Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Philip Glass

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

December 3, 2011
It had to happen. Following the final performance of Satyagraha at the Met Thursday night, opera-goers found the story continuing in real life as police tried to shoo them away from the OWS gathering outside—which included the composer Philip Glass, who used OWS’s “human mic” technique to recite a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita. In true “minimalist” tradition (which means, counter-intuitively, that you say things more than once), Glass repeated it three times:

When righteousness

Withers away

And evil

Rules the Land

We come into being

Age after age

And take visible shape

And Move

A man among men

For the protection

Of good

Thrusting back evil

And setting virtue

On her seat again

I think we could make something of the fact that, along with Naomi Wolf’s arrest at OWS downtown, this story never made it to the New York Times, where both Glass and Wolf’s cultural contributions have been more than amply covered (including Wolf’s delightful dissertation on little girls’ obsession with princesses, published this weekend). I first learned about the Lincoln Center protest on the LA Times website (via Facebook, of course), and recommend this thoughtful coverage by Seth Colter Walls at The Awl
November 27, 2011
There’s just one more production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Met, although it’s being shown in HD practically everywhere. I loved the opera, but can’t imagine that sitting through a simulcast would be anything but tedious. I believe in live music and live opera, especially since reading (in an article I can no longer find) that smaller city opera companies are closing and one of the reasons is the availability of simulcasts. Because opera houses insist on playing the same 18th and 19th century chestnuts over and over (enough with the Marriage of Figaro already!), opera often deserves its stuffy reputation. However no other genre has the possibility of fulfilling all the senses the way opera can, which makes it the ultimate art form. However I believe its possibilities—the synergy of visual art, music, dance and theater—haven’t even begun to be fully explored.

I also have an inside track through my friend, Timothy Breese, a bass-baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus since 1999. In Satyagraha he’s front and center—tall and handsome, with a brimmed red hat and purple mustache. Through my friendship with Tim I’ve learned what it takes to maintain an operatic voice—mostly relentless daily practice and private coaching—and about the seemingly impossible feat of memorization. To me, the job of the chorus appears in some ways more challenging than that of soloists, as they’re not singing pieces from beginning to end, but continually starting and stopping at various points throughout. This season Tim sang in 23 operas, of which seven were new. When he began working with the chorus, in order to catch up he had to immediately master several at once, on his own, spending 100 hours on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron alone (one of the most gorgeous productions, both visually and musically, I’ve seen), which he says is probably the most difficult opera for chorus ever written. Tim also ranks Satyagraha among the most challenging.

Photo: Metropolitan Opera, Satyagraha

And Jim Hodges hangs a disco ball over a hole filled with water in a gallery floor and we’re supposed to be impressed…. Whoops! I‘m getting off-topic….

What I was going to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, is that another thing I learned from Tim is the value of persistence.

Three days before Tim first sang in what turned out to be a grueling round of auditions for the Met, he also tried out for what I’ll call the Podunk Dinner Theater. At the Met, he was one of six or seven ultimately selected from a pool of more than 600 hopefuls.

He did not make the Podunk Dinner Theater.

This story, which I relate to students whenever I have the opportunity, was key in the development of my Malcolm Gladwell-esque ITOTKO (It Takes One To Know One) theory, the premise of which is that only excellence recognizes excellence. To elaborate: only someone as smart or accomplished as you is going to recognize how smart and/or accomplished you are. Forget working your way up, because the people you encounter in the low or mid-ranks are not capable of appreciating your gifts. Yet most people, thinking conventionally, would say to themselves,  “Wow, I didn’t make the Podunk Dinner Theater, so I can’t possibly audition for the Met.”

This is why it’s important to KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT.  
It was much more fun, however, when I thought I could make excuses.


Note: This is what Tim said when I asked him what makes Moses und Aron so especially difficult:
"Moses und Aron is completely atonal. The notes were sometimes literally thrown down a stair and then used in the pattern they fell in, backwards, upside down, and in every possible rhythm combination and meter. Heard enough? It's a terrific opera though."

January 18, 2009
In an attempt to avoid worrying about frozen pipes, I went to two eye exercises. I left thinking that Philip Glass has to be one of the most boring people on earth, one of those artists—it does happen—whose personality gets so soaked up by their work that there’s nothing left over. I’d seen a number of Glass performances, including a choral piece at MoMA in 1976, not long after I moved to New York, which left me with the feeling that anything was possible in art. There was the positively exultant 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach, and then a magical New Year’s Eve when I appeared with Butch Morris’s “Chorus of Poets” at the Public Theater, on the same bill as Glass, and found myself at midnight leaning on the grand piano listening to him play. He also once came to my loft for a photo shoot I’d arranged but we hardly interacted as he was distracted, pacing, on the phone almost the whole time. I remembered thinking that he was much too Type A for a Buddhist, while his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who came with him, was just the opposite, completely chill.

[Actually, where Glass seemed to take no notice of his surroundings, Ginsberg’s interest was unnerving as he went around my kitchen and living area examining absolutely everything—I was glad I cleaned up before he came—picking up each object, turning it over, asking “What’s this? Where’d you get it? What do you do with it?” And, after a while, “Are these your paintings?”
When I told him I was a Nuyorican poet (meaning I performed regularly at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) Ginsberg said, sweetly, “Me too.”]

In the film about Glass, amidst a few snippets of music, we see shots of the composer making pizza, playing with his small children, practicing T’ai Chi with his teacher (who was a fellow student in the classes I took for many years with Master Ham King Koo) while various friends, family members, and colleagues weigh in with remembrances. Having just returned from my first experience with film editing, I’m hyper aware of what’s essential and what isn’t—such as the shot of his houseguest taking out the garbage, or the part where his wife reveals her Internet password, a bit that’s kinda cute but tells us nothing.

The second evening featured Glass in person, in an interview with a film critic who’d chosen a number of cuts from films for which Glass had written the score, asking him to comment on each one. And guess what? Glass was totally interesting, probably because he was talking about making music, which Hicks, when he brings it up at all, treats it as a product rather than a process (never touching on the things I wanted to know, such as, what was the first piece Glass composed? Did his early study of mathematics have an effect on the kind of music he makes? When he works, does he noodle around on the piano or does he hear it in his head first? What does he learn from hearing his work performed by others? What did he get from his classical studies, from the work of John Cage, Ravi Shankar?). But here, listening to Glass discuss his concepts for each film we got an idea of how his mind works, his fascination with the art of filmmaking, how he wants the score to be an integral part of the process rather than something tacked on in post-production. For Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (1988), Glass went with the director to Brazil to document fortune seekers mining for gold, the cinematographers listened to his music as they shot the footage, and the childlike nature of the of the very young gold-diggers Glass met inspired him to later add a children’s choir to the score…all of which is so much more interesting than pizza (my impression of him as a phonoholic stands, however, because at one point onstage he did actually check his cell and may even have been texting).

To round out the evening Glass played several pieces—his encore was from the early (1970) Music with Changing Parts, one of my favorites—and as we drove home, while I hadn’t completely forgotten about my frozen pipes, I didn't care so much.

For a documentary that successfully delves into the heart and soul of a musician, do your best to catch Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life (schedule)--also available on NetFlix: