As Philip Glass took the stage Sunday night, Campbell Hall was packed and the body heat of the hushed audience was rising. Glass, a soft-spoken man with an absent-minded professor appeal, emerged to announce that there would be no intermission. I could hear a man’s stomach growl from three seats away. It did not take long to realize this was going to be a serious affair.
It is impossible not to associate Philip Glass with musical minimalism, the postmodern movement of which he is a reluctant pioneer. Minimalism involves the disintegration of musical complexity and emotion in favor of a hypnotic, pulsating, repetitive sound that can be pretty, but also sterile and expressionless. In the ’70s, minimalism attracted many pop music fans with its consonant harmonies and accessibility, and its moody lush sound makes for the perfect film music. However, without any context it can become monotonous.
Glass played the first piece, a classic piano solo from 1979, and the consonant, repeated arpeggios initially gave the illusion of sweeping emotion. However, after a few cycles, the feeling was deconstructed, revealing a tedious pattern of thudding notes at a steady pulse; when the musical riff was finally beaten to death, a new melody emerged. The piece’s familiar minimalist format felt thin and disappointing, more sleep-inducing than thought-provoking. Though Glass’ piano playing is endearingly clumsy and inconsistent, allowing a welcome human touch to the harmonic pattern, his arpeggios have remained unvaried since the 1970s. Most of his compositions sound very similar, and one couldn’t help but yearn for a deeper, more satisfying experience than this music could provide.
Perhaps this perspective is too conventionally Western in its beliefs. When viewed through an Eastern lens, Glass’ repetition can be compared to the act of meditation. How long can one listen until his or her mind begins to wander? Apparently not long. By the time the arpeggio cycle was repeated for the eighth time, I was wondering whether that ham sandwich eaten at lunch was advisable or not. Judging from many other audience members whose eyes were closed, appearing to be deep in thought, this reaction wasn’t entirely uncommon.
Fortunately, the great cellist Wendy Sutter emerged to play “Songs and Poems for Solo Cello,” a new solo piece written especially for her and easily stole the show. “Songs” is a welcome variation from typical Glass, with stark double-stops and fluctuating lines that convey depth of feeling. There is a certain intimacy to the piece that is notably absent from Glass’ other works, perhaps due to Sutter’s sublime, lyrical cello playing. Sutter seemed guided by her instrument, arms dipping and moving assuredly, and the rich tone of her amplified cello was both breathtaking and masterful. This piece, the most interesting of the night, brought something new to the Glass canon: a refreshing, classically influenced take on the cello and a much-needed departure from Glass’ typical wall of arpeggio sound.
The program continued with Glass, Sutter and percussionist Mick Rossi taking the stage for “Tissues,” featuring converging percussion and cello melodies. In one particularly jarring and lively section, Rossi played a rhythmic line and Sutter almost matched him, but not quite. This perhaps unintentional clash was irritating, though appropriately minimalist and imperfect. The percussion was a minor side note, and one couldn’t help but wish that Rossi would go to town with his mallets, disturbing the quiet, soporific air in Campbell Hall.
Finally, the trio played “Closing,” a typically minimalist piece from 1981, which sounded lovely, but also felt passionless and empty. The audience rose with thunderous applause, but the concert felt a bit uneven. For the most part, Glass’ past works are conceptual, deliberately denying the listener any cathartic emotional release. This style is definitely more intellectual than sentimental, but should music really be this cerebral and limited? Perhaps it is time for Glass to let the feeling in and write more pieces for Wendy Sutter, who seems to inspire him to do just that.