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Sunday 1 December 2013

Satyagraha at ENO


Of the American minimalists, Glass is the composer with the least native talent perhaps, but he is the one with the most unmistakable musical profile. Where Reich and Riley have continued to explore and develop their particular musical interests over the past half century, each producing a varied and wide ranging oeuvre, Glass has stuck steadfastly and virtually exclusively to his energetic yet static arpeggiated diatonic chords. Glass's music inspires bafflement, tedium and disgust in many listeners, and is with some regularity (and not unfairly) accused of mindlessness, banality and extreme poverty of invention. But to do this is to miss the point and ask of the music something which it is patently not trying to achieve. He is not interested in refining, or improving, or developing - either within each piece, or within his oeuvre as a whole. Unconcerned also with technical felicity, his orchestration is just as clumsy now as it was in the beginning of his career, his ear for instrumental colour crude and unnuanced. Similar things could be said for his harmony, melodic invention and rhythmic sense. This is all moot. His music cannot be adequately criticised in conventional terms because it is manifestly not playing the same game as most classical music. An interesting case.

The minimalist composer Tom Johnson said that his composition teacher Morton Feldman had encouraged him in the late 60s to "start with notes". This idea, expressed as it was during/after the avant guard of the 1950s and 60s, was first an encouragement to make "notes" rather than "sounds" the foundation of music (as Johnson fascinatingly goes on to explain, notes are precise and objective entities, while sounds are entirely subjective and unrepeatable phenomena). But Feldman's exhortation is also an encouragement to make aural phenomena rather than ideas the starting point of musical composition. In contrast to this view, Feldman's closest composer friend, John Cage, represents the extreme aesthetic stand point of music being the expression or working out of an intellectual idea. In many instances, the entire content, meaning, form and interest of a piece by Cage is the intellectual idea and the subsequent aural events of the piece are almost incidental and uninteresting by comparison. Glass is the opposite end of this spectrum. This is not to say that Glass's music is totally abstract, without influence from the world of ideas - the influences and musical concerns, however simple, are obvious, unconcealed and undigested. But these never become the point of music, never affect its fundamental style, are never inherent in the intrinsic "meaning" of the notes, and by extension of the total work. For all its unmistakable character and single minded hammering, his music is astonishingly bland and unsuggestive psychologically and intellectually - there's no sense of him ever trying to depict striving, seduction, sorrowing, or any other abstract noun that music has the power to so strongly suggest in us.

Rather than intellectual ideas then, his music comes at us as an exploration and celebration of the most fundamental aspects of music. Chief amongst these is the diatonic chord. Harmonic tension and therefore progression exists only as an insubstantial ghost in the background of this music, as does tonal development and therefore traditional structure. Diatonic (usually triadic) chords become abstracted entities, entirely non functional as harmony, repeated and expanded to such lengths as to allow us to fully hear every aspect of them. There is no rhythmic interest in the sense that rhythm might be explored as an expressive parameter (as it is by say Stravinsky, Messiaen or Reich), but the music's pulsating, throbbing repetition is celebrated for its particular feeling, the pleasure of it simple yet powerful. Pop music in all its guises and varieties represents a superb vindication of the power and overwhelming popularity of the physical and sexual power of strong regular pulse.

Part of the problem of Glass's oeuvre is that his music is performed in the context of classical music venues, when in actual fact its aesthetic is closer in technique, intent and effect to club music than it is to anything in the canon of classical music (Western Art music, call it what you will). If it doesn't on its own induce a mind transcendent ecstasy in every listener, then it might be heard to best effect, or "make most sense" as it were, in the context of taking ecstasy, MDMA or a favourite mind altering narcotic. This is not a glib suggestion, nor a slight on the music, merely a statement of fact deriving from the aspects discussed above as well as from the music's origins in non western trance music, its similarity to western "trance" music (not just the specific genre that that implies), and the cultural context of 60s/70s liberal America in which his style crystallised.

