Philip Glass: Kepler

Philip Glass
Orange Mountain

The following dialogue comes from the Family Guy episode titled “Mr. Saturday Night”, where Peter is applying for a job as a jousting knight at the local Renaissance Fair:

Jousting Instructor, voiced by R. Lee Ermey: You love the middle ages, don’t you?

Peter Griffin: Sir, yes sir!!

Instructor: The concept of a Geocentric universe gets you sexually excited, doesn’t it?

Peter: Sir, yes sir!!

Instructor: You want to make 16th century mathematician Johannes Kepler your bitch, don’t you?

Peter: Sir, yes sir!!

Now that we have the attention of the 18 through 29 years of age crowd, let’s talk about Philip Glass.

With Kepler, American minimalist composer Philip Glass has now written three operas based on famous scientists. Einstein on the Beach was composed in 1976 and Galileo Galilei followed in 2002. So you see, Glass likes to take big bites. These three men had lofty goals to tackle within the scientific community, and framing their lives in a large scale musical work should be no less grand. A quick refresher: Johannes Kepler was an astrologer and mathematician who drew up laws of planetary motion that were probably considered radical back in 1609. In fact, back in his day, physics and astronomy were supposed to be mutually exclusive disciplines. Combine his insistence on fusing the two with the fact that his mother was falsely accused of witchcraft, and you see that he had quite an uphill battle against the superstitious masses for most of his life.

Kepler also tweaked existing telescopes. For all of the formulaic work he did in developing “celestial physics,” he retained a romantic view of sky watching that likely appealed to Glass’ sense of ambition. Almost from the very start, Kepler does not pretend to be anything smaller than it really is. The choir is forceful with the solos and librettos trailing not far behind, the orchestral themes are elongated and the use of percussion can be prevalent to say the least. The idea of a minimalist opera isn’t so much a blending of genres as it is the two styles playing leapfrog. The harmonic paths are actually quite conventional, making Kepler‘s most challenging trait its length — 15 movements just a hair shy of two hours.

This opera was commissioned by a theater in Linz, Austria, when they held the title of European Capital of Culture for 365 days back in 2009. Dennis Russell Davies conducted the premiere, showcasing Martina Winkel and Martin Achrainer in the lead roles. The text is in German and Latin, so if you are already behind on your history of astrology, the language barrier puts you further behind. Everyone involved in the recording and the performance is a professional, making Kepler a frustratingly consistent work.

It’s a tough work with which to familiarize yourself, and you shouldn’t feel bad for not having an answer to the question “What makes Kepler so special?” The individual threads don’t matter as much as the overall fabric and that fabric doesn’t make any hard cases. At least not up front. No, Kepler is a very broad work where the goods are buried deep — so deep that they may never surface for some listeners. But it can still be entrancing, just like stargazing. Kepler’s sense of wonder forever remains intact in his epitaph, which could very well have spawned Glass’s sense of awe:

I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure

Skybound was the mind, earthbound the body rests.

RATING 7 / 10