Philip Glass, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, is often (controversially) referred to as a minimalist composer. Philip Glass’s music is not minimal – it’s more a music that has evolved out of minimalism. Listening to his opera Akhnaten, I was surprised to hear how tonal this music is. Classical chord progressions pervade the texture, which is often grounded with an ostinato. Although the music is quite simple, utilizing a small number of tones at once, and repetitive in a certain nature, the music does not evolve through a gradual process, which is a foundation of minimal music. Sections are distinctly delineated throughout Akhnaten, and each of these subsequent sections has a clearly new feel to it – there is no gradual transition into each of these sections. In many ways, the music in Akhnaten sounds more neo-classic than minimal. The ostinatos often follow traditional chord progressions, but techniques such a split thirds (major / minor chords at the same time) clearly set this music apart from the classical era. The repetition in the vocal parts that repeat the same note sound very much like falsobordone rather than anything new and innovative. All of these techniques make this music very easy to listen to.
Philip Glass’s other major ‘opera’ Einstein on the Beach, is more minimal in style than Akhnaten, as we hear more gradual procession within the repetitions, however the result is very theatrical. Listening to this work, I feel like it lacks something without the visuals associated with the stage production. Then I ran across this video clip about the production of Einstein on the Beach:
Glass mentions that this work may be the first opera in history to be composed for the stage production rather than having the stage production come as a part of the composition. This very much reminds me of the process of scoring for movies. A composer will get the production video and compose around what they see and experience rather than let the visuals be created from the story within the music. This process very much explains my realization that something was missing – the visual production – from my listening to it.
All that being said, I find Glass’s music as a whole to be interesting. The changes in texture are interesting and some of his voicings are stunning. He successfully sets up a mood and goes with it. There is a certain ‘high art’ feel that is lacking throughout, which, interestingly, is explained in the video above as well. It was suggested that Einstein on the Beach be produced on Broadway rather than at the Met because the crowd at the Met may not be the crowd that would go for a work like Einstein. I very much hear music that is composed as production music, theater music, or movie music, and not necessarily as art music. That is not to say that movie music does not have a place within high art – Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky being a fine example – but even with Prokofiev, Nevsky lacks a depth and a freedom that is expressed in his other masterpieces like Romeo & Juliet, Love for Three Oranges, or his Classical Symphony.