Is there such thing as a minimalist pop star? How about a classicist one? Whatever genre history ultimately assigns to Philip Glass, he will be remembered as the greatest ambassador serious music had in our lifetime. This was the twinkling truth at the Winspear on Monday evening, where he was joined by violinist Tim Fain, and it was evident as soon as the venue’s L.E.D chandelier was swallowed into the dark heavens of the ceiling. A man whose prolificity knows no restraint, Glass was responsible for the music that accompanied the chandelier’s rise, too.
The composer seemed genuinely moved following the ascension of the lights. He also gave polite remarks to introduce each piece, which were as informative as they were charming. His talk was dotted with references to fellow pioneers of various disciplines: Patti Smith, an icon of punk; Leonard Cohen, icon of song; Allen Ginsberg, poetry. Glass has collaborated with them all. Take a step back and you realize the impact this handful of artists had on imbuing every day life with a heightened sense of both dread and enlightenment.
After Glass set the somber tone for the evening with the opening piece Mad Rush, Fain followed it with a solo performance. Fain’s chaconne was written specifically for him after both he and Glass were involved in a production that used Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Though the chaconne is an ancient form, it is still part of Glass’ approach (as it is other modern composers, such as Penderecki). But it is a tribute to Glass’s singular personal style that his work is just as recognizable through another player’s hoary violin as he is on his own Steinway.
Glass’s piano was never overwhelming, as looming microphones were distant enough to make the performance seem almost completely acoustic. Fain on the other hand shrieked lovingly on his instrument and you could feel the higher ambitions of the bow pierce through the quiet atmosphere and into your gut.
Fain, who is approximately 40 years younger than Glass, is an appropriate counterpart to the towering figure with which he shares the stage. He too, has flirted conspicuously with the more lucrative arts, and he has most recently garnered attention for the 12 Years a Slave score as well as making an actual appearance in 2011’s Black Swan. Glass, on the other hand, has a reputation for being Hollywood’s favorite composer, and occasionally a brief trailer featuring his music is far better than the film itself.
The anticipation of seeing Fain and Glass take the stage together was deftly built up over the first three solos. The crowd was then rewarded by a trio of selections from The Screens, an `80s production originally composed with Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso. Glass humorously remarked that he no longer recalled the original meanings of the titles, and who could blame him? The fleeting variety of mood in these three short pieces helped to make the intermission-free 80 minutes seem to soar by.
In one of the more touching moments of the evening, Glass introduced his work from Hydrogen Jukebox, with some remarks about Allen Ginsberg. He claimed to have not performed the music following the years after Ginsberg’s death, and it was clear that this was a passing that haunted him. Glass eventually remembered that he had a recording of the poet reciting his own Wichita Vortex Sutra, a midwestern-themed rant that has a light rather than heavy activism in its lines, and he revived this particular piece. An elderly gentleman in front of me giddily nudged his wife at the mention of Ginsberg’s name, and you haven’t seen cute until you see a radiantly smiling ex-beatnik in a grandpa sweater.
It was a privilege to hear Glass interpret his music directly, unadorned and without the foggy limitations of even the crispest recording to dilute his intentions. If it seemed like the pause between notes was a millisecond too long, the drag was quickly engulfed by the flood of Eastern-styled repetitiveness for which Glass is said to have adapted for Western audiences. This was best exemplified in his performance from Metamorphosis (Nos. 4 & 5).
Though he is always in the conversation of the originators of minimalism, Glass is something else entirely when you consider the rather challenging work of his contemporaries. A sputtering Steve Reich percussion piece will likely never see a sold-out crowd at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. I’ll let you decide if that’s a tragedy or not.
On the contrary, Philip Glass seems to have pared his compositions down to the most emotionally satisfying elements. That is likely why I saw such a diverse yet familiar audience at the venue on Monday night. Men and women in rock bands sit comfortably next to classically-trained academics. But Glass’ work sometimes borders on a sort of musical pornography, eliminating the buildup and instead presents climax after climax which can occasionally fall short of reality. Mundanity has no place in the proceedings, it’s all drama, and a grand drama at that.
But the composer himself counter-intuitively warns future generations to avoid such stylistic pigeonholes. “The habit of working isn’t so bad, but the habit of habit is a terrible habit,” Glass said in a 2012 NYU class lecture. He was being interviewed by composer Julia Wolfe, a fellow minimalist whose work includes the delightfully abrasive, Arsenal of Democracy, a personal favorite.
Obviously it seems that we aren’t to take this remark at face value, but rather apply it to the composer’s larger philosophy. He also insists that if a collaborative work is successful, then he sees no reason to work together again. The point has been made. If that’s the case, you may not ever see Fain and Glass onstage again.
All photography by Andi Harman for D Magazine.