Among love ‘em or leave ‘em lists of contemporary classical composers, Philip Glass is one of those who usually ranks equally high in both categories. I would describe his work as an acquired taste, and one that I will admit I happily acquired as a teenager, thanks to his crystalline Glassworks, which mesmerized me with its hypnotic repetitions and abstract contours that created a blank slate for the imagination.
Start a discussion amongst classical music aficionados about Glass (whose memoir, Words Without Music, is published next month) and you can be sure it will be nothing if lively. For every one that considers him among the greatest composers of the 20th Century, you can find many others with opinions similar to that of a critic at London’s Telegraph, who once wrote, “Listening to Philip Glass is about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour.”
As is the case with most classical composers, mass consumption usually comes via popular media, and to the general public, Glass is primarily known for his contributions to numerous films, perhaps most notably his score for The Hours, nominated for an Academy Award in 2002, and more recently, the Russian production Leviathan, from last year.
Glass is one of those artists whose work I’ve continued to dip into on and off through the years, long since the classic Glassworks was etched into my creative consciousness. Case in point is a new recording of Glass compositions for solo piano, Mad Rush (nicely performed by Lisa Moore, who’s been called “New York’s Queen of Avant-Garde Piano”). As usual with any great creator who’s marked by the longevity and prolificacy of Glass, you’ll invariably manage to find some gems.
Here, it’s Metamorphosis, a piece in five movements that’s a self-contained primer on all that’s idiosyncratic about Glass’s work. It’s loosely inspired by the Franz Kafka novel of the same name (the literary masterpiece, one will recall, is about a man’s transformation into a cockroach).
Metamorphosis is all about evolvement; yet this interpretation is ultimately more about a journey out of one existence only to metaphorically retreat back to where it began. The playful arpeggios that are sprinkled against a background of the signature Glass repetitions seem to signify wonder at the mutation, but the last movement, almost identical to the first one, implies more stasis than transition. Not surprisingly, as with anything by Glass, it will leave you pondering as to its true meaning.
Speaking of pondering, it’s inexplicable to me that Glass has yet to be recognized with a Presidential Medal of Arts, or at the very least a Kennedy Center Honors award. I’ll assume those will come (though Glass is already 78, so let’s step it up). Surely he ranks up there with past recipients like American composers Elliott Carter and William Bolcom as far as his influence on modern music.
Meanwhile, time to give the evergreen Glassworks yet another listen — for old time’s sake.