The swinging peal of clarion bells, underlined by a buzz of angry bee-strings, a heavily regimented time signature to foster a sense of hypnosis, an endless need to revisit variations; Glass’s work always acts as a type of cypher for what is the formal evolution of modern classical music. Deconstructed like one of Peter Eisenman’s exploded architectural drawings, it is music illuminated via light removed from impassioned composition, becoming one of strict, non-organic structures. Melody is obsolete, bravura classed as indecent. Glass transmutes his Jewish East Coast background, one of hissing phone interchanges, the nonstop honking of endless yellow cabs (one of which he drove for a living), chanting cantors in Temple, and the clacking electroshock of subway cars forever circling in the subterranean dark.
Imagine the sound of one hand clapping. The rhythmic fleshy thunk as fingers flop down onto an open palm. If done repeatedly, you could easily hypnotize yourself, hearing again and again the same flop for eternity. Now imagine spreading that sound up and down the harmonic scale, with slight variations. Imagine violins, violas, and expensive early-80s synthesizers churning out the same modulated sounds. Now add a choir. From his first opera Einstein on the Beach to Akhnaten to Song’s from Liquid Days, we hear the most vaunted works of America’s preeminent post-classical drone in this 24 disk set.
I listened to approximately 16 hours of Glass. My ears retuned like some unholy tuning fork, humming constantly with the staccato umbrage of his work. I prayed at one point for actually melody, hoping that Songs from Liquid Days, with its ensemble of famous voices, might give me that release… to find that the breathy whispers of the Paul Simon (our great lyricist) penned “Changing Opinion” would be hypnotic and quixotic. Vowels strung out over Minimoog piano and the undulating heron calls of woodwinds, somehow moved me beyond my biases, and I found myself entranced. I actually shocked myself by thinking that maybe Glass isn’t a one trick pony. For a years I had felt that Glass’s music was best heard as a companion to issues of vintage OMNI magazine, the new-age sci-fi complimenting the late-80s ‘electronic score’ aesthetic of his work. Now I have come to the conclusion that there is a wizard behind the curtain after all.
“Koyaanisqatsi, a Film Soundtrack”
Not included in this vast box set is Glass’s soundtrack to the impressive experimental film Koyaanisqatsi, which is my personal favorite of his “total” compositions, and which works as a synthesis of the primary output if his career. Its fugue and dirge throughout, but the composition of the various sections approaches a neo-baroque level of complexity, adding hints of melody line among the strict modal signatures inherent in film scoring. If you’re able to watch the movie, do it. Its hypnogogic, slow-motion, panned vistas soar over vast American wilderness, chaotic urban decay, and wistful memories of plenty that are immeasurably enhanced by the music.