Sunday, February 17, 2008

Philip Glass in Miami - Part 2

It's not often
you get to sit around the living room with the likes of Philip Glass, but I felt as if that's what happened last Thursday evening. My front row seat was so close to where Glass and the other panelists were ensconced in matching easy chairs that I could almost imagine they were in my own home.

This second evening of performance at the University of Miami was quieter than the first (which I reported on earlier). Those three pianos were still on stage, and we were treated to a reprise of the overture to Les Enfants Terribles. This time I was close enough to get the stereo effect of the right and left instruments. The only better seat would have been on stage at the point where all three of them met nose to nose.

Then Alan Johnson took the controls in the leftmost seat to perform "Metamorphoses 1 & 2." During this I found my mind going back to Eric Satie again, because I think there is a comparison to be made with his "Three Gymnopédies." The first of those is the most famous, the one that is invariably used in films whenever a dreamy, timeless, lazy, beautiful quality is called for. (One example is in Diva while the smitten young postman has an idyllic day in the park with his opera star.) But what is curious about them is that, while they all sound the same (and when one of them is playing it is impossible to remember how the other two go), on closer inspection they all turn out to be entirely different. One is nearly an upside-down version of another, and each of the spare melodies manages to rock from side to side according to a subtly different plan.

Glass's "Metamorphoses" are like that, variations on an idea, like different sketches of the same subject by an artist. (There are, I believe, a total of five Metamorphoses.) I'm thinking, too, of a Picasso exhibit I once saw of linocuts, with a dozen images of the same bowl of fruit under the same electric light, but no two of them alike. Something larger than the individual examples seems to be revealed this way, as if the composer is blind and feeling for the elephant with both hands.

Finally Glass himself took over the piano bench to perform another of his solo piano works. This was his only performance, and he was generous in giving us that, as he was recovering from a repair to one hand and was not supposed to play for another month. (He had to graciously decline a request for an encore.) The remainder of our time together was a four-part dialog that included Alan Johnson, Program Director of the Frost Opera Theater, Patrick de Bokay, Director of the Miami International Film Festival, and Dennis Kam, who holds a chair at the UM in Music Theory and Composition.

With Mr. Bokay present the conversation naturally revolved around music for films, an area where Glass has been exceptionally prolific. It was interesting to learn something of the process that film music undergoes on its way from concept to finished product. I was surprised to find out that Glass often develops the entire score in editable computer form as it is being fitted to its precise dimensions in the final cut. Only then does he execute the piece with live musicians, when they are guaranteed that what they do will work perfectly. Apparently, in spite of what we hear of enormous film budgets, this is also required for reasons of economy.

Speaking of economics, we were reminded of the vast difference in the audiences for films as opposed to operas. If a film does well, millions of tickets will be sold, maybe tens of millions. But even the most popular opera, though it be performed for years, will collect a following measured in thousands, or tens of thousands. Hearing this, I suddenly had a vision of this small auditorium we were in being dropped into the middle of the Superbowl at halftime. Yes, Tom Petty would have blown us all away.

Naturally the relative importance of the money has an effect on who gets to control the music. This ranges from the opera house, where the composer rules, to the movie house, where not the director but the producer rules, or the finance people above him. Writers and composers? No voice. Not consulted.

Despite this, Glass claims to have managed to get involved early in some films--such as the ground breaking Koyaniskaatsi, and Kundun, about the Dalai Lama--and therefore to have at least some influence on the direction of things. But then he told the story of how he hired some directors to make short films to his music in an attempt to turn the tables on them, only to have Peter Greenaway turn the tables back on him by recutting his film after the score was done, and thus making a complete rewrite necessary.

It would seem you can't win at this game. But what fun trying! And what a marvelous time we all had listening to it.

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