Later I got a recording of Akhnaten, which I thought was interesting but didnít do much for me. Then I saw Glass and his Ensemble in performance, but curiously, it must not have made much of an impression, because I canít tell you now what they played or even where I saw the performance. I do remember the premiere of his chamber opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which the time I thought was one of the worst things Iíd ever seen or heard.
Then a couple years ago I saw The Hoursófortunately on DVD, not at the local multiplex, because I was an emotional wreck at the end. I found Glassís score breathtakingly moving (though reportedly studio boss Harvey Weinstein hated it). I also was excited by his score for The Truman Show, which was well-suited to that parable of celebrity. Perhaps hereís the place to add that I did a telephone interview with Glass one time. He was a very nice fellow and gave thoughtful answers to some of my questions (mainly about his compositional process) that I knew wouldnít interest my readers, or even make it into the final review.
So, I hadnít heard much Glass in a while, apart from The Hours, and I was curious what this new piece Orion was all about. It was commissioned for the Olympics in Athens and premiered there in June 2004. The movements cover the continents: Australia, China, Canada, The Gambia, Brazil, India, and Greece (no march of the penguins to represent Antarctica), with three short interludes. Glass recruited regional musicians to collaborate with him on the various movements. The program insert describes them as composer/performers, but we donít get any clue as to how much of the music they composed, or whether they merely guided Glass in composing for their instruments. The title Orion refers to the constellation, which can be seen from both hemispheres.
The opening movement, Australia, features Mark Atkins, who plays the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo is a type of cylindrical hardwood drone pipe, played by the native peoples of Australia. You get one note, which can be sustained for as long as 40 minutes using ìcircular breathingî: players inhale through their nose while they exhale into the didgeridoo using their cheeks and tongue. Here the drone gives Glassís opening a kind of Also sprach Zarathustra/2001ñRheingold feel. It also caught my akitaís ear, who kept looking at the speakers.
The ìChinaî movement showcases Wu Man on the more familiar pipa, a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute. Also an ancient instrument like the didgeridoo, the pipa allows Glass a little more ìmelodicî flexibility. But, what, one might ask, could Glass find to characterize Canada? A good Irish violin (= Irish immigrants). I might have suggested some French dances, but platinum-selling violinist Ashley MacIsaac can certainly get your toes to tapping.
Foday Musa Suso, a griot in the West African Mandigo culture, plays the kora in the ìGambiaî section. The kora is another harp-lute, and another instrument of ancient origins. Youíd probably recognize it if you saw it: it has a large hemispherical body with a long neck and two planes with 11 and 10 strings running in notches at the sides of an upright bridge. ìBrazilî features the ensemble UAKTI from that country; their particular niche is using all manner of materials to construct their instruments. The booklet doesnít tell us what they cobbled together for this performance.
ìIndiaî has Gaurav Mazumdar playing the familiar sitar. According to the program notes, it seems that Ravi Shankar had a hand in the composition of this section, though, here again, Glass is being vague about who composed what. All of the artists collaborate in the final section, ìGreece,î joined by soprano Eleftheria Arvanitaki in Glassís arrangement of a traditional song, ìTzivaeri.î
And, so, a reviewer ultimately is required to (or supposed to) give his or her assessment of a performance, however much they try to wiggle out of it by giving lots of background material. Glassís collaborators give quite accomplished performances, though Iím not qualified to say how good the didgeridoo Johnny-One-Note is. As to Glass, well, as much as Iím always inclined to like his music, this 90 minutesí worth sounds awfully repetitious. (Yes, thank you, I know thatís a hallmark of minimalism.) Both repeating itself and repeating other compositions of his. It seems almost glib; nothing caught my ear to make me look at the speakers.
Is it art or is it craftsmanship? Iím inclined to nod toward the latter for this score. I was just reading a book on American music in West Germany after World War II; the author reports one observer writing in the 1970s and 1980s that Glassís music ìapproached pop musicî and that it didnít have ìsocially-critical content.î Well, listeners certainly donít want socially-critical content crammed down their throats at every concert (and the Germans were wild over John Cage; go figure). But I think this is why I like Glassís film music more than his scores like Orion: his music seems to better suit the pop culture of films, even when they do have socially-critical content, like The Truman Show.
Fans of Glass will want to pick up this set. Itís certainly very listenable, and Glassís collaborators add a lot to the mix, both in their performances and in their contributions (however much) to the actual composition. Even though this piece didnít do much for me, Iím looking forward to hearing whatever Glass comes out with next. Maybe Iíll even wag my tail.
David E. Anderson
image_description=Philip Glass: Orion
product_title=Philip Glass: Orion
product_by=Philip Glass, Philip Glass Ensemble, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Mark Atkins, Ashley MacIsaac, Wu Man, Gaurav Mazumdar, Foday Musa Suso, UAKTI. Michale Riesman (cond.)
product_id=Orange Mountain Music omm0021 [2CDs]