At first

I will restrain myself for apologizing for what I perceive to be a little unwieldy about my first entry. Instead, I will honor the advice of a few of my coaches, who I can hear in my head saying: “done is better than perfect.” I hope for this project to be akin to a musical book club and I am still working with the ways in which to make the material easy to access — YouTube seems the best way for now but please let me know if you have better suggestions.

Philip Glass turns 80 today and the celebration of a living, reasonably famous, successful composer in an age where audiences are dwindling and funding grows shorter seems as good a place to start as any. The University of Richmond is hosting a concert in his honor this weekend (with a pre-concert talk with Glass himself) and I’m going. Several years ago, Brooklyn Rider played a concert at VCU where I discovered (yawn) one of Glass’s string quartets anchoring the program. “Boys,” I thought to myself, “you’d better take me there.” They did. (A link to one of their performances of Glass appears at the end below). That was when I began hearing Glass’s music.

And now to the unwieldy part. I originally searched YouTube for some material to link and the first thing I opened has some copyright problem or another. I can’t post it but you can go here and type “philip glass etudes.” Look for Etude No. 2. Listen. Repeat.

At the first hearing, I was shocked to hear the similarity between Glass’s piece and the first Bach Prelude —

— not because I imagined that Glass wrote his music in a vacuum, I suppose — but because I just didn’t expect it. Was Bach minimalist before his time? When I try to describe the two pieces, is it odd that I end up using mostly the same words?

Then, at about 1:07, Glass adds a musical idea above the floating, continuous line. Wait — I think — doesn’t that sound like this?

At about :21, the cellist (it seems weird to call him “the cellist” but it’s not like I know him to call him Yo-Yo: Mr. Ma) enters with the melodic line of Ave Maria added by Gounod, which sits above the music that Bach wrote. And I’ve always wondered about that piece too — why? Why bother? Was the Bach prelude not enough (or, who did Gounod think he was)? Was the first Glass melody not? Does the upper line become accompaniment to what was happening in the first place? Is it a distraction? Or does it give meaning to the first line that wasn’t there before? It doesn’t sound like a distraction but it also feels like the first material was complete. I’m perfectly happy hearing the Bach again without Ave Maria. I’m also happy to hear it there. Is it just the difference between being single and being in a relationship?

On the next listen, I realize that Glass actually added an “under”-line before he added an “over”-line (at :34). Which is kind of nifty.

Holy bananas, I’ve asked all these questions and I am about seven minutes into what will be the full cycle of the etudes to be presented on Saturday night. And it’s not like the first etude is dull. So the music goes on but this post has been enough so far (I hope.)

What do you hear?

–Elizabeth

P.S. I find this totally absorbing:

4 thoughts on “At first

  1. Elizabeth, love your idea of a “musical book club blog.” Thanks for sharing; I have not listened to much Glass, but your comparisons were fascinating. It is clear he took his cue from the C Major Prelude, eh? So… if Bach had never written that prelude, and Glass or someone wrote it today, what would we call it? Probably “new age” music? Something George Winston would write? That’s what I heard.

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    • Thanks, Mike! I know not a thing about whether he took a cue from the C major prelude. I like your question and I think that Glass is considered to be in classical/art music tradition– but I also like that you would call George Winston yet something different. For me, I’m now able to take Glass’s music seriously where as with Winston I always feel like I’m stuck on a ship going down.

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  2. I love this, Elizabeth! It’s a great idea. I always enjoy Philip Glass. Both the Etude #2 and Mishima are lovely. While I wouldn’t have remembered the Bach well enough to have heard in the Glass on my own, I agree with you completely on the comparison. Bach can be quite minimalist – he just adds things on top sooner than Glass often does. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring comes to mind as well as many organ preludes I’ve heard over the years. Mishima reminds me very much of the underpinnings of another Glass composition – Songs from Liquid Days. Thanks for inviting me along for the ride!

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