Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Pulse

I've been playing Philip Glass's Symphony No. 9 a lot recently. He's probably better known for his film, opera, and ballet scores, and small-scale instrumental pieces with his ensemble, but he's also written string quartets and ten full-scale symphonies, beginning in his late fifties with the 'Low' symphony, which explored variations on the music of David Bowie's album Low.

Bowie gave me my first introduction to Glass. Thanks to the world memory of the internet I can date it precisely: 20th May 1979. Bowie was hosting a Radio 1 programme, I am a DJ, presenting a selection of favourite and significant music. He played Danny Kaye's 'Inchworm' (a song he claims as a major influence, forming the template, for instance, for 'Ashes to Ashes'), commenting on the use of counting in a song, and then played an excerpt from Glass's score for the opera Einstein on the Beach, 'Trial/Prison', in which the narrator recites short text over a pulsing electronic organ while the ensemble counts off the beats.

The juxtaposition of the two pieces of music caught my attention, but I didn't really think of Glass's music again until I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi in Los Angeles, at Laemmle's Royal theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, May 1983, and my mind was, as they say, blown.  I mean, coming to Koyaanisqatsi without any preconceptions of what it was like was pretty much mind-blowing anyway, but I was also an alien living and working in Los Angeles and much of the imagery had a direct resonance.  As did the pulsing score: I immediately bought a tape, and played it to death driving the freeways and surface streets of LA, and it's still one of my favourite pieces of music. The penultimate section, 'Prophesies', is prime Glass Pulse:

The same short cadence is repeated over and over, until suddenly (at about 08.46) there's a small but utterly devastating time change, a sudden shift of focus and emotional colour. It's a signature of his work: his Symphony No. 9 opens with yet another variation of the Pulse.

I've been writing and publishing for somewhat less than the interval between Koyaanisqatsi and Symphony No.9, but if I've learnt one thing it's that you develop signature themes, tropes and ideas, prose structures and story forms, that define your style. That's the palette you have; the palette you get to play with. Glass's music reminds me that isn't a trap; reminds me that simple and powerful ideas can contain infinite variations, if you look hard enough.


Blogger Mark Pontin said...

Saying it's by Danny Kaye is understandable.

But just as the music in PORGY AND BESS is by the Gershwins -- not any of the singers who've sung it -- and songs like "My Funny Valentine" are by Rodgers and Hart, and "Night and Day" is by Cole Porter, "Inchworm" is by the late, great Frank Loesser.

I'm not trying to be pedantic and it's all history now. But like the Gershwins, and like Rogers and Hart, even though his name is less well-known, Loesser -- also responsible for GUYS AND DOLLS and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING and others -- was one of the small group of geniuses who turned the mid-20th century American Tin Pan Alley musical song into high commercial art music, with harmonic structures so sophicated and strong that jazz-players could endlessly mine them. Loesser's "If I Was A Bell" was a perennial favorite of Miles Davis's, for instance.

February 27, 2013 11:43 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

You're absolutely right. Should have mentioned Loesser - it's Kaye's version of his song.

February 28, 2013 7:57 am  

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