January 29, 2012

Of water drops, climaxes and elephants: Orphée

Thoughts and reflections after having seen a staged performance of Philip Glass's opera Orphée:

Some composers' music - a Mahler symphony, say, or Beethoven's Ninth or Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen - is so vast and immense, with such a profusion of ideas and materials, that listening to it is like looking at the heavens through a telescope or like going on an epic journey.  One has the impression of seeing the universe.  With the music of Glass, in contrast, it's more like looking at a single drop of water under a microscope.  The limitation of materials, with the application of nuanced changes in rhythm or pitch, is like focusing on the abundance of life, invisible to the naked eye, contained in a tiny drop.

There is a paradox at work in Orphée:  the music is simultaneously undramatic and yet extremely dramatic. Glass's score points out how addicted Western music-lovers have become to the phenomenon of the musical climax.  In the works of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Wagner, Puccini - all your operatic buddies - musical numbers depend on creating growing tension culminating in a powerful climax and followed by the subsiding of energy.  It's like listening to someone who really needs to sneeze but is having trouble producing one:  "a... a... a... a... A... A... A... A...  A.... A.......   CHOOOOOOOOOO!!!  *sighhhhhhh*"
Think of the unbearable tension built up in the long Act I love duet in Madama Butterfly; the ensuing mutual high notes accompanied with satisfyingly over-the-top cymbal crashes, and the slow denouement as the curtain falls.

To say nothing of the Liebesnacht and Liebestod in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

The fact is that virtually all Western music is predicated on this principle.  Not only arias and ensembles in operas, but individual phrases in piano sonatas, symphonies, chamber music, art song: every musical thought is oriented towards tension/climax/release.

And we're addicted to it.  Those climaxes produce a powerful "high" as much as any drug.  Composers know it and are pleased to keep feeding our habit.  Verdi and Puccini?  They're like the neighborhood pushers.

And then there's Philip Glass.  His mind doesn't work that way.  Each scene in Orphée is erected over a base of a musical idea - a pattern, a melodic fragment or a chord progression - that captures the essential emotional affect of that scene.  For example, the lively ambiance of the cafe in scene 1; the mystery and monotony of the long limousine ride in scene 2; the eeriness of the chalet in scene three; the agitation in Orphée's household in scene 4; and so on.  Each musical idea is pitch-perfect in nailing the appropriate atmosphere which, given Glass's distinguished career as a film composer, shouldn't surprise us.  That's pretty much the job description when composing a film score.

However, in each scene, that tension/climax/release paradigm so beloved of Western musicians is notably absent.  The music trundles along, repeating the chosen pattern, until the scene ends, often as abruptly as if lifting a needle off a phonograph record.  (You do remember phonograph records, right?  No?  Oh, never mind...)

A good example is observed in the love duet for Orphée and the Princess in Act II, scene iii.  A deceptively simple chord progression of F major, A minor, B flat major and D flat major is repeated dozens of times over the course of nearly five minutes.  The vocal phrases over these repetitions are sensuous, languid and extremely French.  No Italian-style volcanic passion; no over-the-top histrionics.
Phrases follow one another in sonic waves; waves of blissful amorous ecstasy.  These waves wash over the listener, bathing one in sonority rather than inducing the "buzz" of musical titillation.

It works.

And therein lies the secret to a different kind of opera.  Remember, this work is adapted from a cinematic masterpiece, Cocteau's film of the same name.  The screenplay is brilliant.  The effect of Glass's minimalist musical treatment is to allow the drama to be the center of attention; the music, in effect, gets out of the way of the drama.  It supports the drama by evincing the proper emotional atmosphere in each scene.  What the music does not do is call attention to itself with musical gestures that overwhelm the libretto and dominate the audience's attention.

When Orphée enters the Princess's chalet with the battered corpse of the young poet Cegeste, he mumbles "I must be asleep" in his confusion.  Any conventional operatic composer would have siezed this moment to insert a full-length aria in which Orphée muses lyrically on his feelings of foreboding and whether he is dreaming or awake.  And maybe throw in a little romantic speculation on that super-hot babe, the Princess, ending (of course) with a climactic high C.  Glass, however, has no interest in stealing the spotlight from Cocteau to indulge in that sort of interruption.  Rather, he follows the screenplay exactly:  Orphée murmurs his line, the Princess utters a curt response, and the drama continues with no loss of momentum.  The dramatic tension is enhanced, even if conventional musical tension is sacrificed.  Trust me, you won't miss it.

This is wonderful.  This is a vital and effective version of "music drama". This just may be the closest we've seen to a modern-day realization of the ideals of the Florentine Camerata, those 16th-century artists who, in attempting to re-create ancient Greek drama, invented opera instead.

III. A word to all of you who think you hate the music of Philip Glass.
Aw, what's the matter, Pookie?  Did you hear something you didn't like?  A bit of minimalist fodder so loud and aggressive you found it obnoxious, like nails on a blackboard?  Glass, especially in works from the 1960's, can be like that.  There are moments in Einstein on the Beach that can set your teeth on edge.  And scroll down through this blog a few weeks to read how Satyagraha almost caused a divorce in my household.

But Glass isn't like Handel or Beethoven; you can't get an idea of his body of work from a couple of examples.  Listen to the Water Music; you have a good grasp of what Handel sounds like.  Likewise, the Eroica Symphony is a fine exemplar of what makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven.

In contrast, Philip Glass reminds me of the story of the three blind men who came across an elephant one day.

The first blind man grasped the elephant's tusk and exclaimed, "An elephant is like a skeleton, made entirely of bone!"

The second blind man felt the animal's tail and remarked "An elephant is a small, skinny hairy thing!"

The third blind man wrapped his arms around one of the elephant's legs and said "An elephant is like the trunk of a mighty oak tree!"

As with elephants, so with the music of Philip Glass:  if you only know one part, you know nothing.  Ignore the works you find offensive; don't hold them against him.  You're only depriving yourself of the opportunity to discover the riches that await you.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting assessment. I have yet to see the piece and always look forward to a new work by Glass. He does challenge our ideas of what music and drama are.
    I must say it's not just in music but almost all of the arts that we are taught to expect the tension/climax/ release pattern. How many times in 11th grade English class did we learn that that is what drama and plot are in fiction and in theatre?
    Thanks for an open minded appreciation of an underrated composer.