As a string player who can make a claim to only the most rudimentary pianistic ability (accompanying On the Dodgems in a pupil’s ABRSM preparatory test really did make me go cross-eyed), I embarked on this Pianist’s Alphabet entry on Philip Glass with the fitting trepidation of the interloper.
Why do I want to write about Philip Glass’s piano music? The answer is envy. There are many marvellous tricks that we string players can execute – vibrato, portamento, flying staccato – but one thing that is harder for us is the motoric or raindrop ostinato which is so integral to Philip Glass’s music. We can try, in pieces like Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, but various physical impediments stand in the way of pellucid purity, the bow being the major one; therefore, in Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, we are far better suited to the long notes, which can be made expressive with different bow pressure, or judicious vibrato No doubt there are also many difficulties inherent in Glass’s piano music, which require the same attention to the voicing and spinning out of its long harmonic lines as a piece of Bach, but the results are marvellous: mesmeric, crystalline, resonant, and eloquent, despite the ‘limitations’ Glass places on his musical palette.
Like many people – I assume – I first became properly acquainted with Glass’s music through film scores (specifically The Hours and Notes on a Scandal) and when I came to know more of his music, I began to wonder how it was that his minimalism possessed such rhetorical power. I also wondered why so many people, hearing similar styles of music, by composers less aesthetically adept than Glass would tut ‘Sounds like Philip Glass’ with a dismissive, mirthless laugh.
In Tristian Evans’s Music, Multimedia, and Postminimalism (Ashgate: 2015), the author’s more positive and open-minded analyses explore why Glass’s music possesses such infinite adaptability, moving between the spheres of absolute music and ‘film music’ with ease – an ease which, as Edward Strickland writes in New Grove, has led to Glass becoming ‘one of the most commercially successful, and critically reviled, composers of his generation.’ You can read an example of such criticism by Justin Davidson, in the New York magazine. However, the ways that Davidson, amongst others, censures Glass, are precisely the reasons why I like his piano music: Glass is famous for his musical intertextuality (mainly quotations of his own ideas) and references to other music. In his Etude No. 2, there’s a clear referential link to the first Prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is pursuing the twisted paths of motivic reference – through the repetition that Davidson finds so distasteful – that I love.
Finally, performance. As an encore to Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat at the 2015 Proms, the Labèque sisters played the fourth of Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos. Witnessing the intricacy of their interaction, the delicacy required to balance the musical texture, and extract its essential melodic trajectory, was a masterclass in communicative, rhapsodic piano playing.