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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Arts & Letters

Philip Glass’s Orion: A Musical Black Hole

Orion by Philip Glass. Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, October 4 and 6-8.

There’s just something about the Olympics that begs for a Grand Artistic Statement, or GAS. Every two years, we’re inundated with a slew of formulaic and sappy pop songs supposedly inspired by the Olympic “spirit,” although a more cynical observer would perhaps note that such tie-ins provide a wealth of cross-marketing opportunities.

The Olympics, of course, make room not just for schmaltzy ballads, but for real GAS: the more large-scale, “classical”-sounding, and fanfarish, the better (see John Williams’s singularly large number of contributions to this genre). Pretentious gestures toward noble ideals and universal goodwill are de rigueur, but careful composers understand that any Olympics-related musical expression still has to be easily communicated and palatable to global audiences. The results, almost inevitably, are dismally vapid and middlebrow, appealing to the lowest common cultural denominator. So when Philip Glass was commissioned to write a large-scale piece to commemorate the 2004 Athens games, hopes were raised anew. Could the 68-year-old, Baltimore-born maverick, who studied not just with European giants like Nadia Boulanger but also with such luminaries as Indian tabla virtuoso Ustad Alla Rakha, breathe new life into the Olympic-music genre?

The situation was perilous. After all, Orion (premiered at the Odeon of Herod Atticus in Athens in June 2004) was specifically commissioned by Greece’s “Cultural Olympiad,” an organization whose dubious distinction resides in what appears to be a breathtaking capacity for embarrassment. (See my “All Around is Nostalgia,” June 2, 2003, on this Website, for its major New York-staged bungle, All Around Is Light, held at the Metropolitan Opera in May 2003.) Moreover, any work bearing such a lofty title—and an accompanying essay to express its intentions—invites suspicion. Glass’s 90-minute composition includes both ingredients. In his essay, Glass wrote:

Orion, the largest constellation in the night sky, can be seen at all times of year, from both hemispheres. It seems that almost every civilization has created myths and drawn inspiration from Orion. As the project advanced each of the musicians and composers, myself included, used part of this inspiration to aid us in our creative task. And so the star-studded skies, seen from every corner of our planet, inspired us to present a multicultural, international, musical composition.

Glass elicited musical partners from five continents to help him realize his vision. They included India’s celebrated octogenarian sitarist Ravi Shankar (Glass’s former teacher and longtime collaborator, who, however, rather than participating in the Orion performances himself, passed along playing duties to a student, Kartik Seshadri); Australian didgeridoo player Mark Atkins (a musician of mixed Yamijti Aboriginal and Irish heritage); Canadian Celtic fiddler Ashley MacIsaac; Chinese pipa (stringed lute) virtuoso Wu Man; the Gambian Mandingo griot multi-instrumentalist Foday Musa Suso; the Brazilian percussion group UAKTI; and Greek singer Eleutheria Arvanitakê. Many of Orion’s featured performers are not just masters of their respective musical instruments and ethnic traditions, but are anyone’s artistic equals, regardless of genre. (In recent years, for example, I’ve heard Wu Man perform everything from arrangements of hit Bollywood tunes to new music by composer Terry Riley, and I’d probably happily attend a Wu Man program of Britney Spears transcriptions for pipa, if it came to that, in order to experience her extraordinary grace, wit, and technical virtuosity.) Surely, with a lineup like this, Glass would dodge the Olympic-schmaltz bullet—or would he?

Rather than creating something truly fresh and musically exciting, however, Glass treated these virtuosos as little more than puppets in an extended, rather condescending round of exotic-music show-and-tell. As a number of critical wags have already noted, Orion, by dint of the many guest artists wandering on- and offstage, offers two elements that many other Glass works markedly lack: tonal and rhythmic variety. Even so, love it or hate it, Glass’s signature, compulsively articulated arpeggio—intimately familiar after decades of work, from Music in Twelve Parts (1974), to the film scores for Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, to the music for a new American Express ad featuring Robert De Niro—wends its way throughout Orion. (An old joke: “There’s one Philip Glass piece I really like.” “Which one?” “Any one.”)

I don’t reject Glass’s idiom out of hand; to my ears, much loveliness emerges from his intricately patterned webs of sound. Being a fan and student of some of the traditions from which he takes inspiration (such as that of North India, and West and North Africa) has, in retrospect, probably helped me to find my way into his music. Certainly, many other listeners find these Glassisms either boring or deeply irritating. At the performance I attended, Glass and his small group of keyboardists, percussionists, woodwind players, and vocalists (a band named, with a distinct lack of self-effacement, the Philip Glass Ensemble) brought these motifs to the fore from time to time before settling into the background. Whether one cares for Glass’s idiom or not, it is true that his contributions provide Orion’s one very slender and ill-fitting thread of musical continuity in what is otherwise a procession of poorly conceived, wholly artificial, and sappily “multicultural” episodes.

