Origins of “Time Travelers”

Bach v. Glass

 
 

For the second matchup of the Smackdown Series, I was drawn to issues of time. Time as it relates to music that I play, and time as it relates to the composers that I chose.


Often, when I am caught up in a particularly dense piece, I will have the feeling that time has stood still - the music has provided me so much to think about or feelings to explore that I no longer need to move forward, I’m perfectly happy staying in one place. Other times, I find that time has moved forward much more quickly than I had imagined. Either way, I feel that, for a time-based artist (a musician) being able to play with a listener’s sense of time is one of the great powers we wield.


Both Johann Sebastian Bach and Philip Glass have that gift of being able to alter the listener’s sense of time.


The passage of time is also somehow underlined by pairing these two composers, who are separated by almost 250 years, and whose music speaks universally, to diverse people around the globe.


I wanted the program of Time Travelers to highlight the similarities and the contrasts of these two musical icons.


Round 1

Bach Prelude & Fugue in Ab Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2

Glass Etude #5 in F minor


One of the similarities binding Bach and Glass is there thinking in musical counterpoint. Developing the ability to manage multiple voices simultaneously is a skill that requires practicing, and both composers wrote studies specifically to train that skill. Bach Well-Tempered Clavier represents a pinnacle preceded by his 2 part and 3 part Inventions.  Glass’ Etude #5 uses a similar musical pattern as Bach’s Prelude to weave a pattern that incorporates 2 voices, then 3, then 4 or possibly 5. While playing these is a huge musical challenge, listening to these works is also a multi-layered challenge - How many voices can you follow?


Round 2

Bach Partita #2 in C minor

Glass Metamorphoses


The multiple dance movements of Bach’s Partita alternate with Glass’ Metamorphoses, each switch in style providing a strong contrast and an intriguing response. Bach’s complex, multi-layered dances are hardly the kind of music one could choreograph, but their energy and gestures have captivated audiences fro 300 years. Glass’ spare and relentless patterns shift slowly like a kaleidoscope. If one seems to compress time like a time-lapse sequence, the other seems to elongate time like a slow-motion film. Which one does what for you?


Round 3

Bach/Chiu Erbarme dich from St. Matthew’s Passion

Glass Mad Rush


Spirituality plays an important role in the lives and work of both composers. The majority of Bach’s works were written with a religious purpose in mind, and his Lutheran devotion is clear in his letters and his dedications. One of his greatest masterpieces, the St. Matthew Passion, includes the heart-breaking duet for solo violin and Alto. I transcribed this duet for solo piano on the occasion of the death of a friend and colleague, with the words Erbarme dich, “Pity me,” in mind.

Glass was one of the early practitioners of Yoga, in a NYC environment that had not yet experienced the opening to India, the Beatles’ discovery of Transcendental Meditation, or yoga fitness clubs. His piece, Mad Rush, was originally written for organ, and Glass himself played it for the visit of the Dalai Lama to NYC in 1979. Later, he revisisted the work, on the piano, for a return of the Dalai Lama more than 30 years later.

As both composer reached for something greater than themselves, we are again moved to contemplate the passage of time, and wonder from where an art that advances steadily in time gathers the power to speed it up or slow it down.