Philip Glass: String Quartet no. 1

performed by The Smith Quartet (in a video below that seems not to be available in all countries. The album can be purchased here or in iTunes)


I’ll be the first to say that this work isn’t the best place to start with the music of Philip Glass, and yet here we are. If you haven’t read the article from yesterday, Glass’s own Influential People article, I suggest doing so to understand who the composer was in the mid-60s when this work was published, what his work represented, and all that.

Glass’s oeuvre is a very good, very noticeable example of how a composer’s work changes over time, how they think differently about music, what they want to work with, how they experiment, etc. I’ve recently been listening to some music of Easley Blackwood, a composer I am more and more eager to talk about, and his own career shows distinct phases or periods, where he was clearly thinking about music in certain ways, had certain interests, and worked around or toward them. This should not be surprising.

We begin our discussion of Philip Glass with a more… unmemorable (?) piece of his, his first string quartet. I say unmemorable only because lots of his other work is performed and talked about much more often than this one. He saw fit to publish it, meaning it didn’t see the same end as that twelve-tone string trio he wrote in his youth, or likely much else of that period, but it has to be one of his least-discussed pieces. I’ve found precious little online about it, actually, but since that twelve-tone trio isn’t an option, we’re starting with his first string quartet for today’s installment of the SQS (which shall soon be more than just quartets or chamber music, even though the SQS name will not change).

Seeing as this series is focused on the violin in the form of quartet, sonata, concerto (or concertante, in Ravel’s case), we’re doing the same with Glass. The work is listed here as having been composed in 1966, but on Glass’s official site, it’s stated that the work wasn’t premiered until a full two decades later, by the Kronos Quartet. Their recording of quartets 2-5 on Glass’s website notably omits the first, but says of the work:

His first numbered quartet was written in 1966, in Paris, shortly after Glass had finished his studies there with Nadia Boulanger and had been introduced to the music of India by Ravi Shankar. It is the culmination of Glass’ earliest attempts at a highly reductive style, containing a series of short sections comprised of tiny repeated motives, and it proved the precursor of the classic minimalist technique he was soon to develop.

So while this work might be one that’s often overlooked, it’s the first of those milestones we discussed in the Influential People article yesterday. It’s an instrumental work (as in, purely instruments, with nothing electronic), and the first quartet he was willing to publish. He’d written at least three quartets (and that trio) that have since been discarded, but this is maybe the earliest of what Glass would eventually become known for as he developed the approaches and influences from his time in Paris, where this work was written.

The quartet totals around 16 minutes, and is in two parts of not quite equal length. It might not seem like the Glass that you would know if you’ve heard his more recent work: it’s quite chromatic, layered in a kind of angular complexity, and almost astringent in texture and sound. The one thing you will notice about it is that it’s repetitive, but in a way that I don’t find as appealing. Again, I don’t want to talk at any length about works like Einstein or 12 Parts, but especially with Einstein there was almost a kind of revelry in the straightforward, unabashed repetition of rhythms, notes, entire long phrases recited by the performers (“I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket and there were all these aisles. And there were these bathing caps…”), and the result is a kind of trippy letting go, or giving up and being drawn in by repetition, such that the smallest change in a note value, or a pitch, seems like a revelation.

But the first quartet doesn’t have that kind of long-range, large-scale repetition. It’s a decade before Einstein came around. It’s also not the smooth, well-oiled machine of shimmering, water-like simply-structured repetitions that undulate to support a slowly moving but flowing melody. Instead, it brings Morton Feldman to mind. The piece has small gestures and phrases, sometimes just individual notes, like cells, that it focuses on for a while, like each instrument is its own gear, each with a primary-numbered set of teeth, and they all spin (slowly) upon the same point for a while, each coinciding with different points on the other gears for a while before changing the configuration, seemingly at random.

I don’t suppose this is a very good sales pitch for the piece… it doesn’t sell it very well, but if you were to be more…. academic about it, I suppose there are certain intervals that get carved out, transposed, because there are particular motions, certain squeals here and there that do sound familiar, even if they all seem to be fragments of something larger, like it never did quite come together. There are sudden passages where it seems like things have clicked into a higher gear here or there, but while the sound of the ensemble is definitely quartet-like, with a depth and interconnectedness not found in some of his other works, the result is not that intoxicating, rhythmic, lyrical repetitiveness that sweeps you off your feet, even if it is really only a kind of surface-layer satisfaction. I myself am still undecided of how enduring some of Glass’s music is, and what I mean by that is how many secrets it hides and how well. In music like Brahms, Beethoven (especially the late quartets), and much else, the more you dig, the more there is to discover and ponder over. But when the first movement of Glass’s first quartet ends suddenly, like someone pulling the plug on some machine with exposed moving parts, and it all suddenly stops, I find myself doubting if the piece would stand up to repeated listenings, or if it gives up all its secrets in the first few passes.

There’s something about the two-movement form for a string quartet that intrigues me. Alban Berg tossed aside the four-movement structure for a string quartet and went with two movements, as did both Berio and Maderna in their early quartets. It provides a kind of direct contrast, two sides of a coin, the first half, and the second, but with Glass, I’m not sure if there’s any contrast to be had, or if it’s just the second half of the same train of thought. There are certainly similar gestures, but there’s stuff that stands out as new: there are some plucked glissandos and gestures or figures that didn’t seem to appear in the first movement. I should say in all fairness that they’re listed as ‘parts’ and not ‘movements’ and that distinction might be significant.

I know it seems as if I don’t have much of anything nice to say about this work, and then the obvious question is ‘why write about it?’ For one, it’s a matter of organization. We can tackle two (highly contrasting) string quartet works of a composer and it’s nice to work with pairs. Secondly, it is, as we have said, a sort of jumping off point for the composer. I don’t mean to demean the work at all. The fact that it wasn’t withdrawn like much of the other early work, and that it has been recorded and stuff says something about the merits (artistic, historic, personal) that the composer and/or performers see it as having, and I’m sure they would have insightful things to say about it. But for me, its most interesting character is where it stands as one of the earliest of the composer’s works after having collected his interesting amalgam of musical experiences, from New York, Aspen and Paris, with people as diverse as Persichetti, Milhaud, Boulanger, and Shankar. And Reich. And Reich. And Reich. And….

Both halves of the work end abruptly, and as a listener, for me, it gives me the impression that there wasn’t really any specific place the music needed to go, that it made its necessary number of revolutions, all the gears clicked with all the others in all possible combinations and the plug was pulled and the machine stopped, or else someone was doing something (yo-yoing, bouncing a ball, popping bubble wrap) and when they’d had enough, set it down and walked away. And that’s it.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a very different quartet experience from the compo

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