The primal growl of the enormous, Aboriginal Australian flute known as the didgeridoo, played by Mark Atkins, opens Orion. Its booming sound evokes some ancient, barely expressible, epic moment in human history, the particulars of which have been lost in the mists of time and the march of cultural hegemony. After that promising beginning, however, the piece’s jet-setting tour progresses in a rather random geography, from Australia and China, to Canada, Gambia, Brazil, and India, and, finally, to Greece. For the most part, each artist (or ensemble in the case of UAKTI) played an extended solo in counterpoint to Glass and his group; occasionally, the guest musicians indulged in awkward and mostly pointless cross-cultural dialogues with each other, leading up to the inevitable Grand Finale.

The first such exchange was between Atkins and Wu Man: the textural contrast between the heavy, rich tone of the didgeridoo and the pipa’s bright, pointed sound is one of this work’s pleasures, as is the extended solo by Wu Man that follows. Compared to Wu’s elegant restraint as a performer, Ashley MacIsaac’s nearly manic intensity was quite jarring. Decked out in (what else but?) a kilt, grubby A-shirt, sunglasses, and combat boots, MacIsaac demanded the audience’s attention. For him, it’s just not enough to be a fierce fiddler; he leaped about the stage, breaking into a manic jig at the end of his appearance that sent the audience cheering.

Soon, MacIsaac was joined by the far more easygoing Foday Musa Suso, whose two instruments are the gorgeous kora (a plucked, 21-string harp lute with a gourd resonator) and the nyanyar fiddle. The extended interaction between MacIsaac’s European-style violin and Suso’s nyanyar was forced, to say the least, as if the two players had been seated next to each other at a dinner party and were prompted into a strained, polite exchange that quickly lapsed into uncomfortable silence. In the most natural progression of the evening, Suso’s West Africa led to UAKTI’s Brazil, in which percussion seizes prime place. The most arresting element of the group’s sequence was its use of the torre, an instrument that requires two players. (The first musician turns a canister-shaped rotating piece, against which the second player braces an aluminum bow, producing a crying sound.) In turn, the torre became a highly unusual and entrancing drone for Kartik Seshadri’s sitar solo, which was full of the pyrotechnic runs that mark Ravi Shankar’s compositions.

After Orion’s brief sojourn to India, Glass’s globetrotting ended in Greece with the arrival onstage of vocalist Eleutheria Arvanitakê, singing a traditional song about emigration, Tzivaeri. Despite the aid of a microphone in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s resonant Howard Gilman Opera House, Arvanitakê’s voice that night was disappointingly thin, tired and querulous. Her deficits, though, were rapidly obscured when all the night’s performers—Atkins, Wu, MacIsaac, Suso, UAKTI, and Seshadri, along with the Philip Glass Ensemble—returned to the stage to launch into numerous rounds of the song’s chorus: Orion’s obligatory Grand Finale. Although it’s a beautiful and striking song, Tzivaeri morphs, in this setting, into a symbol of the tepid, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and ultimately empty feel-goodism that is Orion. Who could have anticipated that the refrain, “Sigana, sigana, sigana patô stê Gê,” would become a We Are The World-like anthem for the twenty-first century?

But my cranky demand for artistic insight and nourishment definitely seemed to be a minority opinion on Orion’s extremely well-attended opening night. (The program was repeated on three other evenings as part of BAM’s venerable Next Wave festival, a series that is now generally content to be the organ of a very small and select group of prominent composers rather than a showcase for truly cutting-edge experimentation—but that matter deserves another discussion entirely.) As I left the theater, I observed other concertgoers wiping tears from their faces and asking ushers excitedly where they could purchase a recording of Glass & Co.’s masterwork. Indeed, such an artifact—a live recording from the Athens performances—is available, courtesy of the composer’s recently launched Orange Mountain Music, which not-so-modestly bills itself as a “new record company created to serve the fans, aficionados and academics studying the music of Philip Glass.” (Just for the record, I don’t believe that Orion works any better as a recording as it does live; I’d actually say that it’s even less interesting when one can’t see the performers.)

Although it’s rare for new music to get a second chance at life past its world-premiere performance—even if it deserves the opportunity—Orion has already escaped that common fate. Since its debut in Athens last summer, it has been presented, and well-received, not just in New York, but in Chicago, southern California, Austin, Melbourne, and Guanajuato, Mexico. Clearly, Orion’s “message” has done much to extend its shelf-life past the 2004 Olympics. In the end, the strengths of the composition itself, its elements, or the artists involved don’t really count for much: Orion’s wash of feel-good multiculturalism—devoid of any true dialogue, exchange, or insight—is all that matters. Of course, Glass’s star power—with a certain audience, at least—doesn’t hurt, either.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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