Tag Archives: Philip Glass

Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, The Light

By drawing their inspiration from urban life in the second half of the twentieth century, minimalist composers bear witness to the most carbon-intensive period in human history. The jumbo jet opening John Adams’ Nixon in China and his orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Steve Reich’s City Life and Glass’ epic modern chronicle Koyaanisqatsi all show us a world kept in motion by fossil fuels. The composers may not have intended to represent our carbon-dependent lifestyles. It is all the more interesting that the issues they thought they were addressing, including the mediatisation of politics, consumerism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the alienation of individuals from their communities, are all connected tangentially to this one core issue that now looms as the greatest threat to human life. The works bear witness to this moment in history more than judge it. Through its serene and spacious textures, the minimalist musical language often struggles to cast judgement. Instead it impartially reflects, if not sublimates, the images it is associated with.

Julia Wolfe, Fuel

Julia Wolfe’s Fuel brings this problem running all of our trains, cars and planes to the surface. The piece is accompanied by time lapse footage of the port of Hamburg by Bill Morrison. Wolfe describes the piece as beginning in a conversation with Morrison: “We talked about the mystery and economy of how things run—the controversy and necessity of fuel—the global implications, the human need.” Originally composed for Ensemble Resonanz as something of a virtuosic party piece, the MSO strings kept up the stiff pace set by guest conductor André de Ridder. No lugubrious meditation on modern life, Fuel has the orchestra scrubbing, running and glissing for the better part of twenty minutes. Meanwhile, the film shows cranes loading containers on and off of enormous cargo ships. There is something daunting about the film and music, as though the whole frenzied business were precarious, excessive, in a word: unsustainable.

Tan Dun, “Crouching Tiger” Concerto

Cellist Oliver Coates returned to the stage to perform Tan Dun’s cello concerto based on music from the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From the opening glissando-strewn theme I was transported back to my spotty adolescence, seeing the film’s most excellent and unrealistic sword fights for the first time. As such, I loved the cheesy main theme that returns three or four times throughout the concerto. This time around I also appreciated the piece’s extensive catalogue of well-integrated extended techniques, including left-hand pizzicato rolls, glissando effects, plectrum use and en masse string-slapping from the orchestra.

Alexander Garsden, Faculties Intact (Cybec finalist)

Alexander Garsden’s Faculties Intact is the second Cybec commission to be heard at this year’s festival. As Garsden related in his interview with De Ridder, MSO’s first play-through of the piece in January helped him understand “how overblown and ill-informed [his] initial ideas were.” One of the great virtues of the Cybec program at the Metropolis festival is that composers have the opportunity to refine their compositions and then hear them performed again. The audience is also able to hear the diversity of compositional styles among young composers, including Garsden’s idiosyncratic combination of spectralist, stochastic and other post-serial methods. Garsden’s style is unique in Australia. Many Australian composers fixate upon the performer or the instrument. The idea of a piece may have its genesis in the gestures that a performer makes while playing. They may also want to expand the range of sounds one can conjure from an instrument. Garsden seems more interested in the sound you hear rather than how it is made. He may work from a spectrogram (a graph of the energy at different frequencies of a particular sound) to derive the pitches he will use. He then makes sure that certain relationships hold between the timbres of different instruments. For instance, in Faculties Intact the violins move their bows too quickly, so that the sound produced is high-pitched and squeaky. As the violins move into higher and higher registers, the percussionist begins bowing a piece of styrofoam, carrying this squealing sound even higher. At another moment, the violins scrub away lightly in a lower register, producing a rustling sound that is adopted and expanded by a tam-tam scraped with the shaft of a mallet. Smooth, “ordinary” tones make an appearance as an afterthought at the end of the piece, just in case you forgot they were there.

Philip Glass, The Light

Instead of gas-guzzling technologies, The Light draws inspiration from Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley’s experiments in physics. Michelson and Morley determined that there was no substrate, such as a “luminiferous aether,” through which light waves travelled. Their experiments led to research into the velocity of light and eventually the Special Theory of Relativity. Glass takes this pivotal moment in the history of modern science as the basis for his orchestral work The Light, writing that “this is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modern scientific period.” Where the concert began with Wolfe’s picture of the twentieth century running itself into ecological crisis, the concert ends with the dawn of the century and all of its scientific hopes. Can a new scientific dawn resolve the crisis brought about by the past century of industrial activity? This is a question that has been left to the next generation of minimalist composers, such as the artists of the Bedroom Community label.

The Light
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
13 May 2015

Julia Wolfe, Fuel; Tan Dun, Crouching Tiger Concerto; Alexander Garsden, Faculties Intact (con tutta forza); Philip Glass, The Light.

Metropolis: Lisa Moore, A Bigger Picture

Lisa Moore. Photo by Carla Zavala.
Lisa Moore. Photo by Carla Zavala.

Lisa Moore packed out the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon with her programme of well-known piano works by Philip Glass and For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise by Martin Bresnick. From the beginning of Glass’ Etude No. 2 I remembered how characteristically Moore performs minimalist repertoire. She is not afraid of taking pieces a little faster than usual, adding some rubato or hammering out particular lines. After the energetic Etude, Moore invited the audience to sit back and sink into the Glass “sublime” without applauding between works. I took this as a cue to put down my notepad as well. Throughout Metamorphosis I and II I was transported back to undergraduate music, where I first heard Glass. The performance made me wish I could go forget everything and learn about music all over again. While embracing the Glass sublime as well as I could, I also had some niggling thoughts about minimalism’s place in global history that I will save for my discussion of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s minimalism-inflected Metropolis programmes. I suppose you can take the audience out of postgraduate musicology, but you can’t take postgraduate musicology out of the audience.

After an intermission, the audience returned for Martin Bresnick’s musical interpretation of William Blake’s poem For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. The piece combines a piano part with recitations of the poem and animations of Blake’s illustrations by Puppetsweat Theater. The phallocentric panning of Puppetsweat’s animations is completely in tune with Blake’s own worship of sexual—in particular phallic—energy. The superimposition of images and words in the animations are beginning to show their age. Since the work’s creation in 2001 there have been a string of excellently-animated still drawings, from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of The Ring Cycle in Heath Lees’ introduction to the work Wagner’s Ring, to Jessica Yu’s animations of Henry Darger’s illustrations in In the Realms of the Unreal. I occasionally found myself closing my eyes to better appreciate Bresnick’s rich score.

The piano part paints the elements and stages of life described in the poem, which is read and sung by Moore throughout. Sometimes the piano part imitates the rhythm of the voice, sometimes it develops snatches of folk-sounding melodies. At one particularly weird and arresting moment, Moore trails a card over the keys while reciting the book’s poem on death and the grave. Like Blake, Bresnick draws on the most fundamental materials of life and art to produce a complex new mythology.

Lisa Moore
A Bigger Picture
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2015

Philip Glass, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Metamorphosis I, Metamorphosis II, Satyagraha Act III (Conclusion arr. Michael Riesman); Martin Bresnick, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise.