Philip Glass Makes You Look Old

by

STEVE PYKE
  • Steve Pyke

The classical music of 75-year-old Philip Glass occupies an unlikely place in pop culture. It still attracts the same age group it did when the composer first performed his minimalist works more than 40 years ago.

This audience is ever present for the renowned artist's recent performance at the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City's futuristically handsome new complex whose scallop-like frame of steel, concrete and glass curves elegantly to join Downtown's eclectic skyline. Here, a young set of cool, bespectacled 20-somethings have made a collective effort to shower, show up and Instagram the sunset.

After all classical music performances provide ample reason to unironically wear fur and suspenders. And, like, everyone they know is here.

But the flock isn't just here to be seen. This migration of Kansas City's youthful urban bestiary towards the theater has plenty to do with Philip Glass's extraordinary ability to relate through compositions that seem to get better with age. At a time when classical music struggles to attract young audiences, Glass continues to be one of the kids.

It helps that Glass exudes no notice of his magnetizing pull. It helps that he breaks rules. It helps that Ira Glass is his relative. And it helps that despite his age, Philip Glass does not seem old. If you were to close your eyes and listen to him speak -- without taking note of the practiced hands that sometimes shake, or his slumped shoulders, or his face that has gracefully, handsomely melted into wrinkled crevices -- you would think he sounded 30 years his junior.

Besides the performance itself, the most striking part of this evening is precisely the fact that the under-30s outnumber typical classical concert patrons in swaths (although both types play victim to purple dye jobs). These kids, myself included, have skipped out on a night of playing darts and drinking Schlitz at dive bars to pay upwards of $50 dollars to sit quietly and watch Philip Glass play music. It's a rare sign of respect, considering this is the perpetually broke crowd that eternally defers on student loan repayments and complains about the price of tickets to a Radiohead show.

The composer, whom many laud with the same acclaim as centuries-dead artists, doesn't parade around with wisdom to impart. Instead he sinks swiftly, alone, into the hall's Steinway concert grand and plays his music.

There are no frills. Glass's performances posses the necessary bones and organs to function -- to be quintessentially Glass: those even-but-frantic minor arpeggios, accented by the sparse, right-over-left hand motif of a single bass note. There is, however, something else. Something un-pin-pointable. Hearing Glass perform makes you believe he unknowingly possesses the answers to universal secrets.

For his young fanbase, watching Glass in action closes the gap between the present -- whose artistic atmosphere comprises reality TV-productions of project runways, idols and top artists -- and the ghosts of creative geniuses past: When the composer describes his collaboration with beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the opera Hydrogen Jukebox, we lean in close and imagine this story was meant for us and us alone. Glass then introduces Wichita Vortex Sutra, a poem Ginsberg wrote during a 60-mile journey between Wichita and El Dorado, Kansas. Glass performs the piano part alongside the tape Ginsberg recorded long ago when he could not join the composer on tour. The piece begins with a majestic chord progression that isn't quite Glass's signature minor. Eventually the piano's palpitant voice meets Ginsberg's for an eight-minute and 60-mile clamor of volume and valor and strength. I can't shake the impossible feeling that Ginsberg is in the back of the theatre.

Still, Glass knows there's no point in only sharing the stage with Ginsberg's vocal totem. "How lucky we are to be among such talented young artists," he says and looks toward the wings to welcome Tim Fain on-stage. Glass quietly slips out of sight to stage left, leaving the prodigal violinist alone to perform a piece written by the composer for Fain. The audience's previously jubilant applause turns hesitant, as if to telepathically say, "Wait, don't go! We didn't pay to watch this guy play without you." But when Fain conjures the haunting Partita from his instrument, we hear Glass in every note.

A week from now and 4,000 miles east, I will encounter the same-but-different gaggle of downtown hipsters who'll sparkle like denim and fur-coated ruffian-darlings inside London's Royal Opera House. We'll have paid out for good and not-so-good seats to witness the premiere of Carbon Life, a new work by Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose past works have included commissioning digital scenery by visual artist John Gerrard, choreographing Thom York's amoebic "Lotus Flower" dance moves and creating modern ballets scored to music of the White Stripes. Like Glass, 42-year-old McGregor approaches his discipline collaboratively, Carbon Life is no exception. London's electronic DJ mega-mind Mark Ronson has co-created the score with Miike Snow vocalist Andrew Wyatt. With an onstage band including but not limited to Wale, Boy George, Allison Mosshart and Jonny Pierce of the Drums, the performance is a balletic spectacle of pop-name-drop engineered to attract a young Glassian set -- not Frances, the octogenarian who will be tucked into the seat to my right. Unfortunately, the Royal Ballet's effort is doomed.

Carbon Life is a constant, hour-long fight for attention. At one point, the bodies of dancers magically flicker like distant fireflies from behind a darkened mesh screen, but their ethereal existence is quashed at the drop of Ronson's nasty sexed-up tracks. The screen disappears to reveal a chaotic mass of performers -- packs of dancers groove to McGregor's angular choreography, while the band of famous names grooves harder in the background. Despite his oversized presence in designer Gareth Pugh's sculptural, dominatrix costuming, principal dancer Edward Watson slips from focus like a captured chess pawn at the sound of Boy George's unmistakable cry.