Onto the opera at hand. It's a bit of a misnomer to call Satyagraha an opera. There's an orchestra, choir and soloists in costume surrounded by a set, but other than the physical facts of what lies in front of the audience, there are few things that link the experience of seeing it to what we expect from standard operatic fair. There is no plot as such, no dialogue, no characterisation. One would be hard pressed to tell that the singer who portrays Ghandi was Ghandi were it not for the trademark glasses and skimpy white get up. Instead the work proceeds as a series of tableaux each based around a single intellectual and musical idea. The audience is invited to fill these vast, empty spaces with what they want or need from the music - listening becomes an act of collaboration. In a Wagner opera, everything is given to us - plot, character, subject are all embodied in the music, a meaning attached to and inherent in every musical phrase - to large extent his operas come pre-interpreted for us. The audience must submit themselves to it and accept what they are presented with if they are to experience the work in the fullest way possible. Debussy, the reluctant Wagnerian, in Pelléas et Mélisande produced an opera that is a distillation of etiolation, thinness, emptiness, which requires the exact opposite of its audience. We need to be fully engaged with ourselves when we watch his opera and fill in the blanks with our own meanings, psychology, in a word, ourselves. According to Robin Holloway, it is this that gives this frigid work its elusive but strangely moving character. Perhaps surprisingly, the Dionysian Glass is an ally of Debussy in this moving a step further along this road towards poverty of material, by providing only a title and vaguest of subject matters - there is no dramatic situation, character - and almost no musical content*. Glass does not even provide a language we can hold onto. The libretto is in Sanskrit, and as it was composed in 1980, before the age of surtitles, we can safely assume that Glass isn't particularly concerned about whether we understand the words or not, since Sanskrit is hardly common currency in the venues the opera is likely to be performed in.** Effectively, the listener is given carte blanche to imagine anything they like whilst watching the opera, and since the music is almost devoid of surface interest we are given the space and time to reflect on the images we are presented with, and the broad subject matter at hand.

All this makes the opera either a gift or a real challenge for a director, depending on one's point of view. The director becomes as much a collaborator as an interpreter. Director Phelim McDermott has worked with Designer Julian Crouch to create a compelling version of the piece, visually strong yet ambiguous enough, and never pushing the music to do something which it can't support. Costumes are Edwardian and so of the "correct" period for the opera, but sets and action remain steadfastly symbolic, everyone moving in slow motion. There is no psychological action, and the text, projected into the set, is all aphoristic in character. Deriving from the Baghavad Gita, the text is sometimes put by Glass to embarrassingly jejune political use - the capitalists of Act II are a ludicrous caricature. Similarly the morality that the text espouses is all part of the horrendously repressive, socially controlling nature of the caste system that was a necessary principle for the founding of Hinduism. Abstract battle scenes are presented on stage with huge puppets, but the idea of non violent protest (which is part of the meaning of the word Satyagraha) isn't clearly presented. Figures emerge from sellotape and newspaper, the latter a recurrent motif of the show. One particularly memorable image is a recycling waterfall of newspaper (see top image above). The point is, none of these things have fixed meanings, but merely produce suggestions, things to contemplate as visual or symbolic phenomena. The final tableau is quite beautiful - a clouded sky, video projected, with a black man preaching from a great height to an imagined crowd with his back to us (presumably Martin Luther King rather than Malcolm X in the context of the word Satyagraha). The rising scalic figure that Ghandi sings is perhaps the work's most beautiful and hopeful musical idea. In a work of this size and sort, one can't avoid being bored occasionally, but it should be much more boring than it is here. I personally don't respond to Glass's music or ideas very strongly, so I didn't much enjoy the experience as a whole, but this is a very decent production of this piece.

The musical performance is basically good. For all its simplicity, this music is deceptively challenging to sing and play - the stamina required to execute identical music figures again and again (each iteration of course constantly inviting direct comparison to the last) and the presence of mind to count huge numbers of bars are challenges taken to excruciating extremes here. Alan Oke is mixed as Ghandi, clearly committed, but he took too long to warm up during his first scene, singing out of tune in both of his extended monologues. Intonation is even dicier for one of the sopranos, painfully flat in each successive repetition, ruining a couple of sequences, the singer apparently unable to hear or correct the problem***. Most of the cast sing accurately however, which is the most that can be asked of this music, eschewing as it does opportunities for expressive affekt. Conductor Stuart Stratford keeps things under control most of the time, and doesn't try to make the music more interesting via dynamic contrast or sharpening the aural surface - which is either a good or a bad thing depending on what you want! The orchestra do an astonishing job stamina wise, showing no evidence of tiring at all throughout the evening.

