YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MUSIC : Minimalism to the Max : The controlled music of Philip Glass travels well in collaborative explorations--witness his 'Hydrogen Jukebox' with Allen Ginsberg

November 17, 1991|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York.

NEW YORK — A couple of years ago, Allen Ginsberg, in a public discussion with Philip Glass, asked the composer whether he sometimes contemplated the unfathomable beauty of his work and if it brought tears to his eyes.

"Of course not," Glass answered. "Does that happen to you?"

"All the time," the poet replied.

"That's what I love about you, Allen," Glass said, bursting into laughter. "We're so different."

The poet and composer then sat together at the piano. Ginsberg read from his 1966 incantatory anti-war poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," and his recitation became more emotional with each line. Glass, stone-faced, accompanied with passive arpeggios, but his music somehow provided just the fuel needed for the explosive poetry.

Glass and Ginsberg certainly are different. There could hardly be more confessional verse in contemporary letters than Ginsberg's. Although the poetic voice of the Beats and the hippies, he has been primarily the detailed chronicler of an untidy soul--his own. Glass' controlled minimalism, on the other hand, is music far removed from the composer's ego, the precise opposite of Ginsberg's emotional extremism.

Yet "Hydrogen Jukebox," the staged presentation of 21 Ginsberg poems set as song texts by Glass that will be presented at UCLA on Friday and Saturday, has proved to be one of Glass' most critically acclaimed theater pieces in recent years.

As it turns out, the encounter between the 65-year-old poet and the 54-year-old composer is not as unlikely as it may first appear.

Glass' perhaps most notable contribution to music has, in fact, been in expanding the possibilities of musical collaboration. In the '60s, as resident composer of the experimental theater group Mabou Mines, Glass early on developed a musical flexibility that has allowed him to collaborate on projects from pop songs with Paul Simon to grand opera. In 1976, he helped revolutionize modern opera when he collaborated with Robert Wilson on "Einstein on the Beach" by treating music and stage imagery with equal emphasis.

And Glass still thrives on such challenges. During a recent conversation in his East Village townhouse, the composer talked about the collaborative process on a number of current projects, all of them of entirely different nature and scope.

There is "The Voyage," a new opera about Columbus that was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for next season.

"Columbus has a major part in it, but it's (also) about the confrontation of cultures," Glass says. "Instead of Columbus meeting the Indians, it's somebody else meeting somebody else. David Hwang wrote the libretto. He's a Chinese-American, not a white European, and that will give you a clue right away about the point of view."

Then there's "The White Raven," a new opera and yet another Wilson collaboration based upon 16th-Century Portuguese poetry and to be given in Portugal in 1993.

And Glass is currently adapting a classic film, Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus," into a music theater piece for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., as the first in a planned trilogy of Cocteau pieces.

Earlier this year Glass contributed the music for a dance theater piece about Marcel Duchamp, "The Mysteries, and What's So Funny?" by choreographer David Gordon, with sets by Red Grooms, which had its premiere at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.; and he also provided the background music for Joanne Akalaitis' production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," Parts 1 and 2, at the Public Theater, a few blocks from where he lives.

Such versatility is remarkable, especially for a composer who is accused, over and over, of repeating himself by writing works presumably built upon unchanging harmonies and rhythms and by changing so little from piece to piece.

Asked if it is possible for the same music to fit the needs of Shakespeare, of opera written for both experimental and traditional venues and of avant-garde dance, Glass notes that he rarely works with precisely the same team twice and never does two similar pieces in a row. And although his style may change slowly, it does change.

"I'm just slow--what can I tell you?" he jokes. "But if you look at the music over a 20-year period, a piece from 1969 and 1989, the change is very clear. We didn't expect Brahms to change with every symphony. He hardly changes at all. I think we are too impatient."

But ultimately, Glass says, the changes have to be internal, and his way of working with Ginsberg, which has led to some surprising stylistic innovations, proves a good example of how he manages this.

"Allen's work is poetry that is meant to be spoken," the composer explains. "He's the best presenter of his work, and once you've heard him read his poetry it changes forever the way you read it.

Los Angeles Times Articles