Glass String Quartet no. 3, ‘Mishima’

performed by the Smith Quartet, or below by the Kronos Quartet

(cover image by Oskar Krawczyk)

Philip Glass’s third string quartet is in many ways (at least spiritually) related to the second. That work was to be incidental music for an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Company.

As you may know, and as Glass’s memoir elucidates, the composer has a long and very important history with works for theater. In explaining that he’s not a “minimalist composer,” he said “I’m a theater composer.” He continues to describe the importance of the theater:

The theater suddenly puts the composer in an unexpected relationship to his work. As long as you’re just writing symphonies, or quartets, you can rely on the history of music and what you know about the language of music to continue in much the same way… Once you get into the world of theater and you’re referencing all its elements – movement, image, text and music – unexpected things can take place. The composer finds himself unprepared – in a situation where he doesn’t know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new.

That comes from pages 127-128 in the paperback (only?) version.

As a result, before you go any further, I’d like to suggest you take the little amount of time required to hear this piece in full and enjoy it before you read more about it.

He makes a good point, and one that we as listeners may not ever have thought of, all the while likely associating Glass with many scores for modern films, like The Hours, Secret Window, Notes on a Scandal, or even Fantastic Four. But another one of them, likely one you haven’t heard of, is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Directed by Paul Schrader, the “biographical drama film” centers around the life of Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer with quite an interesting life. I can’t really discuss him now, but he was a writer, with an interesting life, who attempted a coup and committed “ritual suicide by seppuku” on November 25, 1970.

The film addresses his life but also intersperses that with dramatic interpretations of some of the author’s works, giving a sort of wider-angle view of the man’s life but also his work and ideas, maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. But Philip Glass composed the music for the film, and this quartet comes from that music. It seems, though, according to Jeremy Grimshaw at AllMusic, that the quartet that stems from the movie is actually only to “accompany the recollections from Mishima’s life, lending them a highly intimate quality,” while other passages from the film use “a large orchestra, reduced to strings for only the outer time frame of the final day.” We only concern ourselves with the actual quartet, though, which is in six movements and lasts around sixteen minutes:

  1. 1957-Award Montage
  2. November 25-Ichigaya
  3. 1934-Grandmother and Kimitake
  4. 1962-Body Building
  5. Blood Oath
  6. Mishima/Closing

Despite the suggestive titles of each movement, though, Grimshaw reminds us that

even though each of the six movements of the concert version of the quartet corresponds with a particular event or person from Mishima’s life, they do not constitute program music so much as assume their own dramatic contour.

The first movement surely sounds familiar enough if you’ve heard almost anything else from Glass. It’s atmospheric, melancholic, minor-key, with its undulating figures and sudden (but still subtle) shifting rhythms and meters. It’s also the longest of the quartet, making up about a quarter of the playing time. It’s easy to appreciate how the music swells and recedes, building to moments of more power, such as when the cello underpins the ensemble with its motion in the lower register, or when all the members lock into step for a few gestures.

The second movement is the shortest, and it’s very much in the same melancholic, pensive space as what came before, but without the energy. It’s almost mournful, but with the same repetitive figures as a backbone. It’s almost an interlude, a single extended exhalation.

What follows this musical sigh is a spirited opening, one of the most outwardly intense moments of the small quartet, and the rest of the movement rests mostly on a very tense build to a few other climaxes similar to the opening, but largely it’s more articulated, aggressive, with more crunch, and some excellent use of dissonance and color. It’s like a train coasting over the tracks below on its way to an important destination, but it abruptly dies away and leads to the fourth movement, another very short gesture.

It’s not somber like the second movement, instead sounding determined, with another great commanding gesture or two and rhythmic intensity. This is classic Glass.

Strangely, though, the fifth movement, titled ‘Blood Oath,’ the one you would thus think to be most violent or cataclysmic, inexplicably has the most bounce, perhaps the most optimistic thing we’ve heard. It has a similar rhythmic drive, but with a spring its step we haven’t heard yet.

The final movement picks up a bit of that bounce, but it’s overshadowed by a breathtaking, beautiful kind of heaving sigh from the violin(s). It’s sentimental, not sorrowful, but nostalgic. There’s similar delightful rhythmic interest, but primarily, above it all, a softness. Like the fourth movement, and like the first and second quartets, the tick-tocking of the rhythms, shifting meters, like gears quietly whizzing away, suddenly just comes to a slow stop, as if someone had unplugged it all.

There’s nothing in this to me, at all, that sounds in the least bit Japanese. There could have been lots of plucked strings or Asian-sounding pentatonic scales, other textural techniques or harmonies, but there wasn’t. I sort of wanted to make the point that American music, what we’ve been discussing for the past five or six weeks, can get its inspiration from many places. We saw it with Gaelic folk song, hymns, jazz, and lots of other stuff. Here’s another one with its basis more in theater or film rather than anything actually Japanese.

But again, all of that aside, this compact little quartet is an enjoyable listen, a little gem with many different facets to appreciate, even (or perhaps especially) removed from the context of the film for which it was written. It’s another excellent example of Glass’s classic vocabulary and musical approach, but also perhaps a bridge of sorts, like the second quartet was, taking his love of, perhaps even reliance on, the theater and making a transition toward more ‘traditional’ forms like symphonies and the rest, which we shall soon see from him.

Before we get to that, though, there is one other thing we’ll see first, a name I’m always excited and intimidated to write about, so do stay tuned for much more modern music from American soil as we reach the end of this series and get close to beginning another one! Thank you for reading.

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