Photos (c) Tristram Kenton, Clive Barda, Alastair Muir

*Of course in aural effect, music more different than Debussy's fragrant, subtle, shimmering evanescence, and Glass's propulsive, vulgar, primary colour solidity is hard to imagine.
**Further evidence of this attitude: Ghandi in fact spoke English in South Africa where the "action" of the opera is "set" - Glass is not interested in representing history or characters here).
***cf. Michael Jackson in Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Anita Ward in Ring My Bell.


  1. Yo. It’s cool to actually read a thoughtful and sincere review of this coming from someone who fundamentally doesn’t like the work/composer, rather than the usual distaste and dismissiveness (although you get some in!) or, from my corner, bland praise (something which I can be guilty of as a Glass apologist, as it’s hard to make a nuanced apologia against monolithic contempt, and I’m lazy). As such there’s probably not a lot of point me trying to advocate much for the music, but I had a few thoughts in response to this jolly good review.

    I could advocate in a bit of detail about more harmonic and rhythmic interest in this score than you might have heard (be it first time, or be it for non-ideal acoustics, whevs) – I shan’t ask you to get hold of a recording as I’m sure there’s a more worthy queue of stuff to get through, but for instance, “Act” II “Scene” iii (lol) makes a strong (very, very simple, but strong) harmonic argument, with the rhythmic vitality of the 60s and 70s works more to the fore; “Act” I “Scene” iii (etc.) is refreshing and forthright in harmony, melody and rhythm to my jaundiced ears…etc. We’re not going to agree, and that’s probably allowed.

    More onto the production – and I don’t think you’re onto a winner if, having noted how Satyagraha specifically, and Glass generally, can’t be judged by the familiar operatic/western art music (gah) metrics, you leap into comparisons with the very best of the latter, i.e. Wagner and (❤) Pelléas! Obvs judge on whatsoever metric pleases you, but I doubt it’s a way to make your evening any shorter…

    Two specific points on which we disagree for probably not the reasons you expect (or might have any interest in): your grudging enjoyment (!) of the final “King” tableau, and distaste for the capitalists of Act II. To me it’s the former that borders on the naïve and possibly dangerous, and unless I’m going mad this is because of tweaks in the production (you’ll be horrified that this was my 4th visit: 3 at ENO, and one at the Met…): cringing at the (I’m sure) new gesture of Gandhi reaching towards the future MLK – turning an already too-neat image into one I think patronising of both their individual legacies, and imposing strongly a Great Men Who Change Things idea on an opera already in danger of it (as is any biography, however loose). After all, it’s called Satyagraha, not Mohandas K Gandhi, etc. The capitalists have also been tweaked: I don’t recall the Clown colours in previous productions – previously sticking to more conservative suits, a much more austere (ha) and infuriating image, and, to me, musical gesture (hahahahahahahahaetc) of the utter intractability, smugness and inevitable auto-cannibalisation of the immovable ultra-moneyed – not often something seen on opera stages in London and New York, our epicentres of mad greed. I wonder at the change (if it exists?): perhaps production getting too excited at their clash with Occupy at the Met in 2011, and deciding to jazz it up a bit, or maybe neutering the image because it’s too good. I enjoyed “it should be much more boring than it is here” – it’s a slippery slope……

    Can’t argue with your musical paragraph, although Stuart Stratford did add some things I haven’t heard before, which wasn’t expected (or even necessary?). Interestingly I have the NYCO recording on now and it’s much, much more synth heavy in the mix, which I barely heard in the Coli. Not sure I have a firm preference. And yes, heroic from the orchestra (and chorus tighter than I’ve previously heard).

    Just thoughts – I’m pretty CofE in my Glass-liking: large and probably important bits of it I can pretty much do without (see: God in this analogy?), but occasionally he hits on something v important and original which I think is worth looking a bit silly for (see: choral tradition?)
    Cheers cheers

    ( / )

  2. Thanks for your amusing, thoughtful comment! Much to think about. Responses in no logical order:

    The comparison with Debussy is only because they are the apogee of German and Franco-Russian traditions, pointing out that Glass is a member of the latter, even although his dionysian surge is closer in impulse to Wagner's artistic animus. Of course in all particulars Glass is nothing like either!

    Isn't "Great Men Who Change Things" basically the subtitle of the triptych of Glass operas that Satyagraha is the middle panel of (flanked by Einstein and Akhnaten)?

