More than three decades after he unveiled his startling landmark opera “Einstein on the Beach” in 1976, one might think that Philip Glass had run out of surprises. A glance at the fall schedule suggests otherwise. The acclaimed American composer appears to be at the peak of his career: still imagining, still writing and still creating new works.
Glass turned 70 earlier this year, and the Bay Area is celebrating with numerous events, including the West Coast premiere of the song cycle “Book of Longing” (composed to texts by Leonard Cohen); a performance of Glass piano music presented by Other Minds; and a chamber music performance featuring the composer himself.
The big item on the calendar, though, is “Appomattox.” Glass’s opera, which features a libretto by Christopher Hampton, depicts the final days of the Civil War. Conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and directed by Robert Woodruff, the opera makes its world premiere in a San Francisco Opera production Oct. 5 at the War Memorial Opera House.
Glass’ previous operas have often depicted imagined events, with settings including trains and spaceships (for the record, there was no beach in “Einstein”). With “Appomattox,” the composer casts his gaze back to a pivotal moment in U.S. history, when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, Ulysses Grant, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
In a recent interview, Glass said the event has loomed large in his imagination for years.
“The Civil War was a monumental event in our history, one which we are still sorting out and trying to understand,” says Glass. “That, in a way, is why I felt it was so important to do this. The results and the lessons of the Civil War have never been completely digested. We’re still struggling with it.”
The meeting of Grant (sung by Andrew Shore) and Lee (sung by Dwayne Croft) is at the core of the opera, and Glass says that everything in “Appomattox” is drawn from history. But the Civil War is just the starting place for a larger meditation on race and violence in America; in the second half, the opera comes forward in time to encompass 20th century figures and events.
Glass has always been ahead of his time. In the late `60s, he stepped to the forefront of a new kind of compositional style—spare, shimmering and stripped-down, it was unlike anything that audiences were used to hearing in concert halls. Critics called it minimalism, and Glass became one of its leading proponents. During the next few years, he achieved international acclaim, starting the Philip Glass Ensemble, co-founding the Mabou Mines Theater Company and writing groundbreaking works such as “Music in Twelve Parts” and a trilogy of operas—“Einstein,” “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten.”
Since then, Glass has written eight symphonies, numerous concertos, multimedia works such as the “Qatsi” trilogy, chamber works and more operas (“Appomattox” is his 22nd). He’s also written extensively for film, with scores including “Kundun,” “The Illusionist” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Fog of War.” Along the way, he’s earned a wide, multigenerational following—one that extends far beyond the traditional classical music audience.
Today, Glass says that minimalism never existed—rather, it was a term simply invented by critics trying to describe music they didn’t really understand; he prefers to call his early style “music with repetitive structures.” In any case, recent years have seen him adopt a different compositional style—no less dense, but perhaps more romantic and openly emotional.
“Appomattox” may be his most personal work to date. Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937, and says his childhood shaped his view of the Civil War.
“I grew up in a segregated city,” he says, “and I saw life in a particular way. Who I am is what I bring to the opera. I was probably more aware of it than someone who grew up in Boston or Chicago.”
The new opera was also shaped by his memories of World War II.
“Growing up at that time—1941 to 1945—I remember very clearly that men were in the Army and women were in the factories,” he says. “You didn’t have to talk about women’s rights; they were all around you. So the way war is experienced by women was something that I was very aware of as a boy. And that becomes part of the opera.”
If Grant and Lee are the central characters, their wives also have key roles. In fact, the opera begins and ends with women’s voices. “They are the bookends of the opera, and they have important parts to play,” says the composer.
Glass also incorporates a dream sequence for Abraham Lincoln, a chorus for an African-American regiment and a part for Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 20th century civil rights figure.
“I think it’s important to remember that opera is a form of poetry,” says Glass. “It’s not a history lesson. We start with these two towering figures, Grant and Lee, who presided over the end of the war, but not the events that succeeded it. Those events began to take on a life of their own, and the opera’s really about that—how we got there, what happened, and then what happened afterward.”
As opening night of “Appomattox” approaches, Glass says, he’s excited by the way the production is coming together.
“For any composer, all we can do is visualize and imagine a piece. We need musicians and singers and performers to bring it to life, and that transaction, going from the imagination of the composer to the stage, is an extremely interesting time. We talk about a piece being realized—made real—and it can only happen once like that. There will be other productions, other performances, but it’s that first time that is always so exciting. It’s like watching an infant stand up and walk.”
Glass is also excited about the upcoming performances of “Book of Longing” and his chamber works. When it’s suggested that his collaboration with Leonard Cohen came as a surprise to his fans, the composer just laughs.
“Why should they be surprised?” he says. “Leonard and I are almost the same age, we grew up at the same time in North America, we had so many of the same kinds of experiences. For us, we feel a little surprised that it took so long to get around to something like this.”
As for his upcoming appearance in the chamber performance, Glass says, he’s just doing what he’s always done.
“I like to do different things,” he says. “Especially with this kind of concert, the best way to bring this music out is to go out and play it, to let people hear it. This has always been my strategy with music—to go out and play it, to bring it into the concert hall as much as I can. Over the 40 years or so I’ve been doing that, it’s been very rewarding—not only for me, but it helps to develop audiences along the way, different ages and different generations of people.”
THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC
The music of Philip Glass has always inspired a wide range of responses, from adoration to utter indifference. As the world premiere of “Appomattox” approaches, those who are still on the fence can make a survey of the composer’s past work, which has been well-documented in books, recordings and DVDs.
“Einstein on the Beach.” Nonesuch (3 CDs): Thirty-one years after its first performance, Glass’ first opera still casts a powerful spell. Minimalism at its most mesmerizing.
“Satyagraha.” Sony-BMG (3 CDs): Glass began to move toward a more Romantic style in this opera, performed here by the New York City Opera orchestra and chorus.
“Music in 12 Parts.” Nonesuch (3 CDs): Michael Riesman conducts the Philip Glass Ensemble in another of the composer’s landmark works.
“Akhnaten.” Sony Classical (2 CDs): A splendid recording, with Dennis Russell Davies leading the Stuttgart Opera orchestra and chorus.
“Philip Glass: Looking Glass,” Naxos. An excellent documentary, with interviews, backstage footage, and lots of music.
“Koyaanisqatsi—Life Out of Balance,” MGM. The first of Godfrey Reggio’s film trilogy about the ways man has laid waste to the earth. Glass’s 1982 opera is also available on CD, but should be seen for maximum impact.
“Images 4 Music,” Orange Mountain Music. Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies, who will perform two-piano Glass works for Other Minds Oct. 11 at Herbst Theatre, play the composer’s “Six Scenes from `Les Enfants Terribles.”” Music by Steve Reich is also included.
“The Witches of Venice,” Orange Mountain Music. Glass’ opera-ballet, created for La Scala with children’s author Beni Montresor, is now available for download on iTunes.
“Music by Philip Glass,” Philip Glass, Da Capo Press. The composer’s 1987 autobiography outlines his early studies with Nadia Boulanger, his early trilogy of operas (“Einstein,” “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten”), and more.
“Glass: A Portrait,” Robert Maycock. 2002, Sanctuary Publishing.
“Writings on Glass,” Richard Kostelanetz. 1999, University of California Press.