Clear as Glass (Philip, 80 proof)

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Philip Glass. The protean composer will be at UNC-Chapel Hill for several days during the Glass at 80 festival organized by CPA. Photo: Raymond Meier.

 

Before I tell you about the two wonderful performances I saw this past weekend, I want to make sure you know about the 10-day series of performances honoring composer Philip Glass on his 80th birthday. Beginning Wednesday, February 1, and extending to February 10, this remarkably varied series and its accompanying events and exhibitions could only be brought to you by a major university. While this festival will not be as extensive as the stupendous year focused on The Rite of Spring, it has the very great merit of engaging with the work of a magnificent composer who is still with us–its an aural retrospective for a living artist, and a chance to hear not only his music, but what he himself has to say about it.

Very few arts aficionados will be unaware of Glass’s work in a range of forms: Movies, check. Operas, check. String quartets, check. Orchestral music, check. Dance, check. Weird experimental stuff, check. Carolina Performing Arts will be offering some of each during Glass at 80. I was unable to choose among them, so I expect to be Glassy-eyed by Feb.11.

If I did have to choose just one, it would be the re-creation of Dance, made in 1979 by choreographer Lucinda Childs, visual artist Sol LeWitt, and Philip Glass. Each artist worked in a modular manner, making complexity out of simple, repeating marks, motions and structures. Before live motion-capture video was a thing, LeWitt made a black and white film of Childs’ dancers to project at huge scale behind the live dancers in motion among his painted lines on the stage floor–motion synchronous with Glass’ music (rather than asynchronous in the manner of Cunningham and Cage). The Lucinda Childs Dance Company will perform this historically important work in Memorial Hall Feb. 7. This work may slay any ideas you may have about minimalist art lacking humanism.

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A moment from Dance, by Lucinda Childs, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Photo: Sally Cohn.

 

But then again, it might be Words and Music in Two Parts, the first major collaboration between Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson! and Philip Glass! with the Philip Glass Ensemble! Only the artists know what will happen in this–it will be brand new on Feb. 10. Prepare to be tranced and entranced by two of the most brilliant experimental artists of our time.

But there is also an evening featuring the complete set of piano etudes by Glass–performed by 10 superb pianists, including Glass himself. This is a form that gets the listener right to the heart of the composer. UNC’s Clara Yang will also perform. This one will take place in the newly renovated and acoustically pleasing Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall.

Since I didn’t choose, I’ll be plunging into this aural indulgence with an all-Glass program by the Bruckner Orchester Linz on Feb. 1. The program will include a tone poem, Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1, and his Symphony No. 11–obviously, he has survived the 9th symphony curse. Two days later comes the Heroes Tribute: the UNC Symphony will play Glass’ Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” inspired by the music of Brian Eno and David Bowie; then a roster of Merge Records artists will play their versions of pieces from David Bowie’s Heroes album. This is how art rolls on into the future, and pulls the past with it.

Another example of that rolling creative circle will be the performance of Glass’s Dracula by the Kronos Quartet as the great silent film with Bela Lugosi is screened behind them in Memorial Hall on Feb. 9. Glass was commissioned to write the score when the Tod Browning film (1931) was restored in 1998. It will be particularly interesting to see and hear this after seeing Dance two days previously.

And if that’s not enough, check out the various talks, including one by Glass and another by Glass and Laurie Anderson, and the related exhibition at the Ackland Art Museum, which features, among other works, two portraits of Glass by his friend Chuck Close. All the details at glassat80.org.

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Dracula, with the Kronos Quartet. Photo: Didier Dorval.

In a Storm of Fragments with the Kronos Quartet, at UNC

The composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Photo: Biljana Ustic.

The composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Photo: Biljana Ustic.

 

Carolina Performing Arts has just presented a ferociously affective program by the Kronos Quartet–which, I regret to inform you, will not repeat in Memorial Hall. You will have to travel to hear and see the two linked works by Aleksandra Vrebalov, with film by Bill Morrison. Prelude to a Black Hole, and Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 were included in CPA’s World War I Centenary Project, but Vrebalov’s intense musical collage about that war is relevant to the consideration of any war–or the perpetual war in which we now live.

Vrebalov was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1970, but left Serbia in 1995. She must know quite a bit about war, both WWI and more recent horrors. She’s composed for Kronos before; their styles mesh very well. From the menace behind the resonant strings, to the explosive pizzicato, the relentless appetite for repetition, the controlled surges of power, the exquisite interludes of unexpected beauty and fervent sensuality–the quartet gave this rather brainy music an overpowering muscular force, a vitality, that underlined the stupidity of its deathless subject.

Prelude to a Black Hole combines recorded music from the period with the quartet’s playing of musical selections written around the time of the “Great War,” and some ancient and traditional tunes. Sometimes the two alternated, sometimes the quartet played on top of the recording. It was eerie, the past bleeding through into the now. Just as the gorgeous sonorities of the Kronos musicians were about to sweep you away, the composer snapped you back to remembrance of wreckage, change and death. As interesting as it was on its own, Prelude to a Black Hole was also a prelude to a much more powerful piece of music.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918, written for the Kronos Quartet, is described as “a new work for quartet with film.”  It also included recorded sound, but here the live playing rolled over those sounds like a tank brigade. The film was made by piecing images from period films and linking them visually to the sounds and rhythms of the music. The original film, 100 years old, had badly deteriorated, and the resulting new film is highly expressionistic. From aural and visual bits and pieces, the music and film reap the whirlwind of war. The film–glimpses of cavalry and tanks, ravaged country and wrecked cities, soldiers and nurses, dirigibles and aeroplanes, dissolved between stretches of ruined filmstock–greatly augmented the experience of hearing the music–but the music would be whole without the film, whereas the film would not stand on its own. Together, however, they comprise a successful 21st century version of the total work of art.

Upcoming at CPA, in the WWI Centenary Project, is Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, op. 66, dedicated by him to four of his friends killed during WWI. The March 5 concert will feature soprano Christine Goerke, Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, Nathan Gunn, baritone, and the UNC Symphony and the Carolina Choir. And in the field of new music for quartet, March 28 will see the return of the wonderful Brooklyn Rider quartet, with a fantastic program from a variety of contemporary composers.

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