Launch Microsoft Arpeggio and have lunch with Richard Gere

Somehow, Philip Glass has leap-frogged over Steve Reich on my top artists list. I find Reich far more fascinating than Glass, and I can attribute to this jump in listenership to the availability of Glass’ early recordings on eMusic.

I downloaded Glassworks and Songs from the Liquid Days when they became available, and when I’ve had a stray download or two to eat up, Glass is usually an easy bet.

The headline for this entry comes from a 2007 review by Alex Ross. It’s mostly why I favor Reich over Glass, but I’d pick both over, say, Hector Berlioz any day.

Phlip Glass, Songs from the Liquid Days

Philip Glass, Glassworks

Like Reich, Glass formed his own group to perform his music because he couldn’t find anyone else. Glass’ first recordings for Columbia Masterworks were as idiomatic for their timbre as their music.

The Philip Glass Ensemble consists mostly winds and electrics, few or no strings. Anyone whose first exposure to Glass was through his quartets or orchestral pieces (hand raised) may find Glassworks and Songs from the Liquid Days dry and cold by comparison.

Rather, the pieces on these albums draw more power from the performances, which are so rhythmically precise as to sound inhuman.

Song from the Liquid Days is often described as Glass’ "rock" album for the simple reason that Linda Rondstadt, the Roches and Simon Fowler make guest appearances on vocals. Is it really a rock album without a rock beat?

Yes, there’s some incongruity hearing a voice as soulful as Fowler’s delivering a long, wandering melody over a pulsing rhythm, but minimalism’s tangential roots in rock music make such pairings a far better fit than one of the Roches doing Pierrot Lunaire. (Rondstadt might be able to pull it off.)

Glassworks, though, requires less suspension of belief.

Philip Glass, Music in Fifths/Two Pages (Bang on a Can All-Stars)

Music in Fifths is one of Glass’ earliest pieces, and instrumentation simply calls for "Any combination of instruments whose range suits the material." The performance instructions are equally liberal, allowing each musical figure to be performed any number of times till the ensemble leader indicates to move on. Also, play loud.

With that much freedom, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle this piece with their line-up of clarinet, cello, bass, piano, marimba and electric guitar. Rhythm is pretty much the only component of development in this piece. Melody isn’t much of a consideration, and the title indicates the level of harmonic development.

Music for Fifths is a maddeningly insistent work with a fascinating rhythmic duality — the pulse never lets up, but the odd accents keeps things unpredictable. Bang on a Can’s unconventional instrumentation makes it reminiscent of Glass’ ensemble, the dry timbres taking on a bit of a Reich character with the inclusion of a marimba.

Two Pages comes from the same era and was originally scored for two pianos.

Both of these pieces are probably best digested by tuning them out. They weren’t designed much for expression — not in the traditional Romantic sense — and their hypnotic effects are best experienced subconsciously.

Or maybe with a lot of weed. Not that I’ve tried it myself. (No, really, I haven’t.)

Philip Glass, Mishima

I originally owned this soundtrack on cassette and have been meaning to buy it as a CD or as a download. A friend of mine perused my Amazon Wish List and got it for me Christmas 2008.

I’m sure had I been introduced to Glass with his ensemble, I probably would have found his work with a traditional orchestra less interesting. Instead, my entry to Glass’ works was through this soundtrack and the many pieces performed by Kronos Quartet.

Unlike the other albums in this round-up, Mishima doesn’t just start, play, then stop. The Opening points to a direction, and the rest of the soundtrack follows it. Without having watched the film, a listener can feel a story behind the music, and Glass employs his orchestra expertly, infusing the ensemble with the expression intently missing from his early works.

I’ve read three books by Mishima Yukio and hated every one of them. I have no interest in watching a film about his life, so Glass’ score is as close to an appreciation for Mishima I can muster.

Bruce Brubaker, Time Curve: Music for Piano by Philip Glass and William Duckworth

Bruce Brubaker’s previous three piano recital albums pairs a big name in minimalism — usually Glass or John Adams — with a contrasting voice, previously John Cage and Alvin Curran. This time, Brubaker pairs William Duckworth with Glass.

Brubaker’s Hope Street Tunnel Blues included a number of pieces also available on Glass’ Solo Piano album, and the former was good enough to get me curious about the latter.

Glass’ Six Etudes for Piano, however, aren’t very remarkable. They don’t leave much of an impression, save that Glass did indeed launch Microsoft Arpeggio and had lunch with Richard Gere.

Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes sound prescient — they were written in 1978 but anticipated a world beyond minimalism. A few of them sound a bit serial to me. As a whole, the preludes encompass a wide range of styles and moods. Whether they hold together in such a fashion is up for debate.

I can see how Brubaker may have thought these pieces would fit well on a program, but the album feels flat because of this pairing. Maybe Adams’ Eros Piano paired with Duckworth’s Prelude? Or maybe a more interesting piece from Glass?

I just know this album doesn’t work for me.