Mvt. 3 from Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Seasons”

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            If a composer may play the rôle of America’s foremost public intellectual in the arts, there is arguably no stronger candidate than Philip Glass.  For the past half century or so, he has helped shape much of the direction of new and innovative music with his unique approach to composition, his thoughtful and deep exploration of æsthetic principles, and his prolific interaction with leading artists the world over in cinema, the theatre, the visual arts, poetry, dance, and of course, music.  Both adored and “reviled,” he has been drawn to the expressive possibilities, and potential for commentary and meaning, in almost every modern artistic genre, technique, and vocabulary.   And so, in this pursuit, he has interacted with an astounding number of the “movers and shakers” of contemporary art—from Mick Jagger to Woody Allen.

            Much of his music is founded upon repeated elements, and there is not doubt of the “atmospheric” nature of his style.  Suffice to say, much of his work challenges convention and presents difficulties with traditional folks who follow the arts.  In point of fact, much of his music is conceivably incomprehensible to many in today’s concert-going public. In simple (simplistic?) terms:  he is the darling of New York intellectuals, and much of his work does not “play in Peoria.”  That being said, there is in his music something to offer almost anyone who is willing to listen with “new ears,” and who finds the right piece among the many different ways his compositions sound.  Those sounds may include his epochal opera, Einstein on the Beach; the theatre piece, Hydrogen Jukebox, with a libretto by Ginsberg; Dracula for string quartet (for the 1931 film); and electronic instruments, somewhat traditional concertos, and vocal music to texts by Carl Sandburg or Maurice Sendak. 

            He early on was attracted to modernists such as Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio.  But his encounter with the radical French cinema of Godard and Truffaut, Samuel Beckett’s plays, and contemporary visual art moved him on in different directions.  While his favorite composer is still Franz Schubert, he identifies the repetitive patterns of classical Indian music and the conception of time in Beckett’s plays as of consequential influence upon him.   His early work was lumped in with the “minimalist” movement—appropriately so—wherein constant repetition and variation of small musical “cells” was the strikingly new and economical style.  Since the 1970s he has moved on into a variety of innovative styles.

            The Violin Concerto No. 2 was composed in 2009 in collaboration with the violinist Robert McDuffie, to whom the work is dedicated, and who gave the première.  Together, they conceived it as a contemporary response to Vivaldi’s famous work, and in Glass’ best tradition of challenging, artistic ambiguity, it gives no indications of which of the movements is a referent to any particular “season.”  The composer cheerfully leaves it up to the listener.  The third movement is a throbbing affair that unceasingly chugs along, with the solo violinist exploring a kaleidoscope of traditional violin figurations and arpeggios, with Glass’ signature paucity of harmonic changes, clear directionality, dynamic contrasts, and most of the other manipulations of traditional music.  Rather, he invites the listener to pull back psychologically from the expectations engendered by these elements, and experience the nuances of an economic simplicity that grows and evolves ever so leisurely.  It can be challenging, but nevertheless rewarding to the patient and receptive listener.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan