Liner Notes:  Philip Glass - Portrait / Angèle Dubeau, La Pietà
Philip Glass: Portrait

Minimalism and postminimalism. It would be hopelessly reductive to sum up the particularly fertile oeuvre of Philip Glass—one of America’s most celebrated contemporary composers—with these two words. They do, however, encompass some of the main thrusts of his work. For instance, he treats the notion of time completely differently, not as a continuity but rather as a succession of moments that fall into one another, without any relationship of cause and effect. As Glass explains in the September 1999 issue of Le Monde de la musique, “We came out of experimental theatre rather than a traditional education imparted by learned professors: our roots were John Cage, Merce Cunningham, the Living Theatre, Grotowsky and Genet. The idea of a different kind of time, one with flexible duration, came more from Beckett than from Indian raga.” Moreover, by choosing to treat sound as neutrally as possible, Glass conveyed a desire to abandon reason altogether. By letting themselves be guided primarily by sensations, listeners better perceive the relative flexibility of time and the shimmer of the melodic units, which combine and divide as they seem to build, inducing a meditative state, doorway to a chaotic world that lacks any point of reference or apparent logic, yet nevertheless seems perfectly natural. With this recording, Angèle Dubeau strives to paint a dramatic portrait of the composer through some of his most significant works for strings.

From his early years of schooling in Paris, Glass developed a strong interest in the filmmaking of Jean Cocteau. In an interview with Jonathan Cott, Glass recounts: “I first saw Cocteau's films when I went to Paris in 1954 to study French. I was 17-years-old then, and the Paris I saw was the Paris of Cocteau. The bohemian life you see in Orphée was the life that I knew and was attracted to, and those characters were the people I hung out with. I visited painters’ studios and saw their work and I went to the Beaux Arts ball and stayed up all night and ran around. […] There was an aesthetic, a view and vision about culture that affected me strongly in my teens and twenties and that has remained as a kernel inside me all this time. So when in the early 1990s I got around to doing a version of Orphée I knew exactly what I wanted to do... as I did with La Belle et la Bête. Both of these works are homages to Cocteau, whom I think of as an important twentieth-century artist.”

For his ambitious multimedia opera project La Belle et la Bête (1994), Glass removed the soundtrack from Cocteau’s film (both music and dialogue) and replaced it with a vocal score sung on stage, with the film projected behind. This detachment allows for a re-reading of the allegory of the artist finding inspiration within. “The film is about the transformation of half-beast/half-human—which is what we are—to the state of the nobility of the artist, which the Beast becomes at the end. And the ending in which Beauty and Beast fly away to the kingdom becomes the final transformation of the artist. Before that moment, the Beast knows who he himself is, but he can’t be who he is. And isn’t that the very state we’re in when we’re trying to do our creative work? How do we become who we are? Any artist can attest to this problem.” Like Rossini before him, Glass uses the opera’s overture to present the work’s main themes. The arrangement presented here for string orchestra is by the pianist, composer and conductor Michael Riesman, one of Glass’s closest collaborators since 1974. He also wrote the arrangements of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, The Hours and Closing.

String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima,” was initially used as the soundtrack for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, directed by Paul Schrader in 1984. “I immersed myself in the writings of this remarkable modern Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima,” explains Glass in Music by Philip Glass. “In a substantial way, this approach resembled my method in working on my portrait operas. I first sought to establish for myself a clear, personal picture of Mishima the man and author. Later, when I was involved in the actual composition of the score, this became a primary source fuelling my musical imagination.” The score both mirrors and reinforces the work’s complex structure, in which each of the four chapters makes use of three distinct narrative modes.

In 1996, for Christopher Hampton’s film Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Glass wrote one of his most romantic scores, with a mood that fluctuates between melancholy and hope. The timbre of the strings is at times dark and at others particularly bright, with the theme in the cellos richly enhanced by the interweaving play of the other strings.

Echorus (from echo) was written during the winter of 1994-95 for violinists Edna Mitchell and Yehudi Menuhin. With its ABA form, the work is akin to a Baroque chaconne. One after the other, the soloists play the chaconne theme or melodic fragments suggested by the harmonic structure. “The music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace,” explains the composer.

Company (version of String Quartet No. 2 for string orchestra) was composed in 1983 (sic) as incidental music for a staging of the eponymous Samuel Beckett short story by Mabou Mines, the New York theatre company for which Glass would write, over nearly three decades, a number of works as its unofficial composer in residence. One of Beckett’s most fascinating bilingual texts, written first in English then translated into French by the author himself before being reworked in its original form, Company is the story, in 59 paragraphs, of an old man talking in the dark to a voice he can neither identify nor name. The movements of this score, both introspective and passionate, are to be performed in the “interstices” of Beckett’s text.

The three-movement structure of the suite entitled The Hours, for piano, strings, harp and celesta, recalls that of a concerto. It was written by Michael Riesman from the soundtrack of the Stephen Daldry film (for which Nicole Kidman won an Oscar in 2003), itself based on the Michael Cunningham novel. It is the story of a crucial journey for three troubled women whose lives are connected by the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway (and indeed, Woolf is herself one of the film’s heroines). When Glass agreed to work on the project, Cunningham, a longtime admirer of Glass’s work, thought for a moment he must be dreaming. “I love Glass’s music almost as much as I love Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and for some of the same reasons,” explains Cunningham. “Glass, like Woolf, is more interested in that which continues than he is in that which begins, climaxes, and ends; he insists, as did Woolf, that beauty often resides more squarely in the present than it does in the present’s relationship to past or future. Glass and Woolf have both broken out of the traditional realm of the story, whether literary or musical, in favor of something more meditative, less neatly delineated, and more true to life. For me, Glass can find in three repeated notes something of the strange rapture of sameness that Woolf discovered in a woman named Clarissa Dalloway doing errands on an ordinary summer morning. We are creatures who repeat ourselves, we humans, and if we refuse to embrace repetition—if we balk at art that seeks to praise its textures and rhythms, its endless subtle variations— we ignore much of what we mean by life itself.”

The recording naturally concludes with “Closing,” from Glassworks, a 1982 composition that Glass wrote to introduce his work to a wider audience. It was also used in the soundtrack of the American film Breathless (1983), starring Richard Gere, a remake of the Jean-Luc Godard classic À bout de souffle. Already Glass was wielding music like a constantly evolving language, one that, although freed of all constraints, allows listeners to grasp the subtlest of variations.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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