What should just be musical doodles become creations of profound beauty in the hands of Philip Glass. When I first started listening to his piano music, it sounded familiar. It sounded like what I would come up with tinkering at the piano as a kid, accidentally improvising or getting carried away in between practicing “real” pieces. Except, slowly, one realizes it isn’t tinkering at all with Glass, though that essential playfulness, innocence, and simplicity remains.
I hear the criticisms of Glass loud and clear, and, if I let myself go down that path, I am perhaps most sympathetic to the “one-trick pony” argument. But then I listen, and, really, the arguments fall to the wayside, because the impact for me is visceral and real and deep.
Last week I saw Madison Opera’s production of Galileo Galilei. Glass’s operas are more problematic than his instrumental music; the declamatory, anti-melodic vocal lines take adjusting to. Whether despite this or because of it, the overall effect can be trance-like, which is jarring in a dramatic setting. Moment-to-moment, the story feels less important than in traditional contexts. For me, though, this is usually most welcome. The story becomes an idea to mull, the music the essential element to foster such a state. So it was with Galileo. And as tends to happen, Glass’s work here incited great inventiveness from the designer and director.
Funny, then, that one of my favorite Glass pieces is his opera Orphée, based on the Cocteau film. Plot is essential to the piece, and the score is one of the composer’s most varied: from jazzy evocations of post-war France to Gluck quotes and soaring melodies, it is often distinctly un-Glassian. Yet, no one else could have written it, you know it is his throughout. And that has to be worth something.