Julia Holter at Music Hall of Williamsburg
Oh Land at Gramercy Theatre

Glass Brings Waves of Subtle Change to the Guggenheim

by Zoë Gorman

Philip Glass Guggenheim
Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal

At the Guggenheim Museum last Thursday, legendary composer Philip Glass and artist James Turrell attempted to blur the line between sense and cognition. Using his signature style of repetitive structures, Glass gracefully delivered a canon of six solo-piano arrangements and one aria for piano and voice over the course of the exclusive one-hour event. Held during a complete cycle of Turrell's installation of shifting colored lights, Aten Reign, Glass played without pause, displaying a patient mastery of technique and form; the composer obscured transitions by layering new motives in between recurring ones, varying intervals via a common tone, and seamlessly transitioning his playing style. 

As the sounds of Glass filled the shifting lights of Turrell's work, the audience became lost in an alien world where changes were incredibly subtle—revolutionary even. The mind spun somewhere along the contour of the ascending dome, undergoing gradual metamorphosis, blooming into one color, then the next. One was completely unsure of when change occurred or how fast it progressed, or whether a recently reintroduced layer of music hadn't been there all along, or if the refractions of light outlining the back of heads in some drastically contrasting color were real or imagined.

James Turrell . Aten Reign . 2013, Guggenheim
Photo credit: David Heald

During the concert, Glass took advantage of these ephemeral moments to linger on a chord, yet the environment never distracted him, even when he could not see the keys. Like the pieces themselves, his technique transitioned smoothly—from connected fingers close to the keys, to high, buoyant tapping. In “Bed: Aria” (1975-76), a selection from his iconic opera Einstein on the Beach, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn joined Glass and just as subtly shifted in and out of mixed voice and bel canto styles.

While chord progressions played a role in his pieces, Glass emphasized recurring structure, not harmony, as the dominant entity. In Metamorphosis Two, he crisscrossed recurring motives in different combinations, in a kind of butterfly effect. The piece closed with the simple, upward leap—reaffirming the opening motive, but ending the piece on a transient pitch rather than a firm tonic.

By establishing a repeating atmosphere, Glass found immense freedom under apparent constraint. In the show's last segment, “Closing” from Glassworks (1981), he introduced a pivotal tone to help the listener hear through to the next iteration of a particular sequence, and by keeping the basic texture constant, the introduction of multiple layers of countermelody finally accomplished the unexpected: As the complex texture reduced to the underlying melodic kernel, the listener found that Glass had completely inverted his main motive (when or how he did it remains a mystery). Glass made a seamless departure from the musical material they had heard over and over throughout the program, allowing the audience to understand just why his music is considered so earth-shattering. 

Special thanks to Patricia Thornton for sponsoring the reviewer at this exclusive event.