Repetitive Mystique: Appreciating the String Music of Philip Glass

For conservatory-trained string players who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, a new score from Philip Glass could be met with a wary eye. In the past 15 years, however, Glass has produced a spate of solo string works that has won him new converts.

By Brian Wise | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

For conservatory-trained string players who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, a new score from Philip Glass could be met with a wary eye. Sure, he cast a bewigged violinist as the title character in his landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach. And one of the earliest pieces in his trademark minimalist style was the 1966 String Quartet No. 1—the first of eight quartets to date. But orchestral musicians in particular bemoaned—even outright protested—being assigned to play Glass’ churning, oscillating patterns, while singers, keyboardists, and screened films often seemed to reap the creative glory.

In the past 15 years, however, Glass has produced a spate of solo string works that has won him new converts. Most of these pieces feature traditional forms and often lyrical, reflective moods: the Sonata for Violin and Piano (2008), Violin Concerto No. 2 (2009), Partita for Solo Violin (2010–11), Pendulum for Violin and Piano (2010), and Sarabande in Common Time (2016). There are also two cello concertos, completed in 2001 and 2012, respectively, and two partitas for solo cello, from 2007 and 2010. Other works from the last decade include a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and a Partita for Double Bass.

Even more noteworthy is how the Glass canon is being reimagined. Last summer, Chase Spruill, a San Francisco–area violinist, cast Glass’ Epilogue for Solo Violin as a musical protest over racial injustice. Another violinist, Tim Fain, has reimagined the Partita as Portals, a multimedia project with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. And the UK-based Carducci Quartet has filmed a lockdown-era arrangement of the String Quartet No. 5 with jazz-rock drummer, Cristián Tamblay.

Last summer, Chase Spruill cast Glass’ Epilogue for Solo Violin as a musical protest over racial injustice.

Nicholas Cords, violist in the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, allows that Glass’ music remains divisive in some quarters. “There are some string players out there who just don’t touch it,” says Cords, whose own ensemble recorded the String Quartets Nos. 1–8, an arrangement of the Saxophone Quartet, and other pieces. “There are certainly major symphony orchestras that have never programmed a piece by Philip Glass, and he’s written 12 symphonies. But on the other side, his music does seem to relate to so many other worlds and that’s why it has such a hugely influential voice.”

For those string players looking to take the plunge, where to begin? And what are the leading priorities when it comes to style, technique, and interpretation?

“I would advise anyone, especially with the solo works, to remember: Just because it’s Philip Glass, and the ‘M word’—minimalism—don’t let that take you away from your own emotional investment in the piece,” says Robert McDuffie, who in 2009 premiered Glass’ Second Violin Concerto, The American Four Seasons (based, naturally, on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). McDuffie remembers a time in the 1980s when it was fashionable to dismiss Glass’ music as dull or simplistic. “I was an ignorant, cocky concertmaster of the Juilliard Orchestra,” he says. “He was just a low-hanging fruit for us.”


Philip Glass-by_Steve Pyke
Photo by Steve Pyke

But McDuffie has identified a particularly soulful quality in Glass’ string writing, ever since the mid-2000s. During that period, Glass was romantically linked to cellist Wendy Sutter and dedicated his Partita No. 1 for Solo Cello to her. “There was something he was going through at that time, as he was just writing this really heartfelt string music,” says McDuffie. He cites the rippling slow movement of the Second Violin Concerto, likening it to the icy beauty of winter (Glass heard the same movement as summer and the two ultimately left the interpretation up to audiences).

“There’s an evolution in some of his more recent works, particularly the works for solo strings,” says Fain, who has toured extensively with Glass. “It belies a shift in style toward a more linear form of storytelling in his music.” The Partita for Solo Violin is loosely based on Bach’s solo violin partitas, and includes two chaconnes, though Fain finds its robust expressive contours as closer to Brahms.

“I feel very strongly that one can bring an extremely wide palate of timbres, dynamics, and even flexibility to Philip’s music, particularly the solo violin music that he’s written in the last decade,” Fain says. “Philip rarely writes dynamics below piano and above forte. But there are moments, particularly in the Chaconne No. 2, when I’m hard-pressed to think of another work from the repertoire that I would be playing as fully.” (Fain plans to livestream an all-Glass recital from his current home in Montana sometime later this spring.)

Glass himself began violin lessons at age six, before turning to the piano and the flute two years later. As he recalls in his 2015 memoir, Words Without Music, “for some reason the violin didn’t ‘take,’ which is odd to imagine, given that I’ve written so much string music—solo, quartets, sonatas, symphonies—since then.” He continues, “Though I never became a decent violinist, I learned what I needed to write for the instrument. I’ve always worked closely with string players and feel confident now when I compose for them.”

