Friday, February 03, 2012

Breaking Through: Philip Glass and Maybe Minimalism

This week Philip Glass celebrates his 75th birthday.  In a most interesting interview with his second cousin Ira, he explains, "It's not how you find your voice, but how you get rid of the damn thing... "

I first experienced Glass in a college music class that offered an uncreative listening format of brief lectures followed by corresponding music samples.  Sitting through Minimalism, 12-tone theory, and the like had zero appeal to my frazzled spirit.

I had barely survived creating my composition for this module in another class, shutting myself inside a piano practice room for the weekend to get it done.  Now I know the immense value of composing and performing "live" your own piece for each style we studied, an element I embrace and employ in my own teaching / coaching today.  But at the time it was an exercise in insanity -- I had very limited time then to appreciate the assignment as a way to learn the music from the inside out, truly absorb it, through an intensely personalized process.

Fortunately this time, we were able to play a pre-recorded version of our piece instead of perform it live.  My aggravation shone through in the title I selected.  "This is called S.O.S," I told the class simply, enjoying that it could be interpreted whatever way the listener chose.

A classmate who knew my angst slowly smiled and asked what that stood for.  I stared at him, stood a little straighter, and delivered.  "S.O.S. stands for Same Old Shit."  Snickers ran around the room as I pressed "Play" to share the angry solo piano recording I had probably made only 12 to 48 hours before.  That class included written critiques.  My classmate's: "Well, it didn't sound like shit to me."  My professor's: "I hope 'S.O.S.' isn't the way you really feel -- you do good work as I've said before and I've really enjoyed having you in class."

But back to Philip Glass.

Armed with all my baggage and preconceptions, I braced myself for our listening session.  And then, there it was -- loud and clear and jarring, the frenetically perfect musical example of my life as I knew it.

I have no idea how the professor introduced or explained this musical sample -- I could only feel the class recoil at the maddeningly repetitive nature and the sheer volume and never-ending layers that cascaded over us.  "Can you hear when one element is shifting, an instrument, a rhythm, one note in the melody?" he offered.  "NO!" The class screamed.  "What IS this?!? Make it stop!"

And then there I was, maybe wearing yellow, staring hard at the wall, dead silent and solid, mentally pushing everyone and their noise away, Shut Up! Yes I can hear it! FEEL it! Let me listen! Do NOT stop!

I was riveted.
I couldn't wait to get inside it.

listen listen LISTEN don't you hear?!?? - this is life, this pulsating hypnotic incessant NOISE, this pounding pulsing driving insistent forcing of rhythm and melody - this pattern, over and over and over again, sustained tones that do not go away - what bravery to capture the human condition like this, to be with it, over and over and over - how as a listener or performer do you not go deep within it and yourself to find the nuggets, the seeds, the place from where all this expanded and grew?

Yes! Let me IN!

I remember the album cover as pulsing light emanating from a bright white center that both pulled you in and pushed you out.  I can't find that image anywhere now, perhaps I made it up, saw it as it felt.  In my single dorm room I huddled next to the cassette player, closing off everything around me, pushing everything to the side, get and go AWAY, I'm going in.

Overlapping patterns, shifting ever so slightly, in any direction, required my dedicated attention.  Wavering even slightly from an inner focal point rendered it chaos.  Brilliant.  Devastating.

My own life then was exactly like this.  I had created so many layers of existence, and it was a constant fight to not drown -- my journals from then document my mind-bending frustration, isolation, and a strange dependency on the glutinous anchor of schoolwork and a schedule not my own.  Overloaded with credit hours each semester to graduate early with two degrees, in the throes of a full-blown eating disorder, grappling with imploding issues at home, attracting attention from all the wrong places in all the worst ways, I retreated to campus hiding places where I locked myself overnight to hammer out papers and projects, and walked for miles and hours off campus longingly gazing at warm-lit windows of houses where life appeared to be far removed from my daily careening chaos. I had a zillion eyes watching me but none that really saw.

In all the chaos, Glass' music assured, there is a subtle shifting.  The shifting is inevitable -- nothing stays static.  Direction is unknown, but headed somewhere.  Linear doesn't apply, there's no room for it.  Paying attention to what is happening along the way, hyper-aware and sensitive of the pulsing shifts, is the only way through.

That album cover and that music was a musical illustration of hope in a world where I felt I had little to no control.  It was a vivid portrayal of what didn't make sense, and the meta-vision of what did.  In a morass of confusion and overwhelm, choosing one pathway or anchor -- an instrument, a motif, a rhythm -- and following it all the way through, suddenly lifted the veil and revealed a brilliant landscape of incomparable intensity and magnitude that, in a powerfully parental way, demanded focus and reverence.

This is how transformation happens -- to be pulled, by your own volition or not, out of one place and into another, of newness, openness, and expansiveness.  Glass seeks for himself -- and offers to us -- a way "to break out of your own training."  Time and time again I've seen my own students at the harp or piano, all faculties ablaze, hit that white center.  With a little coaching, they usher in small and large transformations and breakthroughs that shape the course of life from that day forward.

The "noise" is begging for you to notice its layers, what lies beneath.  Demand the space and time to grab that glittering end and hold on tight.  You're in for a ride.  Open your eyes.  Get IN this place that is anything but Minimalism -- inside the chaos is immense beauty and light, illuminating both the path you're on and the one you've been searching for.

Happy Birthday, and Thank You, Philip Glass.

What is your transformative "Philip Glass" moment?

Another imperfect post, accompanied by:
Philip Glass excerpts, all recordings listed on his website

Popular posts:



  1. Beautifully captured!

  2. This is rich! You are a superb writer, artist, mentalist, teacher and divine being. I love and treasure you!

  3. Beautiful and powerful. Thank you Trista.