Sunday, January 18, 2015

Philip Glass and US Civil Rights Movement

As Americans observe Martin Luther King's holiday, the news reaches us that composer Philip Glass is working on a rewrite of his opera Appomattox. "It's about the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement," he told The Monterey County Weekly during a recent visit to California where the Arts Council for Monterey is giving him a Lifetime Achievement award.

Appomattox premiered in San Francisco in 2007 to mixed reviews.

Ostensibly, it deals with the historic meeting between Ulysses Grant and Robert Lee in April 1865, when Lee's surrender brought the bloody hostilities to an end.  But the opera's scope is wider as it looks to the recurring violence in the United States in the next hundred years, notably during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

"This stuff about the Selma march—that's in this opera," Glass told a blogger at The Monterey County Weekly

"It's going to be performed in (Washington) DC. It covers about 100 years in 2 and 1/2 hours. It goes by very quickly. It's about President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who were partners in the Voting Rights Act. Neither could have done it without the other. There's a big fuss about who did what. You know what? They did it together."

Blogger Walter Ryce calls Glass "probably the most important living classical music composer walking the Earth today." But he adds that "what may be more relevant is that his music can be beautiful, accessible, expressive, demanding and propulsive. If you're into that sort of thing." And that's the crux: if you are into that sort of thing!

The Monterey article reminded me of my own encounter with the revered composer in 2001, during the Washington premiere of his 1999 Symphony No. 5.

The composition is a 12-movement choral work, almost two hours long, involving hundreds of singers and orchestra members. As one movement followed another I could not determine what distinguished them. If someone played back a piece of the symphony for me, I could not tell which movement it was.

"It may be 10 minutes, it may be two hours, but at some point in a piece by Philip Glass you hit the wall. The slow-moving harmonies and constant repetition that were at first soothing become vexing, bright minimalist material that was spare and hypnotic becomes merely dull," wrote Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. It was vastly amusing to see that a professional music critic was not above expressing sentiments similar to mine, noticing that even the performers felt the same.

"A violinist in the orchestra accompanying the Choral Arts Society on Sunday afternoon hit the wall about three-quarters of the way through Glass's almost two-hour Symphony No. 5 (..........) And suddenly, his head lolled to the side, his cheeks puffed with air, and he blew a strand of limp hair straight upward -- a sign of sheer monumentally crushing boredom. And there was still more than 20 minutes of sawing back and forth between two notes to go."

The choir members chanted through 22 pages of the text that combined sacred and traditional verses of cultures from all over the world.

"I wanted a text that was woven together from really the great wisdom traditions from everywhere," Glass told me. 

"So there are texts from Africa, from Asia, from South America. Of course, there is the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, there are Buddhist texts, there are Hindu texts, American Indian texts," he said. 

The twelve movements tell the story of the world, starting before Creation and ending in Paradise. The last movement, Dedication, is looking into the future. It is set to a passage from an 8th century guide to the Buddhist way of life. Its message, originally written in Sanskrit, is one of peace: "May the rains of lava, blazing stones and weapons become a rain of flowers." And of goodness: "May every single being abandon all forms of evil and forever engage in virtue."

According to The Washington Post critic, Glass had avoided texts that might be inconvenient or offensive. For the creation of human beings he did not use the Old Testament story about Eve being created from Adam's rib, but lines from a Guatemalan myth about making the man from corn and water -- "basically the same recipe as tortillas."

Although the pieces of the text come from such diverse cultures, Glass said they were carefully chosen to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

"We sing it in English," he said "and if you read through the text and you don't look to see where the text came from, after a while you forget to look and they all seem like they were written by the same person, which is - maybe they were."

The symphony, subtitled Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya, was commissioned for the 1999 Salzburg Festival to celebrate the past millennium. At the Washington premiere, it was offered as a tribute to the victims of September-11 attacks that had happened two months before. The composer said the work is suitable for both occasions because it is "conceived as a bridge between past and future, moving from the Requiem, signifying death, to Bardo, an 'in-between' world, and finally to enlightened rebirth or Nirmanakaya."

Glass's probably most famous work is his 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which he created together with stage director and dramatist Bob Wilson. The five-hour epic, not reminiscent in any way of classical operas with a story line and melodic arias, is considered a landmark in 20th century music theater. The text consists mostly of numbers and music expressions, and the course of the opera revolves around a few dream-like images. One of them is the image of Einstein with a spaceship, which represents a potential for liberation unleashed by the scientist's work. Glass's fans rave about it.

When I met the composer
, he was working on an opera about another famous scientist: Italian Renaissance astronomer, physicist and mathematician Galileo Galilei.

"Galileo was one of the most astonishing and interesting people who ever lived," Glass said. "We are talking about 400 years ago, and, you know we are talking about a man who was also deeply religious. So the whole question of science and religion, which is something we still talk about today - they became embodied in him. And [he was] a man of great genius, of great devotion and who lived a brilliant, but somewhat troubled, life."

Galieo Galilei premiered in Chicago in 2002. Reviewer Jonathan Abarbanel had this to say about the music: "Scored for 11 pieces including string, woodwind and brass trios, plus percussion and keyboards, the music features Glass's signature hypnotic pulsing and repetitive instrumental lines with contrapuntal staccato punctuation."  

The word "hypnotic" is often associated with Glass's music. During a Met broadcast of his opera Satyagraha, I reclined on a settee with a book, and distinctly remember falling in a sort of a trance - a state that reminded me of the worshipers I had seen chanting in a Hindu temple in Mumbai. Maybe that's Glass's intent.  Otherwise, why bother to repeat one musical phrase gazillions of times? But a more important question is why a composer would want to hypnotize with his music. Glass told me he usually plays a new music phrase to children and if they respond well, he uses it. 

Most people have heard his music in the movies such as The Hours, Kundun and The Truman Show. Glass also wrote music for the renewed version of the 1931 horror classic Dracula with Bela Lugosi.

Appomattox has not had a notable performance since its 2007 premiere. In its broad message against violence, it included a couple of references to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But those events are gaining renewed attention in the wake of Ferguson protests and the release of the new movie Selma, which is nominated for the Academy's best picture award. The movie examines the life of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., focusing on the 1965 freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery. 

So perhaps it's a good time to add more of "this stuff" into a rarely performed opera and possibly attract new attention to it.

Here's an excerpt from the original version of Appomattox. It's less than 4-minutes long so you are not likely to hit that wall Kennicott mentioned.

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