Music Features

Philip Glass Taps Phoenix Musicians to Help Play Compositions for Gammage Concert

Philip Glass knows no boundaries. The acclaimed modern composer's career began "properly" enough, with study at the Julliard School of Music and work in Pittsburgh's public schools. A move to Paris changed everything, as Glass delved into a period of minimalism enhanced by the revelatory discovery of Indian classical music's repetitive nature. This period shaped Glass going forward, and elements from it have sneaked into his compositions for orchestra, film, esoteric dance pieces, chamber ensembles, and, what became perhaps his finest achievements, a bevy of unusual and complex operas on altogether unexpected subject matter.

Despite a career pushing 60 years, and a fan base ready for anything wild and unfettered he can throw at it, Glass has returned to the simplest of compositional forms: the solo piano piece.

Of course, with 78-year-old Glass, nothing is quite that simple. His series of 20 etudes (two sets of 10) span a nearly 20-year compositional period. All are intricately linked and gradually increase in complexity and depth. Even the seemingly simplest works are layered with hidden melodies and voices retaining bits and pieces of his own complex musical lore, and only repeated listening will uncover them, masked behind Glass' tell-tale repetitive nature.

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The compositions began as a method to improve his piano technique. Bored with the usual scales and practice pieces, Glass created compositions that interested him and his immediate goal of improving his piano skills.

"You know what? It worked!" Glass says with a laugh from a New York City airport while waiting to board a France-bound plane. "I just didn't like practicing scales. The things pianists use to build up their technique aren't that fun to listen to. I figured I could approach the areas I wanted to develop on my terms. What happened is that I got to be a better player. It was actually fantastic, a wonderful experience."

But it didn't happen quickly. It took years to write the first 10 compositions because other projects interceded and took precedence. With the first 10 mastered, though, his playing technique, he says, had improved enough that there actually was no need to continue the project. Changing his tack slightly, Glass carried forth with a second set.

"I always planned to write 20 pieces, but I just stopped for a while. I don't know why. I didn't expect it to take that long," the talkative composer says. "I had learned the whole thing about technique in the first 10, so with the second 10, I wasn't thinking about technique at all. I was thinking about the development of the music. The second set of 10 takes a much deeper inroad into speculative or creative writing than I did in the first set, which was really about my learning. That became very, very interesting."

Ashley Oakley, an ASU music professor who will perform six of the etudes at an upcoming concert at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, agrees.

"There's so much depth, the differences in feel, the differences in sound," she says. "I think these are his monumental achievements. They are absolutely of the finest quality and at the highest level."

With the etudes, Glass takes a small slice from each previous track and expands from there so that each composition grows slightly in significance. When considering Glass wrote the first set as a learning tool, it makes sense he'd continually build upon what he'd already mastered -- and then some -- in the second.

"Exactly," Oakley concurs. "Each individual piece is its own individual unit, yet the set works with each other. Because each piece evolves into the next piece, it really has to be performed in one set. It really makes sense as a group."

The concert will feature three pianists taking turns to perform each set of etudes in order. Glass and Oakley will be joined by acclaimed pianist Maki Namekawa, also the featured performer for The Complete Piano Etudes.

"It's nice to hear it with several people doing [the etudes] rather than just one person playing it," Glass says of the concert format. "It has a very good effect. It's very interesting to hear different interpretations."

Oakley, who claims she is unsure exactly how she was selected to perform with Glass -- though she has performed his works before (without him) and is a proponent for new music -- has been working diligently to tackle each composition. Practiced repeatedly, these continually wow her, and she expects the audience will have the same experience.

"They're really amazing," Oakley says. "I feel like they're so detailed and so in depth, and I love that he really, really plays with the voicing of the melodic lines. The longer that I play these, I keep noticing things I didn't notice the first time, the 10th time, the 100th time I played it. It's like, 'Wow!' as I continue to discover his fun little surprises."

As to Glass' comment that he prefers to have several pianists perform his work, besides the interesting renditions, it also may be because Glass can't actually perform all the pieces at a level he believes worthy of the compositions.

"I know the pieces. I know how they go. I just don't know them well enough for the kind of playing you want to do in public. It's a different level of playing. I can sound them out, but to play them with the grace and expertise a professional pianist would -- I haven't gotten there yet," he says. "That takes hours and hours of practice. The first 10 I've learned and have played them for a number of years. Now I'm working on the second 10.

"But, I'm way behind," he continues with a laugh. "I just learned 16 and 17, the next two this summer will be 11 and 12. It will take me years to learn them all. I'm 78 right now, so I hope to get to them all. I had the idea when I was in my 60s that I could learn them and play them by myself, but the reality is it took years to write them, but even longer to play them."

The reality is, in Glass' busy life there's a trade-off in everything he does. Practice or write? Glass, more frequently, chooses to write. His Concerto for Two Pianos & Orchestra premieres in May, while recent film scores include Mr. Nice and The Illusionist, plus, there are operas about the death of Walt Disney, and Franz Kafka's The Trial -- not exactly typical opera subjects. Then again, considering Glass composed operas about Albert Einstein and Gandhi, nothing is out of reach.

"You're right. I go for unusual things," Glass says. "The subjects I picked, I didn't pick them because they were popular. I picked them because they were popular with me. They interested me. Luckily, a lot of people care about these things. A lot of people are very interested."

Listeners may even find hints of his operas hiding among the etudes, fragments of character studies, elements of intrigue, or subtle, spine-tingling turns.

"These compositions are really a representation of the entire life of collected works in 20 pieces," Oakley surmises. Yet, in reality, "there's so much more."

Best start at the beginning.

Philip Glass is scheduled to perform Saturday, February 28, at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver