Philip Glass and Tim Fain: A Live Review

Philip Glass & Tim Fain Promotional Images at Emory University.

Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music
with Tim Fain
State Theatre, Ithaca, New York
March 1, 2014

If you have ever said a word over and over until it sheds all meaning and becomes its own sound, raw and devoid of attachment, then you know what the sound world of Philip Glass feels like. His melodies evolve in just such a way, nurturing new aspects with every iteration until they blossom of their own accord. His music has been called many things, from hypnotic to interminably monotonous. Its repetitive arpeggios and insistent themes have polarized listeners for decades. His admirers—myself among them—take comfort in his recognizability. His many critics, on the other hand, are often guilty of the very monotony of which the iconoclastic composer stands unfairly accused. Either way, resistance to his minimalist (im)pulses is futile: There’s nothing minimal about them.

But this is only half the story. Many will have heard Glass the composer, whose soundtracks for such films as Koyaanisqatsi and The Illusionist have long tickled the ears of even those unfamiliar with his name. Saturday night’s intimate chamber concert at the State Theatre was a choice opportunity to experience Glass the musician. Poised mountainously at a rococo baby grand piano yet with the touch of a willow’s tendril on water, he took concertgoers on a journey through his varied career by way of its most essential colors. To that end, he opened with a spirited performance of “Mad Rush.” The song was written—he explained to the audience—in response to a commission for a piece of “indefinite length.” This comment brought a collective chuckle and showed Glass as one at ease with his critics. It was obvious that the piece was originally written for organ as its waves crashed over one another in a gorgeous tumble. He also performed three selections from his Metamorphosis series. Like a jump between dream levels in the film Inception, each movement proceeded from a deeper place. The crosshatching of their dynamic pianism recalled the “stagger” technique of Baroque harpsichordists, and served to make an already resonant instrument brim with overtones.

Although Glass has ever been his own best interpreter, he has found in Tim Fain a viable partner in time. The American violinist, also no stranger to cinematic crossovers (he can be heard in Black Swan and, most recently, 12 Years a Slave), has emerged as one of the most exciting and innovative violinists of our generation. It was in the spirit of affinity that he joined Glass on stage for a smattering of scenes from The Screens. This incidental music, written for a stage production of the play by Jean Genet, was by turns sprightly and mournful. So, too, the concluding Pendulum, condensed here from a trio to a duo.

Yet it was Fain alone who secured the performance’s most stirring memories in the form of a two-part “Chaconne.” Excerpted from the seven-movement Partita for Solo Violin, it ranks among the solo violin works of Eugène Ysaÿe as a true inheritor of Bach’s hallowed craft. The purity and surety of Fain’s tone was alive with purpose as he leapt through a near constant chain of double stops. Concertedly, his strings sang the most recent music on the program, bringing everything back to Glass the composer and reminding us of just how he has evolved. Here was his art, soaring, full-throated, and open to whatever may come.

(See this article as it originally appeared in the Cornell Daily Sun.)

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Trivium (ECM New Series 1431)


Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded October 1990, Grossmünster, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I am a rider without mount, an ocean without waves, a horizon without dawn, nailed to myself, nailed to an absence in time which, after me, becomes the time of absence.
–Edmond Jabés, The Book of Questions

Avid Arvo Pärt listeners will be more than familiar with the profound talents of Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. The English organist has long held contemporary music in high regard, and has enriched the liturgical landscape with numerous commissions as well as his own compositions. With such a wealth of music available at the tips of his fingers (and toes), Bowers-Broadbent was faced with a daunting task: namely, crafting a personal take on music’s creative intimacy through one of its most leviathan instruments. The end result is, in his own words, a “performance about time and space.” As such, the reach, not the fleeting emotional effect, of his selections becomes paramount. Rather than lay out a program of short, varied pieces, he has turned inward, finding in the works of only three composers enough to describe a universe of ideas.

He first unveils the night sky with a quartet of pieces by Arvo Pärt. Trivium (1988) is like a constellation burning silently for our scrutiny. What remains flat on the stargazer’s map becomes three-dimensional in Bowers-Broadbent’s care. As with Pärt’s other tintinnabular quests, Trivium is both explorer and the landscape being explored. Its powerful middle section connotes a triune infrastructure, embodying the balance of divine order in every disturbance. The steady pulse of Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler (1989) breathes with earthly lungs, even as it cradles a heart that can only be seen with a telescope. Its path stays true to the peaks and valleys of its title, taken from a poem by Edmond Jabés (Pärt would later rescore this piece in a version for strings and percussion that can be found on the ECM recording In Principio). Annum per annum (1980) is structured like a mass and brings that same sort of complementary vision to its stark dynamic contrasts. Pari Intervallo, composed in 1981, layers intonations in the higher register over a slow chromatic sway of transfiguration.

We are slowly brought back into our bodies with two of three voluntaries composed by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1976. These arrangements of sixteenth-century Scottish hymns seem to unpack, in a brief span of time, the mystery of faith. With enigmatic precision, Psalm 124 (after David Peebles) traces the contours of God’s raging waters with a touch of resignation, glorying in the safety of grace and retribution, while O God Abufe (after John Fethy) expresses even more succinctly the awe of a prayerful mind.

By the time we arrive at the final two pieces, each a spectacular arrangement of music by Philip Glass, we are well primed for the metamorphoses implied therein. Satyagraha renders the finale of Act III from the selfsame opera into a whirling dervish of stratospheric proportions. One can almost feel the air coursing through the organ’s pipes with every recapitulation. Dance IV, on the other hand, is a more extroverted piece that populates its periphery with movement and attractive forces. It ecstatically forms the center of the album’s galactic structure, drawing in countless voices until it reaches critical mass.

Bowers-Broadbent has the uncanny ability to take music that is seemingly histrionic and forge from it a host of instinctual meanings. From the wafting strains of Pärt’s sublime prostrations to the enlivening regularity of Glass’s exuberant leaps, we are treated at every moment to an august evocation of music for its own sake. All too often, it seems, organ recitals fall under our radar. Albums like this become the radar, and we the blips upon its screen: transient yet unmistakably there.

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