It has often been said that among composers born in the first half of the last century, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring served as a defining, life-changing work, and that for composers born later it was Terry Riley’s In C. Both of these works left an instant impression on me the first time I heard them—in both cases, on recordings. But I heard In C much later than I heard Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s ballet score was the only work composed in the 20th century on a Reader’s Digest collection called something like “Masterpieces of Classical Music” which I acquired for a pittance in a Salvation Army store in high school, perhaps a year before I actually started collecting recordings in earnest. As a result it was the recording from that set that I listened to the most, almost daily in fact. I spotted the Columbia Masterworks Music of Our Time In C LP in a bin that mostly had classic rock albums at a now defunct Greenwich Village record shop a couple of years later. I instantly identified with it, but by that point I had already heard the music of both Philip Glass (as the result of a PBS TV documentary about him) and Steve Reich (from a WNYC concert broadcast), so the relentless ecstatic repetition of early minimalism was not really surprising to me by that point—in fact, it had already completely insinuated itself into the music I was writing at the time.
Yet, if I were to point to a work that was a defining, life-changing work for me, it would probably be neither Rite of Spring or In C, much as I love them both and still frequently return to them. My big minimalist epiphany was admittedly with the music of Philip Glass I had heard in that TV documentary—snippets from North Star (his soundtrack for the film Mark Di Suvero: Sculptor), Einstein on the Beach, and—I think—Dance 1-5. I tracked down as much of his music as I could almost immediately—it’s what turned me into a record collector—and I managed to find even the now super-rare first pressings of his early pieces on his own label Chatham Square. But while I loved the energy of this music and wanted to find a way to incorporate that euphoria into the music I was writing, I felt that it wasn’t quite my own personal sound world. Then, during my freshman year at Columbia, I attended the American premiere of Satyagraha at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in what was the very first season of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. That was the life-changer. This music had the propulsive excitement of Glass’s earlier music, but it also had something else—a deeply reflective, otherworldly, magical quality that made it seem fragile and monumental at the same time. It was the first time that Glass had composed for an orchestra in his mature style; indeed the first time he had written for people other than his own ensemble, which—since he was not involved in the actual performance—also made it appear more objective somehow, like a third-person novel rather than a first-person memoir. All of the earlier music by Glass that I had heard before Satyagraha had been extremely loud, as assaultive as most heavy metal bands. (I still remember hearing his Ensemble rehearse before one gig I attended halfway down the block from the venue.) Satyagraha, on the other hand, is often quiet and almost always somewhat gentle, even when it builds to forceful climaxes. That such a work could have been created from the compositional language of minimalism proved conclusively to me that this style was capable of expressing anything. And the fact that it was an opera about fighting injustice through pacifism also really said something to me in the year following the United States’ re-instating the military draft—when I attended Satyagraha I was 17 and totally feared registering once I turned 18.
So attending the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Satyagraha on Friday night was a chance for me to relive an extremely important moment in my musical life. (I was unfortunately out of town when the Met revived it in 2008.) I have listened to the recording of Satyagraha countless times since I bought it the day it was released in 1985. (I had to wait four years to hear it again after the BAM premiere even though passages of it—like the final scene’s 30 sung ascending Phrygian scales accompanied by progressively layered counterpoint sequences—never left my consciousness.) But hearing it live is a different experience entirely, especially since it is a work of music theatre. Funnily, there are even a few strictly musical details that had eluded me after all those repeated listenings over the years that came into focus during this second-ever live performance I attended. For example, I was always struck by how the opera has no overture and doesn’t really seem to wrap up at the end, but I realized on Friday that the opera actually begins and ends with the lead role (Gandhi, expertly sung at the Met by tenor Richard Croft) completely unaccompanied. It is subtle (it lasts only about a second at either end), but it is a remarkably poignant musical metaphor for how alone Gandhi was, and how alone anyone with a revolutionary idea ultimately is.
Anyway, sorry if I am overly gushy here, and perhaps even a tad nostalgic as I ponder Satyagraha. The extremely personal relationship I have with this work is probably a relationship I would not be able to have with a work whose history predates my own. Last week I was all incensed about the Obey Thoven marketing campaign and I continue to be slightly irritated whenever I think about it, especially after seeing Satyagraha. It was music by living composers that convinced me that I should take classical music seriously. Though now I treasure Bach and Brahms, they both bored me to tears when I was growing up. We have a real opportunity to prove that classical music can be relevant if we introduce folks to it by showing them that this kind of music is still being created by folks who are amongst us. The audience for Satyagraha was a far younger audience than the audience for Nabucco I was part of two weeks earlier, and the house was even fuller. The standing ovation that Glass received at the end of the performance was one of the most heartwarming things I have witnessed all year—Verdi, great as he may be, would never receive this kind of acknowledgement since he’s no longer around to take a bow. Yet Satyagraha is the only work at the Met this season that was written by a living composer, in fact the only work created within my lifetime. Like the world portrayed in the Godfrey Reggio film that Glass scored a couple of years after Satyagraha—and which the New York Philharmonic played earlier in the week (shockingly the first time the NY Phil had ever performed music by Glass!!!)—this is truly life out of balance.