Monday, October 24, 2016

Nicolas Horvath’s Philip Glass Project Advances to its Fifth Volume

A little over a week ago, Grand Piano released the fifth volume of Glassworlds, the project of pianist Nicolas Horvath to record the solo piano works of Philip Glass. The title of the album is Enlightenment. It features the longest uninterrupted track (a little over 40 minutes) that Horvath has recorded to date. This is “600 Lines,” one of the first two pieces composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1968 and originally scored for winds and synthesizer. This album is the premiere recording of the composition performed as a piano solo.

As I have previously written, my own first contact with Glass took place at a performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in the spring of 1970. There were three pieces on the program, each about twenty minutes in duration; and I have tried to reconstruct what they were. On the basis of sources I have consulted, my current conjecture is that they were “Music in Similar Motion,” “Music with Changing Parts,” and “Music in Fifths.” This was my first exposure to Glass’ “music with repetitive structures” technique. It did not take me long to “get it;” and, back in those days when there was a serious threat that making music might get taken over by abstract mathematicians (I was writing a doctoral dissertation in applied mathematics at the time), Glass’ music was a welcome breath of fresh air.

I wonder if I would have reacted to Glass quite as positively had my very first experience been of the uninterrupted 40 minutes of “600 Lines.” I suspect that the mathematician in me would have been fascinated with its almost obsessive approach to working with a bare minimum of motivic material that is then subjected to extensive permutation and combination. The question, however, is whether I would have succumbed to enough-is-enough exasperation before the piece had concluded; and that question would be coupled with just when that sense of “enough” overtook my listening capacity.

I find it interesting that there is no mention about the signification of the title “600 Lines” on the Philip Glass Web site, either in Glass’ own notes for the Compositions section or in those by Ivan Moody for the Alter Ego recording Web page. In contrast to the rethinking of counterpoint and harmony that I had encountered at the Guggenheim, “600 Lines” is obsessively monodic, consisting entirely of what at least can be notated as a single line. I use that hedge phrase because there is a plethora examples of how Johann Sebastian Bach could write something that way that still embodied elaborate structures of both counterpoint and harmony. Whether it is possible to find 600 separate “lines” in “600 Lines” may be a challenge for analysis; but I am not sure that the results would have much impact on the listening experience.

This takes us back to the enough-is-enough issue. I think that age has granted me a gift of greater patience when dealing with extended durations. Those who have been following me for some time know of the satisfaction I can get from listening to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner; and, while there is no mistaking Glass for Bruckner, it may be that the stance of the listener does not have to vary as much as one might suspect. Both of these composers are best enjoyed by the listener willing to let go of any “conventional” expectations and just let things happen. If one simply accepts a rhetoric in which repetitions are frequent but are consistently transformed into new repetitions, one can actually settle rather comfortably into the act of listening to “600 Lines” without succumbing to the enough-is-enough syndrome. Some Zen monk might call this a state of “enlightenment,” which might explain Horvath’s choice of title for the album; but, personally, I see no reason to let verbal semantics interfere with this particular approach to music-making.

The other major work on the album is “Mad Rush,” whose duration is about half that of “600 Lines.” Grand Piano’s advance material for this piece describes the structure as “something like a hidden sonata form.” This strikes me as being more appropriate for a graduate student in a desperate search for a thesis topic than for setting a context for the curious and sympathetic listener. “Mad Rush” may have had its origins in the classical concept of preceding an opening allegro movement with an adagio introduction; but, on the full twenty-minute scale of “Mad Rush,” structure comes down to the tension of oscillation between two senses of pace. (The noun “tempo” sounds a bit too dispassionate for music whose rhetoric comes off as far more personal.)

This is music most likely to resonate with anyone living in a major metropolis. The title refers to the inevitable chaotic hustle and bustle that a pedestrian is likely to encounter on just about any street, and Glass captures that with repetitive arpeggios that almost depict that street scene as Brownian motion. (Think of how many of the visual images captured by Godfrey Reggio in Koyaanisqatsi, accompanied by Glass’ music, can be taken, when seen from the distance that Reggio establishes, as Brownian motion.) In that “metropolitan” setting, the alternating adagio sections may be taken as the quiet seclusion of solitude.

All of this unfolds as yet another instance of Glass working with repetitive structures. However, Horvath plays this music with considerable attention to the dynamic level of every note, even within the thickest textures of superimposed arpeggios. Thus, it does not take long for the attentive listener to realize that, while the structures of the marks on the score page may be repetitive, the performance itself has a rhetorical shape of its own that enhances the surface structure of repetition with the deep structure of something more like a journey. This may be what the writers of the advance material had in mind for “a hidden sonata form;” but I have my doubts!

Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to listening to Glass himself play “Mad Rush” at a special Gala concert honoring the retirement of Ruth Felt, founder and President Emeritus of San Francisco Performances. Glass has observed that he has written piano music to keep his hands in shape as he gets older. However, his performance of “Mad Rush” was more than a “therapeutically” elaborate five-finger exercise; and it did not take long for me to settle into thinking about this music as a journey. Horvath’s recording seems to be thinking along the same lines; and, for all of my preferences for listening to music in a concert setting, the version of “Mad Rush” on this album comes very close to being just as satisfying as my recent “live” experience.

“Mad Rush” and “600 Lines” are separated by the second of the five “Metamorphosis” pieces that Glass composed for solo piano in 1988. Horvath had already recorded this as part of piano versions of the complete set (all of which began as instrumental compositions) in the third volume of his project. I am not sure that there is a need for two separate performances of this piece (and, given the times on the track listenings, they appear to be distinct performances); but the idea of a “spacer” between the two long works on the album is definitely appreciated. Somewhat more amusing is the “coda” for the album, which is Glass’ own arrangement of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” whose primary objective seems to be to assure the listener that Glass can be as comfortable with schmaltzy rhetoric as any other composer! One might almost call the arrangement a “remembrance of things Lisztian” (even if the point of reference would probably be late Liszt)!

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