Pop music’s heart of Glass

Image of Peter Aspden

Here is a joke from one of my colleagues when we were talking recently about the future of classical music: “Have you heard the one about Philip Glass?” “No.” “Have you heard the one about Philip Glass?” “No.” “Have you heard the one about Philip Glass?” “I already told you – no.” Continue until the penny drops; no one said the book of classical music jokes was going to make the traffic stop.

There is a class of music lover for whom the repetitive and occasionally hypnotic refrains of Glass’s music remain something to be mocked. (They are the very people who make me fear for the future of classical music.) Yet as the American composer celebrates his 75th birthday season with a new-found vigour and openness to fresh ideas, he has never seemed more significant.

The year has been full of activity: Glass’s own curation of the inaugural Days and Nights Festival in California’s Carmel Valley; the world premiere of his Ninth Symphony in Austria; worldwide performances of his first and groundbreaking opera Einstein on the Beach. The celebrations conclude with the premiere of The Perfect American, a new opera about the death of Walt Disney, next January.

Next month sees the release of REWORK_Philip Glass remixed, a double CD of old material deconstructed and reassembled by some of the most fashionable names in musical circles: My Great Ghost, Memory Tapes, Ty Braxton. The collaboration was prompted by conversations between Glass and that great musical magpie, Beck.

Glass’s music lends itself to such treatment. It acts as a base layer to the twiddles of electronica and washes of ambient sound that have formed the popular music vocabulary of the 21st century. Melodies remain unresolved, questioning. There are no easy answers, no chords of comfort. It is music that chimes with a wider and more brittle philosophical climate: music for a time of doubt.

In turning his back on 12-tone serialism as a young composer in the 1960s, and allowing himself to be influenced by eastern forms, Glass anticipated so many of today’s musical developments. His eclecticism was voracious. When I first spoke to him a decade ago, I asked whether he minded that half of his work was filed under pop in the record stores, and half under classical. “In Germany they know exactly how to do it,” he replied with an ironic smile. “I asked an assistant once and he said if there was a synthesiser in it, it was pop.”

We can’t have imagined that the issue of where to file records in a shop would be redundant in a few years, and that debate rendered even more sterile than it then seemed.

The remix album has the feel of an easy, classless project. You can imagine it playing in the fusty study of a young research fellow in All Souls, or at chill-out hour in Ibiza. This too accords with the wider theme of the disruption of cultural hierarchies. It was part of the last century’s vocabulary to describe anything feeble as “Mickey Mouse”; it is this century’s imperative to write operas about Walt Disney.

Should we be concerned that the remix has assumed such a dominant role in modern music-making? That the DJ is more lauded than the composer? That canny mash-ups have more traction than original works? These are historical cycles. The 1960s was a time when visionaries such as Glass forged into new territory, along with all the familiar and notable names in the pop canon. The effects were profound, and long-lasting.

This, by contrast, is a time for retrenchment. We are catching our breath. Young musicians are plundering the achievements of their parents’ – and their grandparents’ – generations. Such was the rush of accomplishment that it fell to a new wave of artists to have to assess it. To remix is to reprioritise. How does this one sound with a synthesiser? Can we sample it? Does it still reverberate, all these years later?

Art that is truly avant-garde does not just come a few years ahead of the curve; it feels like it has come from a different planet. Just ask anyone who saw this year’s production of Einstein on the Beach, making its first London appearance a mere 36 years after its world premiere, and still shaking us with its blazing originality.

But still the jokes go on. That same old Philip Glass music. Those tedious Philip Glass arpeggios. I asked him, during our conversation in 2002, how he felt about that. He said that he had recently watched a man climb on to the stage of one of his performances, and proclaim loudly how bored he was. “But he wasn’t bored, he was angry. It would have been better if he had just said how angry he was.”

‘REWORK_Philip Glass remixed’ is released on October 23


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