An Etude Adjustment

Philip Glass, by Chuck Close

As part of the celebration of its 25th anniversary, The Menil Collection commissioned American composer Philip Glass to create the seventeenth in the series of twenty solo piano compositions he’s been working on since 1994. Today, he performed an intimate concert at the Menil, playing music he composed between 1976 and 2012, and debuting the Menil’s 17th Etude.

I was fifteen or sixteen when I encountered Philip Glass. I think it was the album, Songs From Liquid Days, with which I first fell in love. The repetitive structures and scale figures, the counterpoint voices. Throughout his countless compositions, his style is unmistakable, even though he collaborates with other artists—musicians and composers, but also writers, film and theater directors, visual artists, poets.

His music makes me want to run or dance or paint—none of which I actually do. I heard another writer say recently that he wrote fiction while listening to Glass, but I certainly couldn’t. It completely incarcerates my mind, demanding all my attention, shoving out the possibility of generating any coherent syntax. (Though it might be useful as a tool to write spontaneous prose in the style of Kerouac: “following free deviation [association] of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang!”)

Perhaps that’s why I find the collaborations Glass did with the poet Allen Ginsberg so remarkable.

As part of their chamber opera, “Hydrogen Jukebox”, Ginsberg included his 1966 poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra”–a heady beat reflection of the anti-war mood of the 1960s in which he invokes icons of transcendence to restore abused, war-taxed language to its higher purpose. In his introduction to the piece today, Glass said that “Wichita Vortex Sutra” “basically kind of sprang out of [Ginsberg’s] mind almost complete.”

Of his arrangement that accompanies the poem, he said, “It begins with crossing the plains of Kansas, and my thought was that there might be a church nearby, so I wrote the beginning as though it were something you might hear from the door of that church as you drove by.”

Listen here to the complex and beautiful fusion of Glass’ solo piano and Ginsberg’s poem, a captivating example of artistic collaboration, performance poetry, and the power of music and language.