Posting Thursday evening:
Saturday evening we are going to a performance by the LA Philharmonic of Philip Glass’ 1984 music for ‘the CIVIL warS’. It’s one of my favorite Glass pieces — along with Symphony #5, the early operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten, and the three ‘qatsi film soundtracks — Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). And the Kundun soundtrack. And the String Quartet #5. And La Belle et la Bete. And maybe a few others — The Hours soundtrack now springs to mind. There are hundreds of compositions and nearly as many recordings of Philip Glass music, and many of them do seem repetitive and too similar to other compositions, but a small dozen or two stand out as brilliant pieces that will withstand the tests of time.
The Civil Wars music by Glass has an interesting history; it was composed for a grand concert to be performed at the 1984 Olympics, in Los Angeles, staged by Robert Wilson, but funding fell through and it was never staged as intended. (A daylong piece by various composers; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civil_Wars:_A_Tree_Is_Best_Measured_When_It_Is_Down.) The then LA Phil performed it a year or two later, and in my Philip Glass zeal (I had discovered his LP Glassworks 2 years earlier, and had heard “Einstein on the Beach” on KPFK at some point), I tape recorded the concert off the radio, and listened to that recording on a cassette for years and years until the first CD recording came out, on Nonesuch, in 1999.
An anecdote I’ve always remembered is that members of the then LA Philharmonic, especially the string players, in 1984 or so, so objected to the perceived simplistic repetitiveness of Glass’ music, that they, the string players, deliberately turned their pages very noisily during that concert I recorded off the radio.
Times have changed, somewhat. While Glass symphonies or operas are hardly a staple of professional orchestras or opera companies, his music is in fact alive and well, as evidenced by this second or third ‘Minimalist Jukebox’ series of concerts being staged this month by the LA Philharmonic.
(On the other hand, looking at the complete list of Glass compositionns on Wikipedia, it’s still remarkable how many of these pieces, especially the operas, have never been recorded. Two operas based on Doris Lessing novels?? No recordings; I’ve never heard them. The recent opera about Walt Disney? NY Times coverage, but no recording, yet.)
And, listening to this piece again right now — yes, the strings play these repetitive arpeggios. But the vocal lines above them are soaring, lyrical, and gorgeous. This is possibly the most distinctive trait of Glass’ music. It’s a magnificent and moving work of music.