Philip Glass / Photo by David Royal
“We haven’t moved an inch, and everything has changed.” The line from John Ashbery’s poem “More Pleasant Adventures” gets at the feeling of hearing Philip Glass play his own compositions for solo piano at the Dakota in Minneapolis on Wednesday evening.
Sometimes, in hearing Glass, we imagine we are busily doing things -- leaving the house, going to work or on a trip, time speeding and slowing, but most often returning to the house, perhaps more than once. Other times, it’s like we remain perfectly still, overlooking an expanse of silvery water on a day when the weather forecaster has said, “winds light and variable.”
Glass played “Mad Rush,” a work from 1979 with a misleading title because it has very little sense of frenzy or being in a great hurry. Instead, I had the distinct impression at the end that I was pulling a boat up from a lake and heading into a house at dusk. Glass first played it on organ for the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his first public address in New York City in 1981.
Glass was in town the same week as choreographer Lucinda Childs, whose company is at Walker Art Center doing “Dance” to his music (Thursday and Friday). Glass is not playing live with Childs, but will attend her Thursday night show and a reception at the Walker afterward. For an interview with Childs and Glass in the Star Tribune, go here.
"Dance," by Lucinda Childs, set to Philip Glass music.
In 80 minutes with no intermission Glass played music from the last four decades, pausing to briefly introduce the pieces. With so many big orchestral works and operas in his catalog, it was a keen pleasure to hear Glass, 74, play alone in the intimate Dakota.
Sporting the luxuriant (and dark!) curly hair of an undergraduate, the composer of some 26 operas, nine ballets and nearly 40 film scores opened with six of his “Etudes,” from the 1990s. Several had recognizable tunes threaded into the repetitions, and one seemed to summon male and female voices talking and laughing around a dinner table.
Glass plays with great tenderness and concentration, all from memory. He’s in his head, yes, but also in his hands, at once cerebral and lyrical. His “minimalism,” mostly structured simply on counts of three and four, long has seemed to me to have a “maximal” effect that allows each listener in a room to hear something different, and to hear something different between this listen and the next.
Also on the program were parts of the 1989 “Metamorphoses,” the 2006 piece “Dreaming Awake,” and a piece from 1990, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” If that title sounds Allen Ginsberg-y, it is. Ginsberg’s 1966 poem is set in Kansas but meditates on singlehandedly declaring an end to the war in Vietnam. Glass’s piano was nearly drowned out by Ginsberg reading in what to my ear was a cadence that had become more rote-ecstatic-Hare-Krishna-mumbo-jumbo (“Shambu Bharti Baba naked covered with ash”) than probing or convincing.
After enthusiastic applause, Glass returned to play two short pieces which I think were titled “Night on the Balcony,” and “Closing.”
A few people sitting near me had their eyes closed, and I thought maybe they’d been dragged there against their will, or hypnotized to sleep by the trance-like passages in the music. But I guess they were lost in thought, as they leapt to their feet at the end of the show to give Glass an ovation.