Graphing Glass

A week from today and tomorrow, I’ll be in Amsterdam for the University of Amsterdam’s conference on Phil Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. I’m taking part in a panel discussion January 5, and on the morning of the 6th I’ll give a paper on my analysis of Einstein, the writing of which I am interrupting briefly to make this announcement. My interest is in the intuitive and nonlinear (right-brain) structuring of the piece’s music, which was such a departure from the process-oriented minimalism of previous years. In fact, while it’s easy to see what’s going on in the music, it’s cost me considerable thought and some ingenuity to figure out how to describe it or chart it in some clear way. For each movement (scene) I’m trying to come up with a concise graphic that will encapsulate the relevant details.

For instance, the “Building” scene is a really simple continuum of eighth-notes for two organs in a pentatonic scale, something like Music in Contrary Motion. But the musical logic is not at all linear, and is difficult to spell out. I finally realized that the music can be reduced to four modules:


Of course, the fact that module A is included in module B, and C in D, is part of the apparent micro-complexity. But I figured out I could line up all the repetitive patterns in such a way that one can tell instantly what changes from one pattern to the next (each pattern in repeat signs represented here by one line):


What logic there is becomes evident, I think. The piece begins with the two 3/8 modules (B and D), and in the first half inserts module A in various and changing places. Unlike earlier pieces such as Music in Fifths, the process isn’t additive, but sometimes jumps the added module from one place in the pattern to another. The first half expands with added A’s and then contracts down to just B and D again, and then starts adding in module A at the beginning, and introducing module C toward the end, of each repetition. Then A drops out and it concentrates on BCD for awhile, gradually moving toward an emphasis on the 10/8 pattern ABCD before reducing back to BD at the end. Of course, what one hears are mostly the irregular rhythmic accents made by the highest and lowest repeating notes.

This being a rather formal paper, I once again have the decision to make as to whether to submit it to an academic journal or just publish it here. I like the journal American Music, and have connections with it, but its articles aren’t always accessible on JSTOR, and access is the whole point. Musical Quarterly is terribly slow, taking years between submission and publication. Perspectives of New Music was the prestige music journal of my youth, but while they might publish it for variety’s sake, the editors really seem antipathetic to this kind of music; they tried to slightly sabotage my Well-Tuned Piano article 20 years ago, and I’ve never been tempted to send them anything else. So I have to weigh whether having another résumé line is worth limiting the article’s circulation. Meanwhile, I get a trip to Amsterdam out of it, and there are few places I love more.


  1. says

    “My interest is in the intuitive and nonlinear (right-brain) structuring of the piece’s music”

    I think composers should trust the intuitive part of the brain more. As scientists say several billion super computers would be necessary to get anywhere near the human brain’s power, why do composers not use this resource? Systems and serialism are good techniques but they should be controlled by intuition I believe.

  2. says

    Non-conscious aspects of music and music making are a topic of interest for me. Here’s a quote from an article I posted on sometime back:

    >> Bearer is also a composer who studied with the French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. “She was very, very focused on the musician’s mind,” Bearer says. “To study with Boulanger meant that you learned to use those unconscious parts of your mind that respond to music, that dream of music, and you learn to bring them to the conscious state where you could take a pencil and write them down.”

    Going through the training with Boulanger, Bearer says, “I can say through personal experience that music does not live in the same part of my brain as my science.” <<

  3. says

    I think Glass has always combined systematic and intuitive procedures. Two Pages, for example, consists of a succession of mini-processes, each of them requiring intuitive decisions as to the number of repeats or, say, the maximum number of loops of a segment of the pattern.

    KG replies: Well, everything’s relative. The early pieces contain a lot of partial linear processes, whereas some movements of Einstein are completely without any moments of consistent process at all.

    • says

      What’s interesting is that the music remains compelling in the absence of discernible process, whereas with lesser composers the intuitive construction can end up sounding like noodling. Is it just that Glass makes better choices?

      KG replies: Can’t figure that out.

  4. says

    Really looking forward to the article! Would love to be there for the conference. – Tom Johnson wrote the following in 1981 (in his Voice article ‘Maximalism on the Beach’: “—Yet as I listened once again to those additions and subtractions [in Music in Changing Parts’] I realized that they are actually rather whimsical. Composers like Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, and William Hellermann have written such sequences with much greater rigor. By comparison, Glass is not a reductionist at all but a romantic.”

    KG replies: Nice quote, and Tom has a good ear.

  5. says

    Can’t wait to read that article. I’m not aware of any comprehensive analysis of the piece. Will this be the first?

    KG replies: I haven’t seen another one, but it’s difficult to catch everything. I must say, scholars these days seem infinitely more interested in coming up with some vague, seemingly far-reaching interpretation of a piece according to a critical theory paradigm than they are in just showing how it works.

    • Peter Price says

      Have you looked at Rob Haskin’s work?

      KG replies: Yes. No overlap with mine, as far as I can tell.

  6. MCWittmann says

    Kyle, love your reply to perkustooth. I’m not a musician (just a DJ at my local college station), and my work is in physics education research. I spend an awful lot of time doing microethnography from a phenomenlogical perspective: what did the people involved in this interaction do, how did they do it, and what were the results? Sometimes, “just showing how it works” is shockingly difficult. And, dammit, it’s worthy of publication!

    Thanks for helping us fans of your (and your championed) music get more insight into what’s out there…