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I find it very difficult to begin to try and explain Philip Glass Solo Piano because despite my preponderance of music ops I have absolutely no understanding of the theory behind music; terminology and technique means nothing to me: this is not a virtue and especially in attempting to explain the subtle delight in Glass music I find myself flummoxed, but I shall try nevertheless, if only because no one else has and it is music that I love.
I am very much a new convert to Glass music and am now firmly entrenched in the belief that his work is magnificence of the highest order. From my little knowledge of outward cultural reaction to Glass it always appears to me that he has a following of near cult status, unusually successful and yet somehow shunned by critics and the establishment in favour of other composers. I am perhaps wrong in this but it appears so to me. Perhaps it has to do with, as with Solo Piano, that his music is not always for virtuosos. Solo Piano for the main part is very simple music, quite sparse and basic though more often than not unutterably beautiful. Glass is of course considered to be very much a minimalist composer, a tag which he himself declines and dislikes, preferring to see himself as interest in cyclic music, with shifting modulations and tones (in this sense very close to very strict ambient music and many ambient fans would do well to listen to Glass, especially Solo Piano). His musical aesthetic is very clear in his earlier works, especially Einstein on the Beach and most definitely in Solo Piano.
In general I find Glass music to be that which encapsulates me as a listener. Seeing his music performed live for the Cultural Olympiad earlier this year I was struck that how I was almost hermetically sealed in by the music, how totally I became lost in it and it was perhaps the best piece of live music I have ever experienced of any kind. Solo Piano has the same hermetically sealed feel to it; it wraps itself around you and thoroughly engulfs you despite the simplicity of the music, which bares a certain similarity with Satie, though in essence rather than actuality. The recording, played by Glass himself has a real sense of emotional clarity and almost personal nature to it, I feel as if Glass is playing to me alone.
For the most part Solo Piano is made up of Metamorphosis, a piece which breaks down into 5 movements: Metamorphosis 1-5, each of which last between 5 to 7 minutes. The title of the piece clearly identifies the style of the music (which I related earlier) as each movement is a subtle variant on the last, being almost romantic, swirling runs of notes: the basic motifs are played with distinct and subtle variants throughout the 5 pieces, carefully shifting and modulating so there is never a sense of one movement being derivative of the previous one or that which proceeds it. There is a real delicacy to the playing, a subtlety and genuinely quiet beauty. I find an almost dreamlike loveliness in the music, it is enthralling and deliciously beguiling; it is music I lose myself to and surround myself in so that it consumes me. Despite the simplicity Metamorphosis is never background music, something to have on whilst doing other things, though even if I do (and I often do) I find my concentration being drawn back to the ever modulating notes and motifs and am almost always feel a strangely physical effect (which suggests the sheer potency of the music). I somehow think that this is the most perfect example of Glass music and possibly the most beautiful, as the intelligence never outweighs the beauty of the music: one informs the other and join together to create the kind of music that slips into your soul whilst youre not looking. The cyclic nature of the music also gives Metamorphosis a sense of closure, as we drift from Metamorphosis 1 to Metamorphosis 5 I find myself almost in the same place musically; full circle has been reached and there is something strangely satisfying in that as though it appears to leave us as it began, Metamorphosis actually does nothing of the kind, rather it leaves me in a new place, moved by the shifting cycles within the music and myself. It is quiet, almost unassuming and yet so beautiful with it that I wonder how I came to this place and why I am so moved and that is of course the beauty of music (as it is of art); we cannot always explain it and sometimes if we could it would not have the potency or the beauty and Metamorphosis has both in glorious abundance.
The CD is then finished with 2 separate pieces that are entirely freestanding and yet entirely in keeping with the sound and mood of the music. Mad Rush seems almost ironically titled as there is nothing in the least mad or rushed about it. It is clearly the music of Glass, again almost gentle and unspeakably beautiful. At first there appears to be similarities with Metamorphosis but then it becomes clear that Mad Rush, written for an address by the Dalai Lamas in New York (hence the ironic title no doubt), is nothing of the sort; true there is the same almost lulling luxuriant romanticism and intelligence but there is also a gloriously meditative quality to the music as it cycles through variants on the central motifs that occasionally increase in tempo and somewhat in volume but it never loses sight of the central rhythms or becomes overly loud, clashing or jarring. Certainly Glass is not above jarring his audience but here it is not the point to, at the same time Glass is not attempting to chill you out; I find Mad Rush opens up spaces within my mind that allows me to explore both the music and myself and for that reason it is an utterly necessary and brilliant piece of composition and playing, especially as Glass plays all the music on the CD as if an ordinary man; it is perhaps a slightly odd explanation but I feel Glass is never trying to be showy or beyond musical reproach; that if there was a mistake in the playing he would leave it there not out of laziness but a sense of it being an ordinary imperfection and such effects music in its natural live state; there is no going back and removing chance errors in live renditions and his playing never feels overly rehearsed but simply elegant and quietly passionate.
The final piece is Wichita Sutra Vortex. No longer than any of the constituent movements of Metamorphosis. I find it rather an elegiac piece, almost even simpler than anything that has come before it if such a thing is possible, yet it is still quietly emotive, perhaps not as brilliant as Metamorphosis it is still a musical treasure and written to echo the flow of the poem of the same name by Allen Ginsberg. Glass simple, honest playing is most evident on Wichita and somehow all the more moving for it as I feel Glass commitment to the music is even more personal than on the preceding pieces; the emotion that seems to mount towards the final minutes, seems very much more personal to Glass; his passion is almost a little more clearly evident as he builds the music towards not crescendo but end as with Metamorphosis he somewhat ends as he begins and again leaving me all the richer for having done so. Wichita is also a piece that fits the end of a CD, the elegiac nature of the music allows the listener to depart from the music, unless, like me, youve most likely have it looping and then return to the first glorious bars of Metamorphosis.
I hope that Ive managed at least a little to describe Glass music and my own love of it; some of his other works I can understand being difficult to find accessible upon first listens but Solo Piano is nothing if not accessible without ever being below par Glass and so those who have never listened to his music might find this the best place to start, as it wont either scare you away or bore you (though I find the idea of Glass boring anyone impossible though I know it does). Really though Glass music is like a cyclic dream, modulating through variants on rhythms and themes and yet never once losing its charm or beguiling ability to enthral. Solo Piano came as something of a revelation and I love it as much as Bachs Violin Concerto in A minor, which believe me is saying something.