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Weekend Picks: Our Philip Glass Cup Overfloweth

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 21, 2010 5:20PM

2010_10_21_PhilipGlass.JPG Philip Glass is as close to a household name as living composers get these days. He's been referenced in South Park and The Simpsons and made an appearance on The Colbert Report earlier this year. His musical style is immediately identifiable and, just as important to his renown, has pervaded our culture, either through his own numerous and highly visible works (for example, he composed the film scores to Thin Blue Line, Candyman, Kundun, The Truman Show, The Hours, and Fog of War, among others) or through his massive influence (Brian Eno and David Bowie were early devotees).

Glass is one of the patriarchs of minimalism, the style of music, introduced in the 1960s, based on repeating patterns. Minimalism has ties to American music earlier in the 20th century, but was born in the phasing techniques accidentally discovered and purposely developed by Steve Reich in the middle part of the decade. Glass, who knew Reich from their studies at Juilliard, fell in with Reich and began writing his own brand of minimalism.

Minimalism is minimalist like today's political conservatives are conservative: the word is incomplete and somewhat misleading as a descriptor, but most everyone agrees on what it refers to. The music got the name because of its reliance on repeating patterns, but it was revolutionary because of what it wasn't. With its non-narrative structure that lacked traditional development, it was radically different from not just traditional European classical music, but also from the avant-garde that dominated post-WWII contemporary music. It was also the first revolutionary American innovation in classical music. Unapologetically tonal and married to rhythmic pulse, minimalism bears an unmistakable relationship to jazz and rock; it's a genre that could only have originated in the U.S.

Glass's minimalism was influenced by his mid-1960s film score collaboration with Ravi Shankar and Allarakha Khan Qureshi (Zakir Hussain's father). Glass was particularly interested in the rhythmic aspect of Indian music, in which, according to his website, "the Indian musician does not divide a set time value into smaller values (fourth notes, eighth notes, triplets, etc.) but proceeds from a very short rhythmic value, which can be added to at will and thus produce longer values." The result is a hypnotically beautiful, almost meditative, experience. The description of Glass's music, again from his website, is as good as any: "It immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops." Check out this excerpt from what is arguably his greatest piece, his five-hour plot-less 1976 opera "Einstein on the Beach," for a good example of his style.

The music Chicagoans can check out this Sunday will be from a more mature composer (read here for a reflection on whether or not that's a good thing). At the Harris Theater, Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra will perform the Chicago premiere of Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2, "The American Four Seasons," a piece McDuffie commissioned to perform on the same concert as Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." We don't know if it's the use of keyboard in both Vivaldi's and Glass's music or the repetitive and rhythmic nature of each, but the connection feels right, and if anything is going to get us excited to see Vivaldi's 1723 megahit, it's hearing it alongside Glass's take on it.

Across the street at the Cultural Center, newly formed Spektral Quartet will perform a free concert that includes Glass's String Quartet No. 2, "Company" (1983). Accompanied by performances of Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, "Dissonance" (1785), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 5 (1952), it's as diverse a program as Chicago will see this fall. We're excited to hear Spektral, which is comprised of some of the top young players from around town, violinist Aurelien Pederzoli (of Anaphora), J. Austin Wulliman (of dal niente), Doyle Armbrust (also of Anaphora and a classical music correspondent for Time Out Chicago), and Russell Rolen (also of dal niente).

The Venice Baroque Orchestra play at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, $45-$75; Spektral Quartet plays at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, FREE