Glass String Quartet no. 2, ‘Company’

performed by the Smith Quartet, or below by the Spektral Quartet or in another great performance here


Here we are! This is something many more people will recognize as Philip Glass.

The description of the above video says it is the “haunting and melancholic Quartet No. 2”, which… perhaps much of Glass’s music is, but we’ll talk about that in a bit; it fits with the ‘inspiration’. The work is subtitled ‘Company’ because it was originally to be incidental music for Samuel Beckett’s novella Company. The (very short) Wikipedia article specifically states that the music was “expected to be” for an adaptation of  Company, but with no clarification on why it is phrased that way instead of just “it was”.

It was finished and premiered in 1983, quite some time after the first quartet was finished, but before the first was actually premiered. Glass’s official site lists as the commission:

Mabou Mines Development Foundation for he [sic] dramatization of Samuel Beckett’s prose poem “Company”

What we have is a small eight or nine minute, compact and yet still rich string quartet. (Notably, JoAnne Akalaitis was a member of Mabou Mines, and Glass later married her.)

Of the original prose work that the quartet is (at least somewhat) based on, Professor Lawrence Graver at Samuel-Beckett.net says:

In his early seventies, Samuel Beckett composed an enigmatic, hauntingly beautiful prose text, “Company,” in which an old man lying on his back alone in the dark is spoken to by a ghostly, unrelenting voice he can neither verify nor name. At times speaking in the third person, the voice describes the figure’s tormented confinement in the present; at other moments, using second person, he narrates striking scenes from the old man’s boyhood and adolescence (a past very much like Beckett’s own). Also acknowledged is a first person voice that remains significantly absent – the pronoun which the old man desperately wishes to use, but can’t.

I feel this is a work that doesn’t really need much of an explanation or extramusical idea to enjoy. While people might be inclined to use that ‘minimalist’ label in describing it, there’s actually still detail to discuss as to why it ‘works,’ and even more that I’m sure I can’t touch on. Wikipedia gives us two whole sentences on its musical content:

The main theme of this work is subjugated to arpeggios in minor keys all along the four movements. All of the movements of this monochrome work are highly and closely related to each other.

I thought ‘monochrome’ was an interesting term to use. While we do have four movements, what I don’t hear is any kind of… traditional structure (sonata form, slow movement, scherzo, all that), and even in this work, the tracks are listed as ‘parts’ rather than ‘movements’ on the album, similar to yesterday’s piece.

The first movement is the longest (at still less than three minutes), and the first few (yes, repeated) figures in violin and cello sound to me like inhales and exhales. The two other members of the ensemble enter, and the work develops a heartbeat, that pulse, and long high lines for which Glass’s music is known. Some of these repetitive figures move around in the ensemble, but they themselves don’t change much. It’s a straightforward, melancholy expansion and contraction, and overall it sounds like water running down a windowpane on a cold, dismal day. Having reached its apex, it decays back down to much the way it began.

The second part is notable for being much crunchier. It’s mechanical, propelled, rhythmic, and this is exactly the kind of writing that Glass is known for. Fans of his film scores might not have ever thought “oh yeah, that’s got principles of Indian music in it” and you can’t really say that, but he was fascinated with ideas of additive rhythms (much like Messiaen) from his exposure to them by Ravi Shankar, so some of the stuff that gives this movement (‘part’) a forward-moving, energetic, strongly rhythmic character is the use of two beats against three, or two vs. three, sudden changes in meter. If you can’t readily observe this, listen to the 110 seconds of the movement and pound out the rhythm on your desk, your knee, your palm, whatever, just a straight tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Within that same tap there will be two accents for some time… then three accents, and while the time between taps hasn’t changed, the underlying rhythm is different, but then there’ll be an extra little value added and you might realize now your taps seem ‘off’. This kind of thing is catchy and grabs the ear and the soul in a special way, but again ends suddenly.

Part 3 brings back some of the inhale/exhale figures of the first part, but now with more spirit, some more life, slightly brighter. You can see now why the word ‘monochromatic’ is fitting, right? There seem to be elements here from both of the previous two movements, but there are also glimpses of the biggest, most ‘together’, in-step towering (almost) whole-ensemble chords in the entire work, and the sound mighty when contrasted with the rest of the writing. There seems maybe to be a different kind of dialogue developing with some instruments in unison, but again, the plug on this movement gets pulled and it slows to a silence.

The fourth movement is the only one I can hear as maybe having any kind of ‘structure’ but even then it’s just a contrast between softer and more angular rhythmic sections (play the tapping game again to get an idea how the accents shift and change), and just like that the piece is done. When I say abrupt, it’s not that there’s a sudden, crisp end, like the end of a Mahler symphony with a commanding, final bang, but abrupt, like you’re listening to music with your eyes closed and someone walks into the room and just turns the volume knob to zero like they’d turn off a faucet. That’s it.

While I will admit this piece is an enjoyable little morsel to listen to, I am less convinced of its staying power even than the first quartet… maybe. I say this with the greatest respect, and a real intrigue, a kind of fascination with his earlier music, and even this stuff, but… the most straightforward, genuine way I could describe the depth and power of these four little sections that make up this quartet is to call them… (sorry not sorry) cheap thrills. It’s engaging, intricate, interesting, very atmospheric music, and it captivates, no doubt, but for someone looking to spend time deconstructing a work, finding meaning in it, pleasure and emotion from different angles, I don’t know how much this kind of music has to offer.

That being said, it’s popular and successful for a reason: there’s an immediacy to it, a sort of underlying intensity that grabs you along for a short but thrilling little ride, and people like that, and that aside, it’s phenomenal music to pair with beautiful, gripping scenery, a compelling story like The Hours or Secret Window or a long list of others. And for whatever I’ve said about the piece(s) that may sound negative, I sure as hell couldn’t write anything like it, so I do appreciate it. Think of it like a roller coaster though. The first time you ride it, it’s a breathtaking, mind-blowing thrill, and similarly the next few times, but how many times do you have to ride it before it starts to get repetitive? You know the turns, the drops, the whirls. But even then there’s a sense of familiarity that’s endearing. It’s just that maybe that initial thrill will never be there again, and if that’s what you’re relying on….

Stay tuned for two more of Glass’s much more modern works in the next few d

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2 thoughts on “Glass String Quartet no. 2, ‘Company’

  1. Found your blog when I was Google searching some ideas in writing a programme note for this piece. I must say – you have got a wonderful blog! Sending my appreciation and thanks all the way from Malaysia!

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