GLASS: Glassworks

GLASS: Glassworks. Philip Glass Ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman. CBS FM 37265. produced by Kurt Munkacsi and Philip Glass.

Glassworks is the first product of CBS’ highly publicized contractual arrangement with Philip Glass—an arrangement that CBS obviously feels will be commercially advantageous, while apparently renewing its traditional commitment to living composers. And who could be more appropriate for this than Philip Glass, a composer with a large, devoted following, a reputation as a leading figure in one of today’s most active avant-garde musical movements, and a recent opera—Satyagraha—thatelicited a wildly enthusiastic audience response and won the praise of Time magazine. After all, here is a modern composer with serious credentials, and people seem drawn to his music. Isn’t this what we’ve all been searching for?

My first reaction to this new release was to say, “In a nutshell, there’s nothing wrong with this–it just isn’t ‘classical’ music.” But that sounds patronizing, and it hangs us up on that old semantic dilemma. What I mean to say is, if you turn to music for the opportunity to share someone else’s perceptions and perspectives on the “big” issues of life, for a multi-level experience that reveals its greatest depths only with increased familiarity, if you like music that requires you to bring your own intellectual, emotional, and psychological faculties to bear on the experience—well, then, I don’t think you’re going to be satisfied with this record.

What we have here are six “cuts”—some slow, some fast—based largely on the static maintenance of a texture created by the arpeggiation of a slow succession of (mostly) added-note and seventh-chords. The appeal of these textures lies in the juxtaposition of different rhythmic patterns produced by the various instruments, combining to create a pulsat­ing composite, communal arpeggiation. (Let me note here that readers who equate or assume that I am equating the music of Glass with that of Steve Reich are making a big mistake. Reich’s recent work is far more stimulating and involved and seems to be growing more so all the time.) Most of the music on Glassworks is produced by acoustic instruments, but gives the impression of electronic synthesis, partly because of the highly mechanical, depersonalized performance style sought and achieved. Mind you, the resulting sound is not at all unpleasant to the ears—in fact, listening to it is rather like continuously popping arti­ficially flavored gum-drops into one’s mouth. There is an essential simple-mindedness, a spiritual vacuousness, to this music, which somewhat resembles rock music before the melody track has been laid down. And there, I believe, is a clue to this record’s intended level of appeal. In a very serious sense, this is a sort of artsy counterpart to disco music—a plugging-in to basic neurological or endocrinological sensation unmediated by conscious facul­ties, comparable to the anesthetic attraction of a TV sitcom or cop show, a video game, or other artifact of current mass culture.

Sound quality and surfaces are impeccable. No program notes are included. (I wonder why not.) Incidentally, CBS has mixed the cassette version of this disc especially with the Sony Walkman-type tape players in mind, compensating for the reduced bass response characteristic of those machines.