Friday, April 20, 2012

the music listener's glass ceiling

I hope this doesn't become the norm.

I'd considered the possibility of going down to LA to hear the Philharmonic give the west coast premiere of Philip Glass's Ninth Symphony, but it was both Easter and Pesach weekend, a busy time here, and for that and other reasons a trip would not have worked out.

I did read somewhere, though, that the work had been recorded, so when I was making out my online order of delectable CDs, I looked it up. Nothing there.

Puzzled, I went to The Man's website, where I found this: "Download exclusively from ITunes." (I know they don't capitalize it that way, but I refuse to do it their way.) Oh fnick. To buy something from Amazon, evil as they are, you just need to go to the Amazon website and give them your credit card and address, but Apple is evil in its own way, besides imposing insane and awkward-to-type capitalization rules: to buy from ITunes you need to load the ITunes program on your computer, and I'm not clogging up my computer with that thing and all the hassle needed to get it there.

Eventually I remembered that B. has ITunes and I asked her to do it. The page on The Man's website says just click here and you'll be taken to it on the ITunes website, but you're not: you still have to search for it. It took us three searches to find it ("philip glass" didn't work), which exceeded B's interest in the matter. Fortunately, once I found it, it was not difficult to download and burn to a CD, despite confusing instructions in the ITunes help database that turned out to be unnecessary anyway.

So now I have a CD, which is what I want - and I hope it lasts; some of my older hand-burned CDs have conked out after 5-10 years; the commercial ones haven't - but without cover art or liner notes. Oh well.

So how's the music? It's another dark-toned, churning work, at 50 minutes the longest of his non-vocal symphonies, and in three movements, his preferred format. The LA Phil has the most detailed description of the work that I could find. This says the opening was inspired by that of Mahler's Ninth. If the composer says so, but I don't hear it. The tone color and scale of movement are similar, but the somber darkness entirely lacks the gem├╝tlichkeit, the open yearning, and the abrupt mood switches of Mahler, while it does abound in the continuously bounding rhythmic energy typical of Glass. The work I'm most reminded of is the prelude to Glass's own Akhnaten, and I suppose I was waiting for the music to hush and a deep voice to boom out "Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts" or possibly "Koyaanisqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi."

It never did, though. Instead, each of the three movements, after a quiet beginning, built up energy and then died down again. Other writers have mentioned things like the woodblock pattern at the conclusion of the first movement, not an unprecedented type of sound in a Glass symphony. I, however, am most struck by the towering plateaus of forte climax of both the second and third movements - long undifferentiated stretches of unvarying intensity, in the second movement led by continuously braying trumpet. Even after three listenings, I haven't taken to this as much as I have to the Eighth and the Third, my favorites among his previous symphonies. But I'm glad to have it, even in this crude physical form with just a slip of paper pasted in the jewel box to identify it. I understand that Glass has bypassed the Curse of the Ninth by having written two more symphonies before this one even premiered, though they're not listed on his web site, so there's more to come.

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