A friend offered me a free ticket to see the Philip Glass Ensemble perform at the Schermerhorn Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, February 18, 2007. I was a little reluctant to accept his generous offer, seeing as it was a “school night” -- that and the fact that I do not like Philip Glass’s music.
Since I tend to talk a lot about how “liking” something should not be the determinative factor in evaluating works of art and, given that I was anxious to check out the new concert hall, I decided to go. I was willing to subject myself to a late night of listening to music that I personally find irritating in order to avail myself to its experience as art. Besides, my friend is a fan of Glass, so we could discuss the proceedings and maybe I’d get some fresh insights into this music.
First of all, the Schermerhorn Center for the Performing Arts is every bit as wonderful as I’d heard. As my friend said, “it’s like walking into Old Vienna.” Even though the Glass Ensemble was (heavily) amplified, the sound in the room was crystal clear, un-boomy, and amazingly neutral. I am really looking forward to hearing the orchestra in that room in May.
Whatever I may think of Glass’s music, he is certainly an interesting figure, a highly respected artist with a capital-A. So, it was definitely a rush when he walked out onstage and sat down to play the electric keyboard. Glass is more Rock Star than some fusty old “classical music composer,” what with his music’s monolithically loud volume levels and his slightly droll between-song commentary.
The music strikes me as more “maximalist” than “minimalist” in its dynamics, cross-poly-rhythmic complexity, and sheer number of notes-per-second. But, man, after a few minutes, I find myself wanting to – physically needing to – leave. The relentless and insistent repetition of such seemingly banal diatonic pitch material starts to get under my skin.
I can appreciate the difficulty of the music and the virtuosity required to play it. (The Ensemble evinced this difficulty during a couple sections where counting errors and page-turn problems nearly derailed the performance!) I can also appreciate the polyrhythmic patterns that are set into constantly shifting motion and there are moments of genuinely lyrical beauty to be found from time to time.
But, there is something about the music that is profoundly unsettling to me. Part of it has to do with the sense of triumphalism that is asserted through the endlessly repeating cadences and fanfares and its use of unyielding maximum amplification as an overt display of force. Listening to this music makes me feel like I’m being hectored - loudly.
I am not suggesting that my interpretation has anything to do with Mr. Glass’s intentions in his work. I’m not even suggesting that it is bad music or that it’s not art. Rather, I would suggest that the fact the music affects me so strongly is an indication of its status as genuine works of art. Glass’s music demands that it be dealt with on its own terms, and that is a sign of its integrity.
But the fact remains: I simply don’t like it.
This whole experience has given me pause. Does this mean that taste truly is the ultimate arbiter of truth in art? Of course not. But, it suggests that no amount of special pleading is likely to make a person like what he or she doesn't like.