Music For Writers: Philip Glass’ ‘Not-Ninth’ Symphony


The Composer Calls It His ‘Not-Nine Symphony

So maybe the new weekly blog post coming to on Mondays won’t be the first stop every author makes on his or her read-in for the day. But you could do worse.

Richard Guerin has begun editing “Glass Notes” each week, and the very first thing we read there this Monday was that Glass’ Symphony No. 10 release from Orange Mountain Music was chosen by Q2 Music as its Album of the Week.

Indeed it was, and in his write-up at New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, Daniel Stephen Johnson couldn’t have said it better:

Even for Glass, this is an uncommonly crowd-pleasing piece of music.

Thanks to Glass’ long friendship with conductor Dennis Russell Davies — we wrote about this in our Thought Catalog #MusicForWriters interview with Davies’ wife, the pianist Maki Namekawa — he has ducked the superstition around a ninth symphony and returned to his symphonic canon with the exhilaration of a man who reached No. 10. The work couldn’t be in better hands than with Davies and the Bruckner Orchester Linz in this smart, agile evocation.

Ravishing Connections

Do you know Glass’ superb Days and Nights in Rocinha? When the grandeur of his 10th Symphony starts to get to you — and you realize that both the instrumentation and the majestic cadences and builds are reminding you of Rocinha — know that this symphony premiered in 2008 as Los Paisajes del Rio, a work written to cap that year’s Expo Zaragoza Spain. It won’t surprise you to learn that the 10th started life as a fireworks piece, meant to accompany the show’s closing pyrotechnics at waterside, gorgeous.

The composer then went to work setting the piece for full symphony when it became apparent that closing fireworks fests wouldn’t offer a lot of chances for performances. And, as the articulate Guerin’s fine liner notes tell us, Glass was ready for a logical question:

The reason composers re-use pieces is not because they run out of ideas. The reason is because you have a good piece buried in a piece of music that no one is ever going to play…So you have to put it into a new format. I’d say that this music was saved from sure oblivion by putting it into this symphony.

And even the composer seems to be glad things went as they did. The original, he says — the last of a marvelous repertoire composed for the long-running Glass Ensemble — couldn’t be adequately performed with the instrumentation available in that smaller (but much-loved) group. Full orchestration kicks open the result you hear now, with its busy, clanging opening and rugged, celestial apex in the closing fifth movement.

About 35 minutes long, the 10th basically sets dancing everything we know Glass for. Fraught with interrupted lines, hammered along by its own relentless percussion, this is the world of racing clouds and banging chords that we love, a picture of our time that no one else has painted with such a palette. There’s no other like him.

The Voice of Glass

Early in my arts-criticism career, I was assigned to cover a tour performance of the Glass Ensemble and arrived at the end of a long day for the show with a splitting headache. I sat in the house waiting for the concert to start, wondering what I was doing there, fingering my car keys in my pocket — fortunately the house lights went out before I could escape.

The ensemble did something I’d never seen: it worked in a circle onstage, about eight players including Glass, all in black, looking like chic stagehands, frankly, all of them facing in toward the center of the stage. The logic here took a moment to sink in. Everything was amplified, everything was processed, there was no need for these musicians to face us, the audience. They needed much more to see Glass and each other for their cues.

And in the audience, we felt far from left out just because we saw a couple of the players’ backs. Instead, we felt privileged to be able to watch. Within seconds, the explosive, shattering repetitions of Glass’ trademark loops were slamming through this huge auditorium, as I’d later describe it to a colleague in the newsroom, as if “they were scrubbing our brains.” I still remember the phrase.

What headache? That thing was gone within minutes of the performance starting and what I’d learned about the power of Glass’ language is that it’s a lingo your nervous system itself seems to grok. Forget your ears. Loaded with melody, yes, the purest Glass passages nevertheless seem to move on waves of rhythm and energy aimed right at your solar plexus.

‘What I Have Liked About Theater’

Even in soft moments, as in the opening of the second movement of the 10th — nothing but a block, its stick tapped innocuously at a distance — Glass’ music reaches you as a gesture, as movement. And the tiny stringed arpeggio that has begun under the rustle of a military snare somehow depends on that gesture, that movement, to hang as  it does in your mind.

What does this mean for writers?

Listen to Glass for, above all things, the build.

As with that gentle-nothing start in the second movement, this is a man who can start from zero and complicate in ways that you’ll recognize: plotting. Each of the ringing, fantastic entries by nearby orchestral voices relies on what went before it. Compilation, coordination, revelation: story. This is the development of narratives so rich that they need no words. Pretty humbling for writers, I grant you, but nevertheless instructive and important. We spin awfully paltry yarns compared to the tales this man’s ingenuity recites.

If you have seven minutes, sit with just the second movement and follow the expansive, coursing developments that get you from that nearly inaudible beginning to something muscular, forceful, raging , barely contained. By the final minute of the movement, great waves of sound are rolling forward, tides gathering under them to push forward, still building. It couldn’t be more theatrical.

And then it stops.

The third movement starts its quick, exotic march because the second has done its work. The third can take a far more severe, worried tack, fretful and throbbing, because Glass knew to take the full range of his second movement to raise us up to this new platform of bells and strings.

And this is what Glass describes to Guerin for a special extended edition of his liner notes as a theatrical evocation of the work. Glass tells him:

There’s a freedom from story, from narrative. I’ve contradicted that too. I’m not even sure I like the freedom.  What I have liked about theater is how it is interconnected with the other art forms.  Usually I have collaborators: choreographer, director, lighting person, librettist.  With any kind of theater piece you have a lot of people involved. With a symphony there’s nobody there but you.

And The Audience

A composer so prolific as Glass, now 78, is someone whose voice lives, rightly, in our national consciousness. The best thing he could say to us right now is what the Guerin conveys to us in those longer notes he has been kind enough to share with me.

Glass tells him that he’s been all but frog-marched to this work, starting with a joke about his friend Davies’ insistence on symphonic works:

Glass: “I was forced to write symphonies by Dennis Russell Davies.”

Guerin “Against your will?”

Glass: “Not completely. But it’s not what I would have done.  The form has taken on a life of its own for me.  It’s now easy for me to go on to No.11. I know exactly what to do because that first series of ten symphonies, at least for me, has set up an expectation. I’ll probably start Symphony No.11 next summer.”

That’s the best news we could have. No. 11. On the way.

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Years ago when I was interviewing Glass, myself, for a profile at CNN, he talked about his relationship to the audience and how doing 80 performances per year at the time was actually useful to him:

It’s very helpful to a composer to have this dialogue with the audience, the constant transactions that happen between the audience and composer-as-performer. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 54 years. I know that that is, since I was 10. It really feeds into the music

Nevertheless, even then, in 2001, Glass was feeling the pressure to keep working. “I’m a fun-aholic,” he told me was the way he handled the charges of workaholism.

And he added something that I understand better now than I did then. At the time, we were talking about how obliged he felt at times to keep producing for the musicians I’d seen on stage, the Glass Ensemble. These good artists, he knew, depended on his name, his performances, and his composition to work and grow, themselves.

But now I realize that the drive he’s telling Guerin about to produce more symphonic work — maybe especially at his friend Davies’ urging — is something that comes with the vast territory he has defined and cultivated so faithfully for so long. Glass told me:

There’s simply a point at which you realize that your career has become someone else’s career.