Philip Glass Cuts in New Directions
The composer's eye is fixed on unconquered opera houses and `a new kind of music theater'
THE emperor who chided Mozart for composing "too many notes" would have been equally flummoxed by Philip Glass, the most celebrated pioneer of so-called minimalist music.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Glass's latest opera, "The Voyage," has been attracting enthusiastic crowds to the Metropolitan Opera House despite its nontraditional elements, such as a minimalist penchant for repetitive melodies and chugging rhythms.
"Subscription audiences are coming now," the composer told me in a recent interview at his Manhattan home, "and they like it. It cuts right across different age groups. People are ready for something new, and this has not been a hard sell."
Ushering this opera through its first performances is only part of Glass's current activity list, moreover.
The annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has two Glass extravaganzas this month: an earlier concert that featured his new "Low Symphony," based on the 1977 album "Low" by David Bowie and Brian Eno, and revival performances of "Einstein on the Beach," created in 1976 with Robert Wilson as director and designer.
On tap elsewhere are performances of "The Mysteries and What's So Funny," with director David Gordon and artist Red Grooms as collaborators, and incidental music for a production of Georg Buchner's classic play "Woyzeck."
It's a busy schedule. But being in demand doesn't mean Glass has "made it" in a permanent or definitive way.
Asked if his Met debut has "legitimized" him and his style, he acknowledges that it's an important stride in the right direction. "But all these signs are hard won," he quickly adds, "and no rung on the ladder is conclusive." His eye remains fixed on opera houses not yet conquered, and his thoughts remain preoccupied with new steps toward his basic objective: to introduce "a new kind of music theater" capable of revitalizing both art and entertainment.
Glass defines this new kind of opera as "a spectacle where music and movement and dance and image come together. It's not very interested in narrative ... and it's more than the sum of its parts."
Although he sometimes uses a trendy term like "Post-Modernism" to describe what he has in mind, Glass is more likely to stress the down-to-earth virtues of "entertainment" when arguing for his cause. He's fond of quoting a reminder that his mentor, the late composer Virgil Thompson, used to give him during their many conversations: "Don't forget, Philip, opera is a public affair."
Glass couldn't agree more. For great composers like Verdi and Puccini and Donizetti, he says, "operas were art and entertainment put together."
Over the years, however, this populist approach has regrettably faded. "The inclusion of entertainment has been allowed in the art world," Glass asserts - the quirky career of Andy Warhol is a case in point - but has been frowned on within the "academic circles" that exert strong influence on contemporary music. This has impoverished composers and audiences alike.