Music Reviews: Philip Glass


I got this in 1985, when CDs were still relatively new and hard to find. It satisfied my Glass craving for awhile, though it wasn't as good as some other pieces I'd heard. It starts with "Opening", a gentle piece dominated by softly rolling piano arpeggios. This pieces establishes a serene, introspective mood which is then completely demolished by the second track. "Floe" begins with softly calling horns, lulling us into thinking the mood will continue. Yet within half a minute the winds and synthesizers begin playing heavy, aggressive, mechanical arpeggios. The calm is broken. The disc then alternates between gentle ("Island") and aggressive ("Rubric"), closing with two peaceful tracks ("Facades" and "Closing").

I'm at a loss to imagine what Mr. Glass was trying to achieve with this composition. The gentle pieces work well on their own, but the mood is repeatedly broken. This technique could work in a piece of program music (such as The Four Seasons), but ruins the disc for use either as a meditative piece or casual listening. Yet the music isn't interesting enough that I want to devote forty minutes of my life to concentrating on it. As a consequence, even though there's some nice music on the disc, I very rarely play it. The recording just can't decide what it wants to be.


This work is a remarkable achievement: a soundtrack that doesn't require a movie. I've seen Koyaanisqatsi, and his soundtrack always recalls images from the movie. Yet I've never seen Powaqqatsi, and I still find myself playing this disc more than any other Glass composition. By turns it is meditative, frenetic, grand, and sweeping. Few other modern compositions display such a range.

A biographic note. I first heard parts of Powaqqatsi in a friend's mix tape. Throughout the tape, the three parts of "Anthem" were used to add continuity. The trick worked well. I was completely surprised, then, when I finally heard the entire soundtrack. The joyous, energetic opening was unlike anything I'd imagined Glass would compose. It segues into a deep, mysterious synthesizer sweep ("The Title") which blends seamlessly into the pounding "Anthem - Part 1".

What a difference though two opening tracks made! Hearing the entire sequence was a revelation. It was as if for years you'd known an impressive painting, then one day you accidentally stumble across a monumental painting of which the painting you know is only a detail. The part gains a new and deeper meaning as a piece of the whole. Fantastic.

This soundtrack confirmed my belief that Mr. Glass' best compositions are those that he does with others. When he works solo, he falls too much into the minimalist vein, and creates compositions that often are rather unexciting. (Glassworks suffers from this fault.) But the constraints and outside input of collaborations work to his favor, creating more dynamic and interesting music.

If you are only allowed one Glass piece, this should be it.

Last updated 8 June 2000
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons