The legendary composer Philip Glass makes music that’s so minimalist and repetitive that it has inspired a joke:
Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Knock Knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass. Knock Knock…
On Sunday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the 70-year-old Glass brought his signature stripped down sound to Brooklyn, joined by an eclectic mix of younger artists who have followed in his footsteps. Billed as “Philip Glass and Friends,” the show seemed more like a love fest geared to introduce Glass to new audiences and introduce Glass fans to the next generation.
In one of the most captivating performances, Tim Fain played Glass’s Partita for Solo Violin, a haunting piece filled with repetitive arpeggios, double stops, and glissandos. Another highlight was when Bryce Dessner (of The National) said that, to honor Glass’s penchant for “saying so much with so little,” he would improvise a guitar solo without touching the strings. With that, Dessner flipped over his guitar on its head, banged the headstock on the floor, swooped the instrument to generate feedback, stomped on effects pedals, and tapped and slapped the back of the instrument. Before doing his version of Hendrix at Woodstock, Dessner did a subdued version of Jimmy Page in The Song Remains the Same, coaxing drones from his guitar with a violin bow. In related news, The National’s new album Trouble Will Find Me dropped today (May 21) and the band is touring all summer.
The concert was a variety show, opened and closed by Glass at the piano, with brief sets with barely a pause between acts. The three-song set by Brooklyn/Jersey band Real Estate ended with an instrumental jam that sounded like Glass’s preceding piano etudes, if only by juxtaposition. Fain joined composer Nico Muhly ‘for the piano duet “Drones with Violins,” which was true to its title, as was “Drones with Viola” featuring Dessner and Nadia Sirota. For the last song of the night, all the musicians joined Glass for a rendition of “The Chase” (a.k.a. La Poursuite) from his opera Orphee, a festive, almost psychedelic wall of sound. Atypical for the venue, but perhaps as a concession to the attentiveness the music demanded, the audience was seated.
The show was the closing night of Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge –a weeklong festival dedicated to the writer Henry Miller— and a fundraiser for the Miller Memorial Library in California, which, unlike most libraries, has hosted more than 100 indie rock shows from Animal Collective to the xx. The night began with a short film about Miller, who fled his Brooklyn roots, first to Paris, and later to California. Along with footage of Miller writing, biking, and playing the piano,the film excerpted Miller’s negatitive assessment of the city from Tropic of Cancer in supertitles: “New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is a sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit.” While experts argued that Miller’s relationship to the city was more ambivalent, it was still ironic for a Brooklyn crowd to celebrate a native son who didn’t share their borough love. After the film, the MC read a passage by Miller on the power of music, after which his presence disappeared for the evening.
Judging from their banter, the younger performers were honored to perform with Glass, whose oevre includes operas, symphonies, chamber music, concerti, solo works, and music for theater, dance, film, and television, and more than 90 recordings. During his three-song solo acoustic set, Norweigian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche joked about his presence on the bill: “What am I doing here? I’m going to play my little ditties…before I leave you with more sophisticated stylings.” His comment –and an anecdote about doing soundcheck with Glass in the room— made explicit what the audience knew about the show: one master, many disciples.
While riveting, the evening was not without its hitches. Fain had some feedback issues with his violin. Glass seemed to muff some notes in his etude, though in fairness that might have been part of the composition. And other elder statesman, Van Dyke Parks, was supposed to perform, but cancelled at the eleventh hour due to a hand injury. As a tribute, Lerche played a stripped down swing version of “Orange Crate Art,” the title track from Parks’ 1995 album with Brian Wilson, with whom he famously collaborated on The Beach Boys’ album Smile. And if anything, the concert was too short: less than two hours of music, including only one encore despite the standing ovation.
Looking ahead, Glass has a busy summer calendar, with performances of his work in the United States and Europe, including the UK premiere of The Perfect American, about the last years of Walt Disney. And right now, across the river from Williamsburg, is a revival of Glass Pieces at the New York City Ballet, where it premiered 30 years ago. Knock knock. Who’s there? It’s still Philip Glass.
Keith Meatto is Editor in Chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed the new Vampire Weekend album for FP and wrote an essay on The Great Gatsby for Guernica. He tries to be a minimalist with words.