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November 14, 2000

Modern ComposersThe Crouch End Festival Chorus, with the National Sinfonia, perform Music of Philip Glass. Songs From Liquid Days; "Vessels" from Koyaanisqatsi; Three Songs (world premiere recording). Conducted by David Temple, with solo vocals by Najma Akhtar and Wills Morgan. (Silva Screen Records, CD # SILKD 6023) 2000.

Yes, my friends and my foes, it is time for another new release of music by Philip Glass. This new album from Silva Screen Records contains the premiere recording of "Three Songs," a setting of three poems by Leonard Cohen, Raymond Levesque, and Octavio Paz. In addition, the album contains new arrangements for choir of "Songs From Liquid Days" and a portion of the score to the film Koyaanisqatsi.

Glass has become an almost iconic figure in American culture through the almost unimaginably unlikely vehicle of composing and performing a large body of difficult music -- difficult to perform and difficult to comprehend. Born in 1937 in Baltimore, Glass came to music accidentally. His father owned a radio-repair shop where he also sold classical-music records. When certain records didn't sell, Ben Glass would take them home and play them for his family, using the family as an impromptu "focus group" to give him feedback on why those records were not popular with his customers. Young Philip was thus exposed primarily to classical music, mostly chamber works, that were not part of the popular canon, though most were by mainstream composers. After receiving a degree in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Chicago, Glass spent several years studying composition. His musical epiphany came in Paris when he was hired to transcribe some recordings of the Indian master Ravi Shankar into western notation. His immersion in the techniques and philosophical underpinnings of Indian music led him to renounce all the work he had produced to that time and to begin intensive study of the music of North Africa and the Himalayas. After his baptism in those musical streams, he was musically re-born and began applying Eastern techniques to his own work.

After some large-scale works, Glass turned in 1985 to the song form. He began by asking a group of songwriters, including David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, and Laurie Anderson, to write lyrics for him. From those lyrics he created six songs that "form a cycle of themes ranging from reflections on nature to classic romantic settings." In 1997 Jeremy Marchant decided to re-work the Songs From Liquid Days into an arrangement for chorus and orchestra. Marchant says that one of his criteria in making the arrangements was to end up with a version "that stood a chance of performance," and to that end gave the chorus a lot of the music that had been performed by orchestra in Glass's original arrangements, and reduced the orchestra to a chamber-size group consisting of flutes, strings, piano, organ, and percussion. Though the structure of the original cycle remains mostly intact, Marchant says that the version for chorus "differs fundamentally" in that the choral work "has been thoroughly thought through as a dramatic work in its own right." The distinctly post-modern songs are not likely to reach top-forty lists, but are accessible to top-forty listeners, without the disorienting repetitive motifs of some of Glass's orchestral works. Some of them are actually hummable.

You can hear Songs From Liquid Days by Philip Glass, performed by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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