    I don't like the capitalists section because it's so crude - these tend to be people who think of themselves as basically good guys who work hard and provide a valuable service to society by day and then deserve to let off steam with luxuries by night. These critical words would be effective coming from a 5 year old's mouth (being told that shit is shit by a child somehow seems to bring things home to people - aged 4 my brother caused a woman to give up cigarettes simply by informing her that cigarettes in fact give cancer) but not from so bourgeois an art form as opera. The artform simply wouldn't be what it is without the continued patronage of the mega wealthy over the last 4 centuries. Additionally, what it's being contrasted with in this opera is no more appealing to me - Hinduism was a superb thing for the British Empire and really assisted British control for a long time - part of Ghandi's greatness was that he could transcend it.

    Glass on CD is a very different thing - sound engineers can balance things artificially to get something more effective than the dull fuzz of Glass's orchestration in real acoustics. This opera, is a much more enjoyable listening experience on CD I find. I also heard virtually no synths in the ENO.

    Thanks again for the comment - interesting to read, and sorry for cursory response - v busy at the moment.

  3. Incidentally, this is my favourite Glass piece.

  4. Fair to disagree about the capitalists - although I'd see a difference between hard-working people (pace David Cameron) and Raj ruling class/modern day oligarchy. But a political point on which we may not agree. Problem of aristo/bourgeois/state/oligarch funding of art is obvs as old as art itself but surely a tension worth exploring (& better - see similar failings in The Perfect American) than leaving out for fear of biting-the-hand-that-feeds, etc? Off the top of my head, Prologue of Ariadne stands out as an obvious one, although obviously a comedic treatment (a serious treatment might just be artistic navel-gazing, of course, but we love a bit of that)

    I think it's still tricky to want to place Glass in either German or Franco-Russian molds - although I agree on driving principals of sonority & timbral novelty, America sorta has it's own voice, no? Even if it might be brash/vulgar (or occasionally saccharine and sentimental - which your favourite piece of Glass would err on the side of for my tastes!)

    The NYCO recording seems to be a v deliberate choice to up-front the synths though, which is an interesting one: on the Met broadcast, in which they presumably have a fair bit of production control, it's much more orchestra-heavy - different choices rather than an one a studio ideal I think.

    "Great Men", your point about structural use of the caste system (although it would be fair to say that caste system =/= all Hinduism, surely?), along with Gandhi not being a saint in every respect, are wider problems with the piece, and why the balance of abstraction is an important one needing discussion in the work and the production. Weird for Glass as a textbook post-Modernist (whatever he describes himself as - "Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist") to go in for an abstracted version of 19th Century English Boarding School history: "Akhnaten, Gandhi and Einstein - three men who revolutionized the thoughts and events of their times through the power of an inner vision", as he writes. Perhaps, if only to annoy Rupert Christiansen, ENO should follow Glass's suggestion: "Should the three operas be performed within a fairly narrow time span (within the same week, for example), I believe their internal connection will become increasingly obvious and provide the audience with a coherent musical and theatrical experience". mmmmmmm.......

  5. PS no reply needed, unless something seems particularly egregiously silly: I am fully neglecting important stuff to write about Philip Glass, AGAIN. Perhaps a New Year's Resolution in order.

  6. Though by no means a monolith, I see the American composers very much as an appendage of the Franco-Russian school - the fact that so many of them studied with Boulanger in Paris is a clue, and most in the 30s-50s (and up to 70s even for many of them) were very Stravinsky inspired neoclassicists (though with nostalgic, sentimental strains as you say), then the adoption of serialism only when Stravinsky and the French started using it seriously (when it became "de-Germanised" after the war). The minimalists slot in here too I think - the lack of forward motion or development, musical "thinness", senses rather than intellect. Glass and Satie make for a telling comparison - not close in manners, but there's a vacuity of Teutonic logic in both which is fundamental. By the time of minimalism, Teutonic music had been gradually crumbling for half a century of course and French-Russian rising and rising in that time, so there was a less obvious antithesis between the camps. I realise that what I'm saying looks somewhat contradictory - maybe it needs more thought - minimalism as a reaction to American (French) serialism, but remaining in the French (American) tradition - but there's a feeling I think from these composers that music has been poisoned by that sort of thought in the Amfortesian guilt of post war Europe, and artificially implanted into American music where it doesn't make sense, hence a stripping back to the essentials of music (i.e. diatonicism, regular pulse) and eschewal of meaning-loaded, representational music - back to Satie, early Stravinsky, drumming, non western music, non linear thinking etc.

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