For years, the theater group Mabou Mines and the composer Philip Glass were a creative partnership. More recently, they have gone their separate ways. Yet each has continued to grow in influence and popularity. Recent projects by both attest to this.
After years of dedicated work, developing and refining his own form of "new music," Philip Glass soared to prominence in 1976 with the presentation -- first in Europe and then at the Metropolitan Opera House -- of the opera "Einstein on the Beach," devised in collaboration with experimental stage director Robert Wilson.
Happily, Glass's new fame among "uptown" audiences has not diverted him from the rigorous musical path he has long followed. Indeed, his music is more rigorous than ever in some respects -- for example, his recent interest in solo recitals, which eliminate the fantastic depths and colorations of sound he routinely achieves when performing with his ensemble.
Glass's latest recital took place at a Brooklyn church, as a benefit for Bargemusic Ltd. -- the remarkable floating concert hall moored a few feet south of the Brooklyn Bridge at Fulton Ferry Landing. Glass plays an organ as sonorous as the one at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, located just a stone's throw from the East River.
In about two hours, Glass played five pieces, dating from various phases of his career. Like such colleagues as Steve Reich and Terry Riley, Glass composes deliberately austere music that favors repetition over the usual kinds of musical "development." Yet without compromising his principles, he has succeeded over the years in making his music ever more colorful, more rhythmically and harmonically astonishing, and more instantly engaging to the ear. This trend continued at his Brooklyn recital.
It is always pleasant when an artist's latest work is his best, and that was precisely the case on this occasion. The program concluded with the American premiere of Fourth Series, Part 4 (1980), a work of dazzling pleasures. Moderately paced and rhythmically gentle, it combines the calm of a Schubert slow movement with the soothing regularity that is Glass's own specialty, and even throws in a figure that could have come from "Over the Rainbow." Along with its formal virtues, it shows a keen awareness of the textural possibilities offered by the pipe organ, and thus made a particularly apt finale to the Brooklyn recital.
The program opened with Dance No. 4, from a series of pieces that coalesced last fall in an exhilarating evening called "Dance," presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Glass, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and artist/filmmaker Sol Lewitt. Glass's rendition at the Brooklyn recital seemed a bit lumpy, but the old energy could still be felt. Then came a much earlier work, "Music in Contrary Motion," which reflects the strong interest in process that motivated Glass in the period around 1969.
Other items included the unmemorable Dance No. 2, and a suite of passages from "Einstein on the Beach." It was fascinating to hear comparatively familiar "Einstein" selections reduced to a single instrument, but Glass's operatic work doesn't exactly cry out for solo transcription. As with many other composers, his large-scale pieces seem most comfortable in large-scale settings.
In all, it was an uneven afternoon, but an intimate and often invigorating one. At this point, Glass has several projects reportedly under way: He is composing music for theatrical use; the operas "Satyagraha" and "Akhenaton and Dedalus" are in preparation; and he is co-producing a rock album for a group called Polyrock. He also appears with his ensemble, and gives up to a dozen solo recitals each year. As his recent recordings and live performances demonstrate, he is at the vanguard of the newest and most exciting music of our day.