Happy birthday, Philip Glass

As media around the world are observing, today is the seventy-fifth birthday of one of the giants of American music, Philip Glass.

Here’s perhaps my favourite piece, ‘Lady Day’ from North Star, by way of a birthday salutation; with its trademark repetitive figures, textural writing combining wind instruments, voices and keyboard, it remains as fresh today as it did when I first encountered it whilst at school in a cold-water-dashed-in-your-face manner which opened the doors to Minimalism.

Also from the same disc, the bright-shining ‘Are Years What,’ even more invigorating.

Happy birthday, Philip Glass.

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In defense of Minimalism

Everyone’s heard the criticism: minimalism is tiresome, repetitive, banal, boring, uninventive, uninteresting. It never evolves, never goes anywhere, the pieces drive you nuts. I admit, there are some pieces of minimalism where this is the case.

But then I remember there’s the shimmering colours of Music for Eighteen Musicians,  the bright sunlit textures of Glass’ North Star, the appealingly understated beauty of Glassworks, and I disagree.

Music for 18 Musicians: London Sinfonietta

There’s real colour here; the repeating figures gradually extend and overlap, creating an exotic soundworld which is always evolving, not remaining static. In later works, Reich embraced the audio sampler, creating textures of out sampled urban sounds in works like City Life, a modern take on musique concréte.

Minimalism has even expanded, if you’ll allow post-Minimalism to be included, which is how John Adams’ thinks of his composing, to embrace political issues in opera, as in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Glass has written soundtracks to mainstream cinema, for films like The Illusionist and Kundun, using his minimalist language; whilst his solo piano works have a genuine beauty in their stark simplicity.

British composer Michael Nyman remains popular through ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his soundtrack to The Piano (even though other works, like The Musicologist’s Scores, premiered at the Proms in 2009, are inifintely better).

Of course, Minimalism’s reliance on repetition and recurring harmonies or harmonic cycles will not appeal to everyone; perhaps because you have to listen to the music in a different way. You have to expand the time-scale of your listening, and follow the tiny nuances as a phrase lengthens by a single note or changes its rhythm; you have to follow the evolution of the melodic lines, of the rhythmic patterns, and follow one against the other to see how they interlock, and appreciate the vertical sonorities created as a result. Contrary to how most people might think one listens to Minimalism – simply letting it wash over you – you have to listen to it actively, attentively; you can’t just wallow in it, otherwise it will feel unchanging and never-ending. You have to be alive to the tiny changes to be aware of how the music is evolving; it demands concentration.

And the music can dance, too: boy, can it dance. Listen to Adams’ ‘The Chairman Dances,’ an orchestral showpiece distilled from the final act of Nixon in China; compulsive fox-trotting.

There’s more to minimalism than meets the ear; try it. As the old television advert for a powdered tea used to say: you might like it. Lazy listeners might say it’s dull: listen for yourself, and then tell them they’re wrong.

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