***

Despite the first name on the bill Tim Fain is a force in his own right. He is younger than his impressive performance record leads one to believe. He recorded the violin parts for Black Swan and appeared in the film. Next to Fain, Glass appears slightly disheveled, but not in an intentional way. Fain's slim suits accentuate the lithe build of a dancer. He wears pointy Italian-looking shoes and smiles like a star. Unlike Glass, Fain is a showman of the classically trained variety. He's by-the-book but flourished, a more performative performer than Glass.

Like Glass, Tim Fain is a rule-breaker: When the violin's microphone amplifies his breathing throughout the hall, Fain can't resist the opportunity to break the silence between movements to crack a joke. It's clear the composer trusts him for precisely this reason.

Alone, both hold their weight, but together they perform a program that could never have happened if either held onto ego. When Glass rejoins the violinist on-stage for a series of duets, the pair guides the performance as if it has suddenly become bigger than them both, listening for a shared heartbeat, watching with their eyes closed. Notes spring from the 1717 Gobetti violin and Steinway like mythical sirens. They are two strung-together pearls linked by a silk of minor keys. Glass's arpeggios and Fain's vibrato drive each other with frenetic control. But when Glass raises his hand for a page-turn, we cannot look away from his tremors.

***

At the Royal Opera House, the dancers will have disappeared -- unintentionally, unnoticed -- in a deafening blackout of synthetic drum tracks. It won't matter because the audience will fill the gold-flecked theatre with uncouth roars that will be misread as blinding success. Is it? The Royal Ballet may have marketed a ballet set to the music of Mark Ronson, but this audience arrived for a Mark Ronson concert. Unlike the set that walks into the Philip Glass performance for Philip Glass, this pale pack of red-lipped starving art-students has come ready for the wayfarer-wearing DJ to take them dancing in their red-velvet seats.

Did they ever show up for the ballet?

Carbon Life is one of Monica Mason's last choreographic commissions before she retires from her role as the Royal Ballet's director. She's been at the Royal for 54 years, and Mason once performed roles written specifically for her as a principal dancer. Years before, she thrived in a climate similar to Tim Fain's current whirlwind. Now, as the director nears the end of her (at least a nine-to-five) career, she straddles worlds: Curating old works that once drew crowds; reimagining roles she performed long ago, and now coaching them on fresh bodies; searching for and nurturing this generation's Balanchines, wherever they might be. Is there such a person? Philip Glass does not hold the answers we hope for. Nor does Mark Ronson or McGregor.

Carbon Life's power to capture unchecked whoops from its young audience has little to do with any chemistry spawned by successful collaboration. Separately, the ballet, the band and the costumes might succeed as pieces within a curated cultural festival, but together they illuminate an issue shared by many classical artforms. In its urgency to capture the millennial audience, Carbon Life put headliners alongside headliners and operated under a loosely defined guise of "collaboration." The billed set of taste-makers simply did what they do best, rather than creating a performance with long-term impact. On his own, Phillip Glass can draw hundreds to sold-out performances. For those who don't know him, many have encountered his film scores. However, the success of Glass is linked to his desire to graciously share the stage, to collaborate. And he knows it. "Having worked a lot, I'm always happy to have someone help me," said Glass before a chamber concert with Fain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "To do that, they have to participate in the music in a very deep way." While the composer's creative accomplices have indeed included the likes of Ginsberg, Glass has captured and maintained the affinity of a young audience by showing how the act of collaboration is part of a lifelong artistic process, rather than an opportunity to namedrop.

At one point in the performance Glass attempts to explain his reasons behind several changes in the Partita played by Fain. He stumbles through filler of uh's and um's before chalking it up to "I don't know." His difficulty to articulate writing and revising suggest that artistic choices cannot always come through in words. In the end, all we have are the notes. True creative collaboration is based in trust, and this is no moment to hedge bets.

For now, Glass must address his encore. He looks out to the audience: "Tim will play from 'Einstein on the Beach,' I think. But first I'll play a piece called 'Closing.'" He rejoins the Steinway to perform the last movement from Glassworks, a collection of modern chamber music. The piece is minimal. Driving. Minor -- all words that, when describing classical music today, are synonymous with the man playing now. Because Glass still actively composes, he must have many unanswered questions of his own. The composer exists in the in-between of his life. Like his music -- like the cool kids in the cheap seats -- Philip Glass is unfussed, but he isn't being ironic. Uninterested in imparting final tokens of wisdom, he happily shares this stage with the vocal ghosts of his past and trusts in the pioneering messengers of present.

Finally, the applause that surrounds the first encore dies down, and Fain reappears on-stage. Instead of leaving, Glass smiles at the young player. Scooting back on the piano bench, he swings his tender right leg over his left, and observes as Fain delicately tunes, inhales and attacks his instrument with the last word.

comment