Minimal music and the biggest ideas: Philip Glass and Satyagraha

November 6 2021, by Patrick Maxwell

As much as the notes and structures on the page, revolutionary composers change as much our experience of music. Beethoven changed the symphony not only by extending it to lengths previously unseen and bunging in a chorus, but by changing the whole setup and event of his works. Gone were the tidy Classical formula for slow and fast movements, for quaint minuets and endearing rondos: in came the rambunctious and deliberately dramatic intensity of the Seventh and particularly the Ninth – works which have become entire performances in themselves rather than a standard programme-filler.

Whatever you think of him, Philip Glass can easily be credited to have done something similar for opera. His focus on the dramatic – in collaborating with directors to shape his works – has combined with an emphasis on the historical and spiritual natures of his work to make something still undeniably novel to the opera houses of today, fifty years on from their inception. Not only is Glass’ music immediately obvious to most listeners after only a few bars, but his operas are remarkably distinctive both musically and visually. The English National Opera, who have managed to make minimalist opera a selling point in a culturally conservative country such as this, have recently drawn out Satyagraha, first performed at the Coliseum in 2007. Collaborating with theatre company Improbable, the brand of Glass is all over it.

Having been a taxi driver in New York, Glass made his composing his living through the success of the non-narrative opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976, a five-hour portrayal of the scientist’s life which marked him out as an emerging voice in the much-vaunted school of ‘minimalism’ which now include the names of John Adams, Steve Reich and La Monte Young – a particularly American response to the perceived decadence of the experimentalists in Europe. Satyagraha came four years later, and firmly established his style of thematic opera; this time the focus was Mahatma Gandhi and the whole subject of nonviolent resistance – the word can be translated as ‘truth force’. Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy and Indian poet Rabindrath Tagore feature as well, as silent presences who stay above the rest of the action in each of the three acts. Glass – whose blend of radical politics and eclectic religious tastes may not be so surprising in a contemporary avant-garde American composer – bases much of his music on the most classical and traditional practices there are. He is a composer steeped in the works of Bach, Mozart and (most evidently) Schubert, sharing with them the search for a unique harmonic colour and the importance of melody and overarching musical focus.

Glass dismisses his famous image as a minimalist composer – mainly because of the huge nature of many of his work: opera, symphonies, overtures, written for large orchestras with multiple layers of polyphony. The label sticks because of his interest in developing those ideas while staying firmly rooted in simplicity – “music with repetitive structures” as he puts it. Repetitive they certainly are, and Satyagraha is one of the best examples of Glass’ writing style. Opening with the ‘Kuru Field of Justice’, the opera takes lines from the ancient Bhagavad Gita text and the conversation between the mythical figures of Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna. The tenor Sean Pannikar took the main role of Gandhi in this production, and from the first was able to hold perfectly the touch of the mystical and the enchanting which captures the listener through Glass’ deceptively simple structures. Much of Glass’ music will not take most musicians very long to get the hang of, but it’s the stamina and consistency involved in the subtle nature of his textures that take greater skill.

Criticism of Glass’ music centres much on his sometimes endless repetitive structures and perceived lack of development. If for some his reasons are exhilarating, they provoke a simple fatigue and boredom in others. Much of that divide is purely musical taste; those out for the unusual operatic experience of separate arias, choruses and a clear narrative are less likely to be taken in by an emphasis of the unity of the whole and the meditative aspects of this work. For his fans (a sizable number) Satyagraha represents the most kaleidoscopic, tapestry-like aspects of Glass’ music – accessible enough to a popular audience and fulfilling enough beyond the notes.

If the piece does have a weak point, however, it is the varying effectiveness of that structural homogeneity. After the excitement of earlier movements such as ‘The Vow’ and the pulsating chords of ‘Indian Opinion’, the power of ‘Newcastle March’ is lost if performed too slowly, as it sadly was by the ENO. The plaintive chords of ‘Protest’ become too stolid when performed at such a speed – though the beauty of Pannikar’s voice in this movement made up for any slackening of pace.

It takes that level of concentrated singing and elusive simplicity to capture the art of Glass’ intentions. Despite all the whirring melodies, the thrumming bass lines and the seemingly perpetual momentum, In glass’ music, as the critic Paul Griffiths has put it, “all is preternaturally still.”

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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