Arts & Culture » Arts

Bang the Drum Repeatedly

Composer Philip Glass and timpanist Jonathan Haas move the kettledrums to the front of the Powell Hall stage


Ten years ago timpanist Jonathan Haas walked into the offices of Meet the Composer, a grant-funding agency in New York, with, he estimates, 40 pounds of paperwork he had put together over the previous months to solicit funds to commission Philip Glass to write a concerto for timpani. The timpani, also known as the kettledrum, sits in the back of the orchestra and is recognized for those deep, thunderous beats that open 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Haas hears that reference (from Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra"), it elicits from him a "ho-hum" and this back-of-the-orchestra complaint: "Nobody has any clue of what we're doing. Nobody knows what timpani are. Nobody knows you can tune them. Nobody knows that we're actually playing pitches and melody until the drums are out front and you do it, and they go, 'Are those the same things you play in the back?'"

Haas had performed a Glass piece before, "Prelude to Endgame," written for double bass and timpani, and had even rearranged the work in such a way that, he says, "I switched the voices around so the timpani had an active, melodic position in the piece and the double bass had the timpani [part]. Philip came down [to the concert at the 92nd Street Y], and he loved it."

The other musical genius Haas knew and worked with ("the musical genius of this past century," he claims), Frank Zappa, had died, so Glass was his best shot at moving the timpani to the front of the stage with a solo performance piece. But when he delivered the 40 pounds of paperwork to the offices of Meet the Composer, the secretary asked him, "Have you read the New York Times today?" There, Haas saw, on the front page of the arts-and-leisure section, above the fold, was the announcement that Glass had received a quarter-million-dollar commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write The Voyage. Haas remembers the photo of Glass, of the Met administrators: "They're all smiling. They're all very happy. Philip's rich. And I'm out."

But, as would be expected of a musician who has chosen the timpani as a career (he was once told by a grant agency that he did not fit within its criteria because he didn't play a musical instrument), Haas was resilient. He even refined his initial concept after the general manager of the New York Philharmonic suggested he commission the concerto for double timpani so that if he were eventually to tour the piece, the local orchestra's timpanist would be included in the performance, thereby engaging a fellow member of the back-of-the-orchestra club to join him centerstage.

So, seven years after the Met and a quarter-million dollars stole Glass away from him, Haas managed to land another grant to commission the composer. Haas caught up with Glass backstage of the "Monsters of Grace" tour to tell him the money was there for Glass to write the concerto. The composer's initial response wasn't altogether reassuring, however. "You know," Glass told him, "I don't have a thought in my mind what I'm going to write." And then he paused: "That's good, right?"

As it happened, according to Haas, catching Glass in a Zen state of mind was perfect for creating a concerto specifically tailored for the timpanist. "I had never commissioned a concerto," says Haas, "and my image was, 'You pay the money and you get the piece and you meet the composer and isn't this nice.'

"Philip and I probably had about 14 hours in the studio together, with other timpanists working on the solo parts. He created a piano-study version, so I could play along, and then we could bring in improvements or changes that we thought would help the piece. He was very open to that.

"The end result is that this is a timpanist's concerto. It's written for timpanists. It's written by timpanists. I say that because, a lot of contemporary music I play, I know the composer has no experience, never talked to a timpanist."

It probably shouldn't be a surprise that one of the living musical geniuses of the last century embraced Haas' project. Glass, Zappa, a musician who wants the drum to play the melody -- they belong to a class of musical outlaws. Even though Glass got that Met commission, and -- as he approaches 65 -- finds himself receiving grudging recognition from the musical establishment, plenty of folks still agree with American composer Ned Rorem's assessment: "Glass gives too little unless you are zonked out on drugs" and "a C-major chord played hundreds of times does not seem to me to be the right solution."

Glass mentions that quote as a kind of badge of honor, adding that it took some 20 years before he was invited to speak at music schools. He admits that in the early years of his career, he and contemporaries such as Steve Reich played the role of "the bad boys, and we weren't that bad. We were a rebellious bunch. That older generation of composers [e.g., Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter] very kindly made a big stink about it and made us quite famous. If they hadn't objected so strongly to what we were doing, we might have disappeared, but we offended them so much. We weren't even saying bad things about them. I always said how much I admired their work, but after a while I realized it was better not to say that too much. I played along with the idea that there was this tremendous brouhaha that was going on in the music world, which, in a way, wasn't really true."

Still, the scheduling of a composition by Glass on an orchestra's calendar can create some annoyance among the musicians. Richard Holmes, who performs "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra" with fellow timpanist (and his former Washington University student) Haas at Powell April 6-8, says he's already hearing a bit of prejudice voiced by his SLSO colleagues. "Monotony," "repetitive" and "boring" are a few of the pejoratives he's heard, and with 14 timpani taking up precious stage space, he figures the string section will be cut down and predicts it won't be hard to find volunteers: "The piece is very repetitive. I think it could be cut down, timewise, if he doesn't take all these repeats that he asks for. But it's in there, and we deal with it."

Holmes also expects complaints about the volume of the piece. Even for him, practicing the concerto, he finds that "it's physically tiring and aurally tiring. I can only practice so long because it's hard on your ears." For the performance, he jokes, "I think they're passing out earplugs in the lobby."

Despite Holmes' misgivings, the concerto has received generous praise from critics and audiences wherever Haas has performed it. Before coming to St. Louis, he will have performed the piece at Carnegie Hall with New York Pops and former Tonight Show musical director Skitch Henderson. Glass, who has frequently worked with pop musicians, such as David Bowie and Natalie Merchant (excluded from academic circles, he collaborated with artists people paid attention to), nonetheless is thrilled about the inclusion in the Carnegie Hall program. "I'm very pleased," he says. "It never occurred to me that I would be in a Skitch Henderson program."

Glass turns 65 next year, and although he's hired a staff to archive memorabilia from his career, he keeps the past at a distance -- quite literally in a building down the street from where he lives -- and prefers it that way: "It's a weight, in a certain way. I'm doing it because there is all this stuff and I don't know what else to do with it. There is an interest in it, but I have no interest in it, really."

He still performs older work as a soloist (a piano recital at the Sheldon on April 4 will include the recent "Etudes," along with music from The Screens, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and what serves as a Glass greatest hit, "Mad Rush") and with the Philip Glass Ensemble. He starts rattling off the ensemble's performing library -- "Music in 12 Parts," Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, the Low Symphony, the Heroes Symphony -- and you recognize that these are signature works of the late 20th century. No wonder he avoids the weight and keeps his mind open for renegade timpanists.

He's in production with Godfrey Reggio for the final "Qatsi" film, Naqoyqatsi, and finishing a film project of his own. He's got a sixth symphony to write for his 65th-birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, based on "Plutonium Ode," by his friend, the late poet Allen Ginsberg. Glass pauses as he contemplates the imminent future: "What else have I got to do this year? Oh yes, I'm starting on an opera based on the life of Galileo for the Goodman Theater in Chicago. There's a lot of interesting things to do this year."

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