The West

Heart of glass
Heart of glass

Philip Glass
Complete Piano Etudes
February 16
Perth Concert Hall

Philip Glass in Conversation
February 15 at 6.30pm
Astor Theatre

"The musical language we're using today will not be the language of tomorrow. That goes for the writers of music and the writers about music. So, you as a writer will suffer the same fate that I will. Someday you will appear to be quaint and inauthentic, when actually at the time your writing was very real. I'm sorry to say that to you. But you're in the same business I'm in - it's just different ends of the telescope."

I'm trying to decide whether I should be flattered or offended. But when it's Philip Glass speaking on the other end of the line, either is just fine with me. After all, Glass is one of the giants of contemporary classical music, has worked with artists as diverse as Twyla Tharp, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Wilson and Ravi Shankar and can arguably boast as many rock and pop fans as classical.

Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, has been described as "one of the truly pivotal artworks of our time", while his film scores include The Hours, Notes on a Scandal, Kundun and Koyaanisqatsi. His output for concert performance includes five string quartets, 10 symphonies, two piano concertos, two violin concertos and numerous works for solo piano.

For well over half a century, he's been, along with composers such as Steve Reich (his almost exact contemporary) and John Adams, a major exponent of the musical style known as minimalism, which refers to the use of repeated melodic and rhythmic cells in a traditional harmonic context.

Glass, who turns 76 next week, has never been entirely comfortable with the term. But he accepts it, knowing that it, too, will pass.

"It has to do with historical periods," he says from his native New York, explaining that his minimalist "phase" really ended in 1976 with Einstein on the Beach.

"However, when I look at the music, no doubt there's a continuity of personality and approach that persists to the present," he adds.

He puts it another way. "When I was a young boy we used to talk about Debussy and Ravel as Impressionists," he says. "It seems a little old-fashioned to call them that now. I think in the end we won't use the term minimalism anymore."

Maybe maximum minimalism is the more appropriate term, given the more than 20 operas, nearly 50 film scores and ballets and other collaborative work Glass been involved in since the late 1970s.

"When people ask me what kind of music I write I say theatre music," he says. "Eighty per cent of the music happens to be that. We're talking about collaborative work; we're talking about movement, image, text, music. And though it seems far from the roots of minimalism, it is there and, yes, you can find it, in certain passages. Intuitively, I will use techniques from that earlier time that work for me."

The last time Glass visited WA was for the 2000 Festival, around the time he was working on, appropriately, his opera The Penal Colony. Then, audiences were treated to a generous selection from across Glass' output, partly by his own Philip Glass Ensemble.

This time round he's taking a minimalist approach, if you will, taking part in the world premiere performance of his Complete Piano Etudes - the last three of which were commissioned by PIAF with the support of Medici Donors and Griffiths Architects - together with fellow pianists Maki Namekawa and Australian Sally Whitwell. Namekawa and Whitwell are considered major exponents of Glass' piano music.

Glass says the project to write 20 solo piano etudes began nearly 20 years ago but "had been malingering". Little by little he made it to 16. "And then I got busy with other things; that's all I can say. And you have to remember: learning to play them takes much longer than writing them."

The Complete Piano Etudes ("etude" is French for "study" and generally refers to a piece written to improve a specific part of an instrumentalist's technique - a famous example is Chopin's two sets of piano etudes) cover a range of techniques and indeed the majority were originally intended for Glass' personal use.

"They weren't intended for concert performance but in the course of writing them they did become that," he says. "And looking at them now they certainly seem that way. The first etude begins almost like a fanfare, an invitation to hear a concert."

Glass says when he began the work, which he now considers "a catalogue mainly of my piano technique, but also of my harmonic writing", he was practising a lot and wanted to write some pieces that would improve his playing and test his mettle in some way.

"That became the subtext of the work, the idea that has prevailed throughout. But when I look at it now, it begins with very formal structures that become these very broad, almost improvisatory kinds of pieces."

Philip Glass was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore, where he displayed a talent for the violin and the flute. After studies at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and with Darius Milhaud in Aspen, he moved to Europe where he studied with famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

Around this time Glass also met legendary sitar player and composer, Ravi Shankar. Shankar's influence was pivotal for Glass, who developed a strong interest in Indian music as well as Eastern culture in general, to the extent that he converted to Tibetan Buddhism.

After visiting India in 1966, Glass returned to New York, where his precarious finances made it necessary to supplement his income as a cab driver and plumber. A few years later he formed the hugely successful seven-piece Philip Glass Ensemble and wrote his breakthrough opera, Einstein on the Beach. The rest, as they say, is history.

Despite Glass' enormous achievements and popularity, he has always had his share of detractors. For example, in a recent blog The Guardian's Tom Service wrote: "I'm trying, I really am. But I can't hear anything in Philip Glass' symphonies apart from windily grandiose bombast, mind-numbing note-spinning, and time-filling composing-by-numbers."

While Glass (obviously) may not agree, he does take such criticism in his stride. And he also accepts the consequences of risk.

"I've said that anyone who works in the public forum, we always run the risk of making fools of ourselves. And we do from time to time. It isn't such a bad thing. A certain fearlessness is required."

The West Australian

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