By Carolyn Brown

In Philip Glass’s tenth symphony, the insistent trumpeting of the high tones and the sombre knelling of the low tones conjure scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Alex Grasshof’s Future Shock. The whirlwind acceleration of technology, the unease of globalization, cultures and cities swept away by violence — Glass’s music gives sonic form to the twentieth century.

Glass has been honoured with the 2015 Glenn Gould Prize, presented every two years (originally every three) since 1987. A homage to the Canadian classical pianist, the prize is presented for a life’s work in arts and communications that has improved the human condition. The inaugural winner was R. Murray Shafer, Canadian avant-garde classic composer and theatre innovator. Other recipients have included Leonard Cohen, Yo-Yo Ma, André Previn and Robert Lepage.

The prize presentation was accompanied by a lovingly curated concert of Glass’s work on November 26, 2016, at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. The program featured two piano études performed by Simone Dinnerstein, who has the technical virtuosity to handle Glass’s fast, complex, repeated phrases, as well as a feel for his message. Étude six ended mid-phrase, unresolved — like most of Glass’s music — voicing an existential anxiety.

Matt Haimovitz played Glass’s overture for solo cello commissioned by Haimovitz to introduce Bach’s prelude from Suite No. 1, the first unmistakably modern, the second fixed in time. Playing them together made a comparison between the two — both about the human condition, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.” The NAC orchestra played the entire eighth symphony and the fifth movement of the tenth. There was also a piece composed by Timo Andres, a young pianist and composer whom Glass has selected as a protégé (although his music is more John Cage than Philip Glass).

Glass himself did not play, but chatted, listened from the front box, rose to accept the applause after his works, and was generous, gracious and humorous.

Unexpectedly, Petula Clark — yes, the singer who recorded “Downtown” when I was a toddler and still looks fabulous at age 84 — appeared as master of ceremonies. It turned out there was a reason: Clark was one of the ten-member jury who selected Glass for the prize. She joked that she wasn’t going to sing “Downtown,” but she did sing Glass’s “Streets of Berlin.” Clark’s memorable voice and the Weimar Republic strains of the song added to the overwhelming sense of retrospection on the twentieth century.

More than thirty years ago, twentieth-century modernism was my entrée to Glass’s work. Like many of my student friends, I first became acquainted with Glass through his soundtrack to the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. That soundtrack got a lot of airplay on campus radio, but nowhere else. My friends adored Glass’s signature style, which seemed to defy genre and be out of step with the development of classical or popular music. However, Glass’s work does come out of influences and traditions, just different ones.

My knowledgeable colleagues did radio programs on the “minimal music” created by Glass and his contemporaries, such as Steve Reich. Reich used tape loops to create phasing patterns, both with music and recorded voice, before sampling and remixing were known. Reich was an influence on Glass, as was John Adams’ Shaker Loops, a 1978 composition using repeated loops of oscillations on stringed instruments, inspired by the ecstatic dancing of early US religious sect the Shakers or Shaking Quakers. Think also of John Cage, composer and music theorist, who experimented with altering the sound of traditional instruments such as the piano, as well as with non-traditional sources of sound.

Glass took some of these influences in his own direction. Unlike most modern serious music, his work is tonal. Unlike most chamber or orchestral music, his music has its roots in technology and electronic forms. Its mesmerizing repetitions and rhythms seem to layer time signatures and keys. It is completely original, yet feels familiar.

Glass’s final words to his audience at the NAC were that he intends to keep working for a long time. In January, he turns 80, so the unspoken truth is, of course, that at that age one’s time on earth becomes limited. The difficulty for awards such as the Glenn Gould prize is to honour lifetime achievements before the lifetime ends. There was an upwelling of sorrow from the audience when Leonard Cohen was mentioned and when British actor Alan Rickman’s recorded voice narrated a short background video on the prize. The world they lived in, that Glass captured in his music — its fervour and its alienation — is starting to disappear.

Photo credit: By WNYC New York Public Radio – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0