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Look at Glass

img  Tobias

Regular stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. This one has got no middle, an open end and three beginnigs. So prepare for a moment of deja-vue and some repetition, as it unfolds.

Things start when Philip Glass comes to Paris. He has just finished his studies at the Juillard school of music and feels ready to take on the world. He is not the typical composer with an early academic background and a family tradition in music. Instead, his earliest memories of music go back to his childhood days, when he and his brother would literally break worthless records his father had collected from various stores by trampeling on them wildly with their feet – record plants would pay a tiny amount for each broken record they received, which they could then recycle for new ones. Philip’s father did not know how to read and write notes, but he had a curious interest in the arts and an open mind. Slowly but surely, his son develops a deep, yet at first “merely” intuitive understanding – simply by listening, then by working in a record store, where he serves as a sales manager for classical music (at one time, he orders four copies of the Juillard String Quartet playing Schönberg, simply because he feels they needed to be available. The last one is sold six years later – so much about the commercial nature of the experimental and new music scene). Schönberg remained an important source of inspiration and so did Charles Ives and Mahler, the latter of whom Glass still counts as his single most-important teacher when it comes to orchestration. He learns mainly by reading and copying scores of his favourite composers and quickly reaches a high degree of proficiency. It is with his skills and of course his well-earned degree as proof of his education that he sets out for Paris to study with the famous Nadia Boulanger. It only takes a few days to discover that he is not well educated at all.

Philip Glass is a phenomenon. Even though he is by now firmly established as one of the last centuries’ most influential composers and even though he is even now, well in his sixties, still as productive as ever, he has remained an object of scepticism and of cheap jokes (“"There's one piece by Philip Glass that I really like." "Oh, really? Which one?" "Any one."). As he remarks himself in the Bonus-section of this personal DVD-documentary, people will even have objections to his music, when they’ve only read about it. There were prejudices to be fought, critics to be won and audiences to be persuaded and by heavens did it take a long time for him to be able to live off his art – Philip Glass was 41, when he could finally lay aside jobs such as a cab driver to concentrate solely on writing and recording. Maybe it is this long struggle and a remarkable time,, in which he was struggling to make a living, while being the subject of endless debates and countless articles all over the world, which have made him the humble and ever-eager person he still seems to be today. One episode of this period says it all – when he was visiting a radio station in Cologne (he was well into his thirties)  to try and have his music played, the responsible director looked at his score and then asked: “Have you ever thought of going to music school?”


Through Boulanger, he meticulously works on his skills in harmony and counterpount – invaluable tools for his later development. He leaves her with a firm understanding of the Western way of composing. Yet he’s still struggling as to what direction to take and as to what his own voice could be. Things really start when he meets Ravi Shanhkar and learns about Indian music. “In Western music, we divide time – as if you were to take a length of time and slice it the way you slice a loaf of bread. In Indian music (and all the non-Western music with which I’m familiar), you take small units or “beats” and string them together to make up larger values.”, he explains the impact this meeting has had on his work. Suddenly, it is all there: The rhythms, the sound, the balance of the instruments, the tiny components, which are constantly in flux and, through their motion, design the illusion of constancy. He still works with acoustic instruments, adding synthesizers and creating a music both firmly familar, yet spectacularly different than anything anyone had ever heard before. Glass rents a loft, organises a group of dedicated instrumentalists interested in his ideas and performs his own music once a week over the time of three years. Three years, in which his vision becomes ever more refined and defined. And there’s not a touch of elite-thinking or art pour l’art to be sensed here: The video extracts in “Looking Glass” show a group of musicians sitting on the floor, concentrated, yet relaxed and fully immersed in the quickly ondulating sound with a soothing pulse.

Maybe this could have gone on forever. The USA are not a good place for artists, as Glass remarks, there are no governmental subsidies and you’ll have to keep doing what you do as well as you can and hope for your lucky break. And so things only truly start when he works together with choreographer Robert Wilson on “Einstein on the Beach”. Exchanging ideas has always been important to him, as he revealed in a pretty recent interview with us: “Well, the essential process is to work with the collaborator. If it’s a poet, I need to look at the poetry, if it’s a dancer, we need to talk about the dance, and likewise, if it’s a filmmaker, I need to look at the images. So the essential part of the process is interfacing with the other contributors to the project, and through that, through our discussions and thinking together, an approach evolves that emphasizes the commonalties of the contributions, and draw, I think, the best way that the project can go to.” In this case, he and Wilson discover that their methods are remarkably alike, even though their artistic disciplines vary deeply. “Einstein” comes into being during a collaboration which takes a whole year – twelve months, in which the two meet each other once a week and discuss the status and progress of the project. The result is mindshattering: An opera in a classically arranged framework, yet without a formal story line, with radically different music and an early exmple of audio-visual art: The image and the music are of equal importance, and guide the viewer through a surreal landscape. With over five hours of playing time, it still takes us to the very outskirts of our imagination.

And it was this very music which transformed the lives of Eric Darmont and Franck Mallet, who would both become active in the field of music and journalism. “Looking Glass” is a private dream of theirs, a movie which they have made in order to satisfy their personal interests. It is neither an epic biographical tale, nor a flashy modern-art mtv-production. Instead, it follows Glass during the various stages of writing and staging a piece, which serve as a basis for memories and anecdotes. There is not a single moment of glamour during this hours-worth of material, but the sheer directness and intensity of the footage make for a movie, which is a continous stream of inspiration. If you thought you knew the man before, you’ll think again and if you didn’t – well, you’ll want to discover more and more.

There’s a strange and gaping hole in the movie – there’s almost nothing about the 80s and 90s, even though this period is by no means an empty book. The middle part of Glass’ story therefore still remains to be told and the future is still as open as ever. But it is exactly this openness, which lends a sense of excitment to this documentary. It will take some time, before the looking glass turns into a crystal-clear window.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ideale Audience
Homepage: Naxos Records
Homepage: Philip Glass

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