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Recorded in 1982, for a series of six CDs for CBS, Glassworks is a Philip Glass primer. It's not a compilation, more of an introduction to the master minimalist. To quote Glass directly "Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then". And indeed it does. It represents one of his most accessible works, as well as being one of his most haunting and most beautiful.
For those less conversant with Philip Glass, he has been 'lumped' into the Minimalist bracket, along with other modern composer such as Steve Reich, Terry Reilly and to a lesser extent John Adams. In general Glass is the most successful and probably the least respected. The origins in this seem to be both his prolific output, his consistency of quality as well as his trademark rhythmical repetitions. For Glass is less a minimalist (how anyone can think of the opera Einstein on the Beach as being minimalist is beyond me!) and interested instead with repeated, slowly shifting, cyclical rhythms that generate a hypnotic, often hermetic musical landscape, which, admittedly, some can find claustrophobic. I for one don't find it in the least bit claustrophobic and if anything one of Glass' great abilities is to engage in both solo or smaller chamber settings as well as in a more symphonic and operatic mode. For forty years Glass has adapted his rhythmical, cyclical aesthetic so that you can almost trace patterns as easily within his oeuvre of work just as much as you can within an individual piece of music, or even in a single track or movement.
But why is Glassworks such an accessible introduction to Glass? Regardless of Glass' assertion that it is an introduction, there must be a reason why. Certainly an album like his soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi is accessible and in fact contains some of his most beautiful music. Equally, Solo Piano is probably more accessible yet; simple, haunting cyclical notes cascading from Glass' keyboard. I think the answer lies in the fact that Glassworks is placed somewhere between the two. Also, its six pieces though very much of a whole can be played and appreciated individually. Though, of course, pieces from Koyaanisqatsi and Solo Piano can be, but not to the extent of Glassworks I would argue.
There is a certain balance to Glassworks. It cycles (yes, there's that word again) between slower pieces then more up tempo, one after the other - a little like boy, girl, boy, girl round a table!! This balancing act gives the six pieces a sense of wholeness, as belonging to one another at the same time as being separate entities. Glass is also very canny. The opening piece, titled: Opening is a more settled, keyboard piece, slightly similar to his work on Solo Piano, except possibly more beautiful. Opening is a delight, a deliciously, delicately emotional flowing of notes - Glass' keyboard is unsurprisingly simple, as most of his keyboard works are, he is not after virtuosity but instead relies upon his ability to spin hypnotic rhythms that glide effortlessly across the musical ether. In Opening he succeeds as well as in any other piece that I have heard from Glass and the result is definitely beautiful and also works to balance the second piece, which comes as something of a shock to the system after the gentle elegance of Opening.
Floe, though, opens with one of those beautiful, haunting moments where the correct note, played barely at all works with such emotional impact that you wonder how on earth it is possible. Several low horn notes ripple out from Opening and for about 25 seconds we are treated to this beautiful repeating motif of notes that eventually return to break up on the flow of Floe. Glass breaks up the music, which crashes in, swathes of competing, encompassing and encasing instruments: keyboards, saxophone, clarinet and strings. The effect may be a little too much for some Glass beginners but the overall effect is in stark contrast to Opening, as it explores the more complex side of Glass and is reminiscent in several places to moments in The Photographer. Like all of the pieces on Glassworks, Floe runs for about six or seven minutes. Never outstaying its welcome it also doesn't linger for too short a duration on this mortal coil, though if I had but a few seconds on this mortal coil left to live, I would probably listen to the few seconds of soprano sax that Floe opens with. Running pell mell towards crescendo, layers of rhythm overlaid more deeply upon one another there is something wonderful about Floe, especially as in inimitable Glass style when he reaches something like crescendo he never quite does, instead the music segues into the more serene, floating Island that is similar in tone to many of the pieces in Koyaanisqatsi. This is rather ironic as a later pieces, Facades was originally written for Koyaanisqatsi but was never used.
Island is elegant, almost atonal, and it drifts and glides across the ears; a slow piece, it revolves around soft clarinet that play across distant cycling rhythms. Electronicise it a little and it would make near perfect ambient drones. The shifting patterns of the music glide slowly, softly, allowing a little respite from the harsher sonorities of Floe. You can feel yourself floating: an island in a sea of tranquillity. Rubric, on the other hand, continues with the pattern of alternating denser with softer pieces and Glass' shifting rhythmical keyboards pushes the piece forward, though met with the additional of some slightly strident violas and French Horns. You can almost feel the music whipping about your head. It is not incessant but it is certainly insistent; but in a good way. Again, this epitomises Glass' ability to cut changing rhythms together and layer them until you feel encased (hopefully not entombed!) within a miniature world of music. To some it may at times sound a little like a stuck record but the truth of the matter is a far cry from that: the musicians play off each other beautifully, as they overlay rhythms one upon the other.
The fabled missing track, Facades, from Koyaanisqatsi finally appears. It is string heavy and has a delicacy to it. Cellos cycle slowly, softly through their repetitions as (I think) soprano sax enters, similarly to the clarinet on Island. It is a subtly constructed piece, heavy on atmosphere though little can be said to 'happen.' But where is the harm in that? especially as Glass can be as hypnotic when barely seeming to do anything at all as he can when apparently doing too much. The gentle atmosphere, the interplay between saxophones glides elegant along, washing you away just as Island did, on a tide of music that leaves you closing your eyes and your head not bobbing but gliding with each drawn out note. Despite the limited instrumentation Facades never feels thin or anaemic but as if the exact level of density has been achieved. Thus, the effect is as hypnotic, if not maybe more so, than anything before.
We end rather like we have begun, Closing is practically Opening, only rather than utilising keyboard to weave his hypnotic strands of rhythm Glass allows the saxophones and horns and clarinet to take the stage. As we drifted elegantly into Glassworks now we are drawn elegantly to the exit. In something of a recapitulation Glass piano returns and the horns occasionally mirror Island in their drone like notes.
The key to Glassworks for me is that it works equally well as an introduction as it does a source of joy to the initiated. There is much that is beautiful and elegant about Glassworks. Equally it can be loud, almost a little raucous though never does it descend into the cacophony that it threatens to be. A lot of modern classical does go down the cacophony route, wherein it appears something has decided to slam their hands into the keys of piano without much of an idea of what they're doing. Not Philip Glass and certainly not on Glassworks.
Disc #1 Tracklisting