We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In the ’70s, the second wave of so-called minimalists created a viable alternative to “classical” music. Rather than devise music for traditional ensembles and then hope it might someday be performed, composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich wrote for their own groups, with which they performedand recordedthemselves. Rather than enlist the massed instruments of traditional symphony orchestras, they conjured their own big sound with the amplified instruments of rock and fusion jazz. Instead of waiting to be invited to prestigious concert halls, they played in rock clubs, art galleries, industrial lofts, and performance spaces.
So what was the Philip Glass Ensemble doing last week at Wolf Trap, the temple of upscale suburban taste that likes to note that it’s America’s only national park for the performing arts?
“Follow the money,” another ’70s figure advised, and it’s certainly true that the classical-music establishment has cash in quantities well out of proportion to the size of its audience. Wolf Trap, in fact, underwrote part of the cost of mounting Monsters of Grace, the latest collaboration between Glass and director Robert Wilson; that’s why the venue was entitled to present the piece’s East Coast premiere. (A work-in-progress version of Monsters debuted in L.A. last spring.) With such funding, a theater in which Robert Goulet recently attempted to blow the dust off Camelot purchases a measure of hipness.
Underwriting is necessary to enable the experimental theater pieces that Wilson (with and without Glass) createswhich is one reason he works so much in Western Europe, where government arts funding is more generous than in the U.S. These pieces are expensive to stage and unlikely to attract a large enough audience to pay off their costs. Glass’ “operas” are rarely performed, and none have ever been staged in Washington, although Glass’ ensemble did play selections from his and Wilson’s first collaboration, the five-hour Einstein on the Beach, at a Pension Building concert almost 20 years ago.
Monsters of Grace is no Einstein, however. A piece for Glass’ ensemble and computer-generated 3-D imagery, it resembles such slighter works as 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, a 1988 Glass theater piece performed once at the Warner Theatre, and his 1990 oratorio of Allen Ginsberg verse, Hydrogen Jukebox. Whereas the post-minimalist Glass has written symphonies (albeit with melodies derived from David Bowie albums) and operas for traditional orchestras and singers, Monsters returns to the economical format of his pre-Einstein work: It’s just electric band and light show, like a Jefferson Airplane concert.
That’s the wrong period, though. Monsters is a work not of the late ’60s, but of the late ’80s. It’s essentially a long-form music video, 13 short pieces (“songs,” if you will), each with its own visual motif. The whole thing lasts a mere 70 minutes, just about the length of the albums that the more bombastic rock bands have made since the arrival of the CD era. Wilson’s images are slo-mo, but everything else about Monsters seems designed for the attention span of viewers who rarely watch anything without clicker in hand. Far from a work of grand visual power and enveloping meditative calmas the complete Einstein allegedly wasthe piece seemed dinky. It looked like something that had gotten lost on its way to the video section of the Tysons Corner Tower Records and stumbled onto the Filene Center stage by accident.
Glass, of course, is well-represented in video-rental outlets. He’s produced perhaps a dozen film soundtracks, some of them among his most effective work. Such music is usually subsidiary to images and narrative, however, which is why it’s usually not performed in concert halls. Like the composer’s soundtrack music, the score to Monsters is incidental music, but without much incident to bolster it.
Working with such songwriters as Tom Waits and Lou Reed, Wilson has recently crafted pieces with actual story lines, Black Rider and Time Rocker. Monsters, however, is a return to free association: It combines verse by 13th-century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, a Sufi mystic whose poetry has acquired a following in New Age circles, with computer-generated imagery that bears no apparent connection to the texts (which, translated and excerpted, often sound banal). As is characteristic of Wilson’s work, the visuals at Wolf Trap were deliberate in pace and cryptic in import: A color-field-and-line image that resembled a Barnett Newman painting fluttered and pulsed; a tree grew slowly to dominate a suburban cul-de-sac; helicopters circled aimlessly over the Great Wall of China; a disembodied hand circled idly, then was pricked with needles and cut with a scalpel. The latter sequence was the most striking, because the 3-D effect made it seem as if the hand’s fingers were floating above the first half of the orchestra seats.
These sequences were generated by the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, which used the same computer techniques as such special-effects flicks as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, then transferred them to 70mm film and projected them on a large screen. Most of the images were so simple, however, that they didn’t really benefit from such presentation. Only the 3-D effects, which usually did nothing more than provide an unusually vivid depth of field, argued against dividing Monsters into segments for possible broadcast on MTV’s Amp.
The move to television would be appropriate, and not only because the piece seemed small-screen in scope in performance. Although it didn’t emphasize artificial timbres, Monsters’ score is indisputably electronic music. Most of its allusions to jazz and all of its simulations of Middle Eastern styles were the products of sampling synthesizers. Weaving the sinuous melodies and bent notes of Indo-Arabic music into his trademark keyboard arpeggios, Glass attempted nothing essentially different from such ethnic-techno bands as Loop Guru and Transglobal Underground.
The principal difference was the presence of several vocalists who sang in the stilted, formal style of Western art music. To an operaphobe like me, whose favorite Glass works were mostly written before 1975, this concession to high-classical fashion was Monsters’ least appealing aspect. The music’s dominant characteristic, however, was not its formality but its familiarity. It will take a lot more than a few enigmatic 3-D vignettes to mask the extent to which the overprolific Glass’ recent work cannibalizes itself. CP