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“Glass Quartets” by Tim Page

Suddenly he is 75 years old—and the young people who once traipsed down to lower Manhattan to listen to early concerts by the Philip Glass Ensemble are somewhere in the vast stretch of middle age. It surprises every generation to discover that it, too, is made of mortal flesh and that the radicals who once startled and shocked have long since been welcomed into the mainstream.

And yet Philip Glass continues to attract new audiences—choreographers, filmmakers, rock and rollers, writers and plain old listeners of all ages. The two-year old child is delighted to whirl like a dervish to the inspired reiterations of Einstein on the Beach; the Metropolitan Opera mounts Satyagraha for the first time and its well-heeled, aesthetically conservative aficionados recognize a neglected American masterpiece. And now Cornish College of the Arts and the Saint Helens String Quartet present a retrospective of the five string quartets Glass composed over the course of the past quarter-century.

Glass had been writing quartets since his teens but has disavowed his first exercises in this form as juvenilia. His first acknowledged quartet dates from 1966, when he was living in Paris and had just finished his studies with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught young American composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones over the course of almost 60 years. It is not a “typical” work, by any means—much more dense and chromatic than most of the composer’s later pieces—but a close listen will reveal some of the determinedly reductive manner of the music that would soon make Glass famous.

By the time he returned to the string quartet, 17 years later, Glass was one of the most versatile and successful composers in America. He had formed his own ensemble and written pieces of epic scope for it (early performances of Music in 12 Parts, for example, took four uninterrupted hours). He had composed operas and the scores for films both large and small. Indeed, he described himself as “essentially a theater man” at that point in his career, and his next two quartets were based on incidental music that he had composed, respectively, for a staged prose poem (Samuel Beckett’s Company) in 1983, and a film (Paul Schrader’s Mishima) in 1985.

It was 1990 before Glass composed his first purely abstract quartet since the end of his student days—and even then it had a strong extra-musical subtext. Entitled “Buczak,” String Quartet No. 4 was written in memory of the artist Brian Buczak, who, like so many of his generation, had died of AIDS. It is an appropriately somber work, yet shot through with comforting melodies, as though tender reminiscences.

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times once suggested to Glass that the string quartet had been the genre that great composers of the 20th century—Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich, among others—had turned to during moments of profound introspection about self and music. Glass agreed: “It’s almost as if we say we’re going to write a string quartet, we take a deep breath and we wade in to try to write the most serious, significant piece we can.” Still, although the String Quartet No. 5 was written at the same time as what turned out to be the fatal illness of the composer’s wife, the artist Candy Jernigan, Glass took a different approach. “I was thinking that I had really gone beyond the need to write a serious string quartet and that I could write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject.”

Tim Page is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his work at The Washington Post.

Join the Saint Helens String Quartet on Sunday, October 21 at 7 pm as they perform Philip Glass’ seldom-heard string quartets.
PONCHO Concert Hall, Kerry Hall
Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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