporyn, of making music. Led with clear pulse and direction, the musicians achieved a great balance with wide dynamic range and varied, matching and appropriate, articulations. A commendable feat in any ensemble, made all the more remarkable when they had a week to merge into one orchestra and learn these works.
The Ambient Orchestra featured a number of Bowie-inspired looks (two Aladdin Sane, one from the “Lazarus” video, among others). Concertmaster Gabby Diaz rocked sparkly black pants and ruby red heels inspired by Dorothy but oh so much more glamorous. Best of all was Ziporyn in a black jacket “I found in my closet” (some closet – I want to shop there!) that combined the Regency formality of tails with the tailored cut and popped collar (lined with cut velvet from the looks of it) of a rock star. The musicians took the lessons of Bowie the icon to heart and to stage. No sad funeral here; this was a joyous celebration, a tribute inspired by sadness but motivated by love and filled with happiness. The encore, a rendition of “Let’s Dance” where marching band met full orchestral ensemble, reminded us all of the joy Bowie brought into the world and was a plea for that light to continue shining in the world after Bowie’s personal comet has blazed on by.
WQXR streamed the live concert as part of its Q2 music programming. It can be heard on demand here.