Music For Writers: Seeing Through Philip Glass

Image - iStockphoto: NengLoveYou
Image – iStockphoto: NengLoveYou

‘The Trouble With My Career’

 Once when I interviewed Philip Glass, he told me:

The trouble with my career is I’m finally doing what I want to do. And the reason it’s a problem is that I’m doing it all day long and don’t have time to do anything else.

And maybe the most remarkable thing about pianist Maki Namekawa’s new recording of all 20 Philip Glass études is the sudden clarity with which her authoritative sensibility outlines just what he meant by having no time for anything else.

Speaking to me then for, he said:

You spend your whole life pining for the moment when you can play as much music as you want to, and write as much as you want to, and interact and collaborate with anyone you want to, practically — and it’s taken me 40 years to get to this point from the time I was a student — and the trouble with it is that it’s a very demanding but very exciting life.

If this is what “be careful what you ask for” sounds like,” I’ll have what Glass is having.

Glass cover artAnd if you’re in New York City this weekend (December 5 and 6), you may want to consider the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival presentation of the full canon, which features not only Namekawa but also Q2 Music stalwarts Nico Muhly and Timo Andres, as well as Bruce Levingston; Sally Whitwell; Anton Batagov; Aaron Diehl; Tania León; Jenny Lin; and Glass himself. More information is here.

Through the Album of the Week series — from New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music — we’ve been listening to a remarkable tracing of the arc of Glass’ celebrated voice.

As Daniel Stephen Johnson reminds us at Q2 Music, Glass started creating this bravura set of works in 1994, in part as an exercise for his own artistry: he wanted to become a better pianist.

Pianist Namekawa, however, points out that Études 1 through 6 “were written for Dennis Russell Davies, my husband, on his 50th birthday in 1994.” Davies, as noted in this article from Q2 Music on Glass’ Naqoiqatsi, has championed Glass’ work in some of his most ambitious premieres and most lasting work.

Namekawa tells me:

Philip gradually added to these pieces over the years, seeking to develop his own piano skills, but more in importantly using these “studies” to solve a compositional problem.
That is why each piece needs to be approached on its own merits.

Johnson draws the line between the first and second ten pieces, the latter group both technically and conceptually advanced to a shimmering level of mastery probably beyond what the composer’s performance capabilities can handle.

And that’s why one wants Namekawa at the keyboard. She tells me:

Having known Philip through my husband personally for more than 10 years and having played and recorded much of his piano music, I feel comfortable when I meet a new work.

Thanks to that comfort with which she can approach the composer’s materialPhilip Glass: The Complete Piano Études  from Glass’ Orange Mountain Music is important as music for writers for several reasons.

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By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Seeing Through Philip Glass

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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