Every time I hear an early piece by Philip Glass, I find myself contemplating a fanciful little theory. It occurs to to me that one day in the 1960s he sat down with pen and paper, with the aim of defining his new musical style.
The first thing I imagine he did was divide the page into two vertical columns. Then, in the top left he wrote “The Modernists,” and in the top right he wrote “Philip Glass.” And then I like to think he proceeded to list the stylistic attributes of modernism (at its most extreme) on the left, and to describe each attribute’s polar opposite on the right. The list came out looking something like this:
Column A: The Modernists
major and minor chords are forbidden
no accompaniment figuration allowed
rhythms are obscure, complex or irregular
the more “extended techniques” the better
no repetition: works are through-composed
Column B: Philip Glass
nothing but major and minor chords
wall-to-wall accompaniment figuration
clearer sense of rhythm
play instruments in a normal way
take repetition to unimagined extremes
And for a composer with iconoclastic ambitions, modernism was an easy target, back in 1976. Established in the early twentieth century, its tenets became an orthodoxy: “The Rules” for any composer who wished to be seen as up-to-date. (One hundred years later, there are still some composers who treat the stylistic attributes of modernism as a given.)
Personally, I agree with Glass’s view that by the 1970s it was time for a change. Yet at the same time, his early efforts, like Einstein, seem like the willful contrariness of a teenager denouncing his parents’ values, holus-bolus. Glass has matured, of course – and other composers have found other ways to move on from the modernist era without displaying a need to beat it to death.
So I am grateful to Philip Glass for boldly proposing that modernism was not the end of musical history. And I’ll try to focus on my gratitude as I sit through Einstein on the Beach.
© Colin Eatock 2012