Symphony No. 3 (mov't 3)

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            Gustav Mahler famously observed, “ A symphony must be like the world.  It must contain everything.”  On the whole this is manifestly not true of Glass’s symphonies, but in a very useful sense it seems to apply to the man, himself.  If a composer may play the rôle of America’s foremost public intellectual in the arts, there is arguably no stronger candidate than Phillip 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. Some of those important in his life’s circle:  Chuck Close, Richard Sera, Brian Eno, Peter Sellars, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Paul Simon, members of the “Talking Heads,” Mick Jagger, Alan Ginsberg, Jerome Robbins, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, and Stephen Colbert—to mention only a few.  Whew!  His list of compositions is formidable:  over a dozen operas and as many chamber operas and theatre pieces, seven string quartets, ten symphonies, countless solo keyboard works, almost fifty film scores, and a multiplicity of others works in almost every other musical genre.

            The inevitable questions, of course, are:  What does his music sound like?  Does he have a unified, recognizable style?  What has influenced his work?  There are no simple answers, but there are clear directions in his thought and work.  He plunges deep into new ways of understanding the world, the personal inner imagination, and innovative ways of conceiving sound to express—or not to express—the interface between the human mind and experience.   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, Maurice Sendak, or Mick Jagger.  It truly is a challenge to neatly put his style in a box.  A few observations may be made, however.

            He enjoyed a top-notch traditional music education under the likes of Vincent Persichetti, Nadia Boulanger, and Darius Milhaud.  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.

            His Symphony No. 3 (from 1995) was composed during a time of focus on that genre—Symphony No. 2 even drawing upon the music of Honegger and Milhaud and other mainstream composers as inspiration.  No. 3 was written for nineteen instruments, treated as soloists in a chamber-like fashion, with plenty of traditional elements that, frankly, serve as a rather smooth and painless entre to the music of this challenging composer.  In this particular instance his peripatetic eye is looking back in time for a device to structure what is clearly a new sound.  This deliberate invocation of the past is the foundation of the third movement:  it clearly is a chaconne, a favorite unifying device of composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Repetition is a favorite device of “minimalist” composers, and a chaconne yields coherence by simply establishing a series of chords that is continuously repeated from beginning to end.  A related technique is repeating a bass line in a similar fashion, a technique that almost everyone may remember from the Pachelbel Canon—ubiquitous at weddings, today.

            It begins with three 'celli and four violas, with a pulsing syncopation.  With each repetition of the winsome chord progression new voices are added, with slightly new materials, yielding layers of ideas and motives.  As the end approaches, a solo violin plaintively soars out above the texture, passing the melody on successively to others.  But, ultimately, the gentle, insistent, undulating layers of ideas in this “sea” of strings subsume everything, and the movement quietly ends.   While Glass has composed much, and in styles radically differing from this work—this brief moment is eloquent testimony to the composer’s vast original imagination.  Like a modern painting that is nothing more than a field of one homogenous color, Glass’ piece forces you to contemplate more closely simplicities that in other, more conventional settings, would be passed over by the reductive mind.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan