A funny thing happened on the way to Big Sur for Philip Glass. Glass, the mighty minimalist composer had planned to stage the seventh annual edition of his innovative “Days and Nights Festival” in Big Sur, and especially the magical location that is the Henry Miller Library. Alas, nature, flooding and washed-out roadways got in the way. With about three weeks’ notice, the decision was made to switch venues/villages, and take over the charmingly historic, 1920s-vintage “Golden Bough Theatre,” nestled cozily, a few blocks off of the main drag in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Glass, one of those “classical” composer whose appeal runs from those whose tastes don’t necessarily run deep into the realm of “serious” music and whose reputation in classical circles has been controversial since his arrival on the scene with his experimental opera/theater piece Einstein on the Beach, in the mid ’70s. Since then, the man continues to have prolific output and energy as a performer in his ensemble, organizer, and situation-maker for unique events like this, in which one of the most impressive features was a “New Sounds” concert by young musicians/composers worth keeping tabs on — flutist Claire Chase, pianist/composer Timo Andres, and the fascinating, hard-to-categorize artist-composer-conceptualist Pauchi Sasaki (involved in the Rolex Mentor-Protégé program; more on that later).
Glass is presently the toast of Carmel, just as he is toast of many towns in this, his 80th year on the planet, including a residency at Carnegie Hall. Two weeks ago, the New York Philharmonic played a Glass score for the first time ever, breaking the moratorium because of the sympathetic ear of new conductor Jaap van Zweeden. His long absence from the NY Phil stage is a sign of the ferocity of his detractors on the music scene, reluctant to accept his chugging “art groove” music in loftier quarters of the classical firmament.
Over the weekend, Glass himself introduced each performance and appeared as a player in his synths-and-winds Philip Glass Ensemble (the boss tends to play the simple parts, leaving the whirling sixteenth note torrents to other keyboardists in the ranks). Saturday night’s soiree at the Golden Bough featured a screening of Godfrey Reggio’s cautionary tale and atmospheric documentary Koyaanisqatsi, with the score played loud and (fittingly) loudly. The film is as powerful as when it was released to great acclaim in 1983, possibly more powerful today when climate change and the ravages of human greed are rearing their heads more than ever.
Hearing Glass’ potent score for the film live in the room, with its vivid rhythmic gear-shifting and sometimes super-adrenaline-ated vortexes of driving sonic textures, reminded us that some of composer’s greatest achievements have been in settings where filmic or theatrical/operatic elements are involved. This is one of his enduring masterpieces, at once abstract and visceral, to suit the nature (and the nature-centric message) of the film.
Conversely, things went slacker in the music-for-music’s-sake department, represented by Sunday afternoon’s return appearance of the Ensemble, with an hour of his “old hits” from 1969’s Music of Similar Parts” (similar, indeed) to 1986’s Dance Piece No. 9 in the Upper Room. The program often bogged down in the dregs of Glass’ classic rippling arpeggio-machinery and dryly hyper-rhythmic shtick. It’s an acquired taste: His obsessive repetitions of simplistic, ultra-tonal fragments either bear repeating…or not.
The two highlights of the set came with his hauntingly lyrical balladic “Facades,” with clarinet as the melodic protagonist, with a simple but poignant melody to work with. Further intrigue arrived during the Einstein on the Beach passage called “The Building,” during which reedman Andrew Sterman came stage front to play an engaging, Coltrane-esque jazz tenor sax solo over the bustling circuitry of the Glass note factory, essentially a single chord, but open to his harmonic and expressive impulses of the moment. Spontaneous combustion and jazz fervor was in the house, for a few minutes.
Sunday’s opening “New Sounds” concert was an awakening and confirming event, a solid blast of impressive music and performance by three important young artists who remind us of the creative vibrancy of the next generation. Those of who took in the Ojai Music Festival in June, are familiar with flutist Claire Chase, a modern master of her instrument, and one eager to push boundaries. Pianist-composer Timo Andres (whose music was heard at the Music Academy of the West this summer) is a young, but semi-established figure in contemporary music, with recordings on the Nonesuch label. Here, the naturally poly-stylistic wonder played four original pieces, running the gamut of post-serial and post-tonal and even briefly Ives-ian (with snaky echoes of “Shall We Gather by the River”) directions, all done in a persuasively musical and personal way.
If Chase and Andres are relatively known commodities in music of the now, the inventive Peruvian-Japanese Sasaki is an up-and-comer whose role in Sunday’s show was something of a revelation in Carmel this weekend. A seamless flow (or “arc,” as she put it in an interview after the show) connected her “GAMA XV Piece for Two Speaker Dresses” (a duet in the near-dark, with Chase), the electronic “Borealis,” and the taut, driving solo violin work “MAYU,” expertly played by Jennifer Curtis (Sasaki is a violinist, but more in a “vernacular style,” she explained).
Speaker outfits, you ask? Expanding on her senior project when at the experimental haven of Mills College in Oakland in 2014, Sasaki developed avant-fashion-platable garments fitted with small speakers and emitting manipulated sounds made by the performers in them. We caught a form of the piece in Ojai during Chase’ Sunday afternoon recital, but that was in broad daylight, not the ideal context in which to appreciate the mystical radicalism of her instrumental invention. At the Golden Baugh, the piece and the musically charged apparel came to life, and invited a sense of wonder, along with the sum effect of Sasaki’s world premiere suite of works.
Rumbling in the background of the Sasaki/Glass connection is an exemplary philanthropic program quietly but boldly run by Rolex, in the form of its “Mentor-Protégé Initiative” program. The veteran luxury Swiss watch company’s public profile is established through marketing campaigns and sponsorships of sports celebrities, automobile racing, and other high profile figures. By contrast, the arts-related “Mentor-Protégé” program, launched 15 years ago, teams up artist famed in their various artistic fields — a list including such names as Martin Scorsese, Margaret Atwood, Youssou N’Dour, Stephen Frears, Brian Eno, Peter Sellars, John Baldessari, and now Glass — with promising emerging artists, who benefit from their association and tutelage with older masters in myriad ways.
What happened in Carmel last Sunday was one example of the worthy fruits of what Rolex hath wrought. Glass’ festival continues through this weekend, and may well be worth a trip up north to catch his pal Laurie Anderson on Saturday night, and Ira Glass on Sunday afternoon (Glass, the Younger is, in fact, Philip’s cousin, and appears at the Granada Theatre on Saturday). New Glass music arrives at the theatre on Friday, with “Is Infinity Odd or Even,” with a chamber group performing to text of Jerry Quickley.