Philip Glass – hailed as the most well-known living composer today – celebrates his 75th birthday this weekend at the Barbican with a live screening of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. Reggio created a ‘visual tone poem’ tracing the collision between man and technology with juxtaposing images of American landscapes and cities. Glass wrote the score to the film, featuring his signature ‘seismically shifting harmonies’.
This is just one of the many collaborations that have marked Philip Glass’s career; collaborations between music styles, cultures, genres, people, art…the list is endless. Sadly these celebrations are only a few days after Ravi Shankar’s death, a dear friend of Philip Glass’s. They met in Paris in 1965 when Glass was working in a sound studio where Ravi Shankar did his recordings. They spoke together about Indian classical music, and 25 years later they collaborated on Passages – a work featuring three pieces by both composers.
This is a true collaboration, featuring two Glass compositions on themes by Shankar, and two Shankar compositions on themes by Glass, and a ‘free’ piece by each composer too. The music effortlessly slips into the other’s compositions, dovetailing between cultures and traditions, music styles and instrumentation, embodying a universal, almost-utopian, fusion.
Glass’s interest in Indian music grew from its rhythmic characteristics, and he said that he was never interested in ‘copying Indian music or composing music that would sound like a blending of European and Indian music’. The notes to his Early Keyboard Music, says that: ‘in contrast to the European tradition, the Indian musician does not divide a set time value into smaller values (fourth notes, eighth notes, triplets, etc.) but proceeds from a very short rhythmic value, which can be added to at will and thus produce longer values.” [http://www.philipglass.com/music/recordings/early_keyboard_music.php]
Glass’s opera Satyagraha, which is loosely based on the life of Mahatma Ghandi, combines these rhythmic ideas with his own style of modal scale structures, slow-changing harmonies, and intricate phrasing. Indeed, the character ‘Ghandi’ in the opera sings a Phrygian scale about 35 times during the opera (see the clip below for the instrumental version at 40 seconds). Having seen the ENO’s production in 2008, I was amazed at how the slow-changing harmonies and repeating scales induced a sense of passive resistance as I willed the patterns to changes, creating a link between the subject matter of Satyagraha – the philosophy of non-violent, or passive resistance – and a listener’s experience.