Listening to and performing the works of Philip Glass are two exceptionally different experiences. It's relatively dangerous to dismiss the notes on the staff as repetitive, technically facile and elementary, perhaps the reason why many emerging instrumentalists shy away from learning his compositions, opting for pieces that extend a physical aspect of the mechanisms of musicianship.
It was on a dare that I programmed my first Glass: Piece in the Shape of a Square for two flutes. The seven-minute chamber work demands that 16 music stands are arranged in a square around which flutists stroll from page to page, finishing where they started.
Houstonians lined up around the block for the opportunity to hear the composer talk and execute his own opera for solo piano.
But whereas listening to Minimalism may induce a soft trance-like state of mind, playing it commands intense concentration — the kind of focus that's referred to as being "in the zone." Time stands still. It feels as if you are "in the moment" but out of your body, watching the action unfold from afar. Seven minutes appear to elongate into an eternity suspended from the banality of everyday.
Deviating from one note, or skipping one rest, on gesture or one articulating, throws the intricate patterns out of synchronicity — and there's no going back. You might as well pack your bags and go home.
It was only during this live performance that something clicked, that I finally understood the duality and polarity of Glass. The déjà vu effect wasn't the same, and subtleties emerged conspicuously, akin to the serene gradations in hue that emerge from intently observing the panels inside the Rothko Chapel.
This collaboration isn't a direct sketch, but an analogy to a museum that was designed to appear "small on the outside, but . . . as big as possible inside."
While some may catalog Glass' style as Minimalist — alongside the works of John Adams and Terry Riley — he prefers to describe his approach as that of repetitive structures. The harmonies nod to Classicism, and as such, his chord progressions organically propel ever so gently forward.
Beyond Philip Glass' personal connection with John and Dominique de Menil and son Francois, whose film North Star: Mark di Suvero was scored by Glass, his music echoes the ethos of The Menil Collection in many ways: It's an homage to tradition while it invents a future.
It was fitting that on the occasion of the museum's silver anniversary that one of his Etudes (Studies) was commissioned. The premiere on Sunday was in a tent swathed with white fabric, where 1,000 Houstonians lined up around the block for the opportunity to hear the composer talk and execute his own opera for solo piano.
Yet unlike Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, commissioned for the 1971 opening of the sacred space, this collaboration isn't a direct sketch, but an analogy to a museum that was designed to appear "small on the outside, but . . . as big as possible inside," likened to Dominique de Menil's vision for the building.
The chromaticism suffusing the introduction of the Etude No. 17 layered major and minor modes with the oscillation of a neighbor note motif, one that developed while sustained by a descending bass line. As the textures morphed from vertical chords to broken arpeggios, allusions to Chopin's nostalgic Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4 ushered in unexpected tonal center modulations, but with vivid energy and a bright affect.
Those with an ear for western harmonic framework ached for a resolution. As the study was heavily anchored in F, an emphatic C major statement offered a hint of indetermination.
The Etude is part of an intended series of 20 — 17 of which are completed. Etude No. 18 is currently in progress; Etude No. 1 dates back to 1994. When finalized, the nearly two-decade collection will chronicle Glass' aesthetic metamorphosis. Though the Etudes remain unpublished, Glass plans on making them available to the public so capable concert pianists can either benefit from their study or present them in their own recitals.
Etudes, after all, following the practice of Domenico Scarlatti, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, are didactic compositions that enhance a musician's skills.
The recital, which began with remarks by The Menil Collection director Josef Helfenstein and Michael Zilkha, also featured often-heard works ,including Mad Rush (1980), Metamorphoses No. 2, 3 and 4 (1989) and Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), the latter which was performed with poetry recorded by the late Allen Ginsberg, with whom Glass collaborated on a number of projects, and evinced that much of Glass' output melds synergistically with other artistic genres.
In The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine, Dominique de Menil wrote, "We live in dramatic times. Violent confrontations are erupting in all parts of the world. Instinctively we feel that it does not have to be so."
Whether Glass' music is timeless is only something that the next generation will know. Yet the essence of how listeners internalize his works typify a yearning for peace, internal tranquility and a desire to nurture the beauty in humanity.
Clearly, Dominique de Menil and Philip Glass have much in common.