Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Wed June 23rd
Perhaps one of the surprising things about Philip Glass is the emotive heart and soul that goes into his playing. While working with an insistently limited palette, the seventy-two year old some time doyen of New York’s underground artistic firmament has nevertheless brought the forces of classical minimalism into a wider sphere more than most over the last fifty years, and it’s arguably the all too human if understatedly disciplined flourishes that have helped enable such a crossover.
Glass’ first Edinburgh date for several years was billed as an evening of chamber music, featuring a trio of Glass on piano, Bang on a Can cellist Wendy Sutter and percussionist Mick Rossi, with the programme’s centerpiece intended to be a series of songs and poems for solo cello that only recently received their world premiere. With Sutter too ill to play, alas, a hastily re-jigged bill concentrated primarily on Glass’ solo work punctuated by occasional duets with Rossi.
On a stage empty save for a louche-looking grand piano and a wall of percussive delights, Glass opens with the 1988 ‘Metamorphosis’ series of solo miniatures, on which the composer’s sense of brooding melancholy immediately became apparent before he dovetails back and forth across the decades.
Dating from 1969, ‘Music In Similar Motion’ is the oldest piece on show, while ‘Mad Rush’ may have become familiar via a recent TV ad, but was actually composed for the Dalai Llama’s first visit to New York thirty years ago. There’s a zen-like calm, both to the repetitive loop-like patterns that sound like some soothing wordless mantra, and to the gently understated wryness of Glass’ announcement of each piece.
Rossi’s playful contributions range from a skittering snare drum pulse played with his hands in a manner resembling the busy backbone drummer Bruce Mitchell has consistently gifted Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column with, to a pair of marimba accompaniments. Rossi even briefly joins Glass at the piano for an all too brief duet for four hands taken from the chase scene in Glass’ version of ‘Orphee’. Such nuances on other theatrical works, notably excerpts from Glass’ take on Jean Genet’s ‘The Screens’, flesh out Glass’ concentrated set-pieces in a manner Sutter would no doubt have opened out even more.
To close, a virtual collaboration found the disembodied voice of poet and fellow traveler Allen Ginsberg lent a beatific thunder to ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra.’ Recorded in 1973, the torrent of words ebb and flow with anti Vietnam invocations captures the spirit of what now sounds like a more innocent time while remaining serendipitously current. Almost four decades on, Glass’ live piano strokes capture past, present and future all at once, as deliciously in the moment as ever.
The Big Issue, July 2010