Another beneficiary of Glass’ latter-day string focus is Matt Haimovitz, who premiered the Partita No. 2 for Solo Cello in 2017 (though the work was written in 2010).  Like McDuffie, he was not an immediate convert, having previously gravitated to knottier works by Webern, Dutilleux, and Ligeti. But seeing the “instinctual” nature of Glass’ craft won him over. He recalls how they jointly pared down parts of the sixth movement of the 35-minute partita. “There are these arpeggios that have a lot of double-stops thrown in,” he says. “It was very much like a very difficult Gruetzmacher étude. As I played for him, he said, ‘I wonder if I should take some of those out?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to complain if you do.’”

Glass’ scores can also present a tricky roadmap for newcomers. Says Haimovitz, “When I first started playing Philip’s music I would forget: ‘Did I do that repeat or did I not? Did I go to the first ending or the second ending?’ Now, I really appreciate it because it sort of helps me with the form.”


String Quartets, ‘Vulnerable and Raw’

Glass has shown a historical awareness of the string quartet, and, not unlike Beethoven or Shostakovich, has turned to the medium as a vehicle for introspection and gravitas. Several works in his catalog have been born out of film or theater music, from the Quartet No. 2 (from incidental music to a production of Beckett’s Company) to a forthcoming Quartet No. 9, which began as the score to a 2019 Broadway production of King Lear.

“There’s something very vulnerable and raw about the quartets,” says Eoin Schmidt-Martin, violist of the Carducci Quartet, which has recorded the first five quartets, along with the String Sextet. Unlike more densely textured works, each player’s individual parts are highly exposed and can reveal even the slightest mistake. But the Carducci has returned to parts of the cycle many times over.

“When we started performing them, some people would say ‘Glass all sounds the same,’ or similar things,” he says. “But actually, each quartet has such an individual personality of its own.” A frequent touchstone is the lush and undulating String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima,” originally composed for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, about the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (the Kronos Quartet plays on the soundtrack). But the biggest challenge may be the Fifth Quartet. “You have a wider range of colors and textures and styles within it,” Schmidt-Martin notes, adding that “there are some quite tricky passages in it.”

Cords, of Brooklyn Rider, also admires the “Mishima” Quartet, but says the hidden gem in the Glass catalog is the String Quartet No. 4, a 1989 score dedicated to Brian Buczak, an artist who died of AIDS. “The second movement is kind of like Glass meets Messiaen,” says Cords. “It just has this sort of inexorable and timeless mystical beauty to it.” He adds that each string quartet makes demands on stamina. “The endurance and the repetitive pattern that you have to get into is kind of a mantra-like.”


Kronos Quartet’s recording of String Quartet No. 4, mvt. II

Endurance Tests

Glass’s repetition-based style has found fewer adherents in orchestral string sections. According to the notes for a 2016 CD set of Glass’ symphonies, the Cleveland Orchestra’s musicians hissed at the composer at the 1987 premiere of The Light; several other major U.S. orchestras have avoided his music entirely. Stylistic or ideological objections aside, there remain fears of repetitive strain injuries among some string players. These have been addressed by staggering passages amongst the desks (a technique that is especially common in opera pits).

Violinist Jennifer Koh remembers portraying the title character in the 2012 revival of Einstein on the Beach. “I was in pain all the time,” she recalls, with a laugh. “I think you just have to invest in it and let yourself go with it.” At some five hours in length, the opera requires the violinist to sit, motionless, on the stage apron for extended stretches before erupting into one of the five, whirlwind “Knee Plays.” “You can’t move at all and then suddenly you play really fast for an hour,” she says. “It’s not like you’re walking on for a normal recital or concerto where you are going to warm up.”

Jennifer Koh reprised her performance as Albert Einstein/violinist in “Knee Play 5” from Einstein on the Beach for the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony in 2018.

While Koh frequently plays a lot of “really thorny stuff” with extended techniques, she enjoys finding variety in Glass’ patterns through varied bowings and colorations, as in the Sarabande in Common Time, which she premiered in 2016. “There’s something really beautiful about going back to that old training,” she says. “You really have to think about how to shape every single note, and how to create a whole world in one phrase.”

Spruill, the California-based violinist, is expected to release the premiere recording of the Sarabande this year. It follows his 2020 video performance of the Epilogue for Solo Violin, drawn from Glass’ score for the 1997 film Bent, and motivated by his intense feelings after the killing of George Floyd, and the racial justice protests that followed. “It came from months of feeling isolated and watching all of these tensions boil over due to these really historical ideas—the original sins of intolerance, injustice, and abuse,” Spruill says. “I didn’t have a lot of words to qualify how I was feeling.”

For Glass, a composer whose music has accompanied Hollywood films, cast-of-hundreds choral works, and operas about Gandhi and Einstein, the solo violin offers a certain, poignant summation of his seven-decade-and-counting career. “It really does feel like late Philip Glass,” says Spruill. “I was hoping to use my imagination, to let it feel a little dark, have a little more rub in it, and not shy away from things that feel like Philip Glass.”