Between 1829 and 1841, Chopin composed twenty-seven études for piano, masterpieces that far exceed their modest name: more than “studies” or experiments in technical display, they convey an astonishing emotional range, each a world unto itself. Since that time, the genre has seen both innovators and epigones.
On December 5 and 6 at the Brookyn Academy of Music, Philip Glass convened nine pianists—Timo Andres, Anton Batagov, Aaron Diehl, Tania Léon, Bruce Levingston, Jenny Lin, Nico Muhly, Maki Namekawa, and Sally Whitwell—to perform his complete études, twenty in all, composed between 1991 and 2012. In the program notes, Glass explains that he wrote them “to explore a variety of tempi, textures, and piano techniques” and also as “a pedagogical tool by which I would improve my piano playing.”
Each étude is a character sketch, and each performer illumined these little worlds with distinctive skill and personality. But the pieces themselves, one fears, do not possess the requisite heft to sustain interest over a long evening. Similarities in compositional form suggest that the underlying compositional ideas are likewise impoverished. Eight beats of a single chord are played in rapid sixteenth note arpeggios, followed by four beats of another chord with the same arpeggio pattern, followed by yet another, and then back to the first. (Repeat as desired until your brain is clean.)
Glass has become something of a paradox: a minimalist with a taste for maximal display. Beginning in the late 1960s, he joined other partisans of minimalism (Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young) to compose works that confine themselves to spare materials and repeated gestures. But his use of diatonic modules and arpeggiated chords, flowing in endless iterations with only the slightest variation, has now become not just a style but a trademark. Even the composer’s face has become an icon, as transformed by the painter Chuck Close into a portrait that, seen in proximity, dissolves into watery pools of color.
The typical Glass composition is similarly crafted from the smallest cells repeated with only the slightest variation. The irony is that Glass has become a mass-market phenomenon, whose best-known works, adventures in opera and cinema, no longer merit the minimalist label: e.g., Einstein on the Beach, Koyaanisqatsi, and Beauty and the Beast (music composed to accompany the Cocteau film). If one shuts off the projector and strips away the orchestration, what is left has an uncertain appeal.
Glass remains the accessible minimalist, marketable to audiences whose tastes for dissonance rarely exceed the harmonies of commodified pop. But there is a genius to his method of fastening upon the simplest elements of musical grammar. Shorn of the spectacle that accompanies his larger-scale work, the Études reveal Glass as an Eric Satie for the post-post-modern age: a master of the mobius-strip miniature. At their best these works lull the audience into a trance state, its peace interrupted only by the rumbling of the subway below.
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