The Glass Box represents only about a third of all his works. Notable omissions include Orion, Low, Heroes, The Light, the 2nd, 4th and 6th Symphonies, and all the concertos. Also regrettably missing is the score to Naqoyqatsi as well as many of his ballets, operas and theatre works, not to mention many of the chamber works.
Having said that, the Glass Box offers an extraordinary survey of the most famous living composer today, whose work continues to astound and confound in equal measure. The central enigma continues to be his seeming reliance on such a small palette of sounds, but increased listening does open one to the vast kaleidoscope of truly unique works he creates out of such simple means. The Glass Box, through its scale, also gives the listener a deep experience on one hand of the visceral power and at the other extreme the profound tenderness of Glass’s creative vision.
The box proceeds in somewhat chronological order, starting with three early works, Music in Contrary Motion, Music with Changing Parts, Music in Similar Motion before his first masterwork Music in 12 Parts appears on disc two. Pristine, austere, perfectly proportioned and exquisitely crafted, Music in 12 Parts has stood the test of time and is now seen as a landmark of early minimalism. Disc three contains excerpts from his seminal opera Einstein on the Beach, which still creates a palpable sense of awe at the scale of the artistic achievement. One could argue it is the most influential musical theatre work of the 20th century – New York’s Rite of Spring moment. The single CD also works far better as a listening experience than ploughing through the complete four-CD box set.
Disc four contains the classic Philip Glass ensemble release Glassworks, which was one of his largest selling records and contains most of his signature musical gestures. Filling the CD is Etoile Polaire, an early score from 1977, which creates a fascinating sound world unlike anything else of Glass’s, and that takes full advantage of Joan La Barbara’s vocal technique.
Disc five contains sections from Satyagraha, his most beautiful opera score that draws from the life of Ghandi. The “Qatsi” trilogy which follows on the next CD is represented by excerpts from Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. The opening tracks still have surprising mythological potency, reminiscent of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana. These film scores made him the global star he is today and remain the most perfect collaborations between a visual artist and musician to date.
Glass’s collaborations with the Kronos Quartet are the highlights of disc seven with String Quartet No. 2 (Company), No. 4 (Buczak) and No. 5, interspersed with Glass playing four piano etudes. Disc eight contains an excerpt from the CIVIL warS, six songs from the fascinating Hydrogen Jukebox, three scenes from Akhnaten and the 7th movement ‘Suffering’ from the 5th Symphony.
Disc nine contains the 3rd and 8th Symphonies while disc 10 is a sampling of his finest film scores starting with three tracks from his classic Mishima, followed by The Secret Agent, Kundun, Anima Mundi, La Belle et La Bête, The Thin Blue Line, Dracula, The Fog of War, Candyman, The Truman Show, and ending with The Hours.
The music remains as fresh as it was when it was first written. Few can argue with the fact that Glass has eclipsed Gershwin, Ives, Ellington, Miles Davis, Reich and Adams, in terms of being the most influential American composer globally. As Tim Page notes in the astoundingly informative booklet, Glass is “the first composer to win a wide, multi-generational audience in the opera house, the concert hall, the dance world, in film and in popular music – simultaneously”.
The performances are wonderful, the recording quality of the highest level and the result is a miracle given the state of the recording industry generally. It may be the last time in a long while that we see such an epic release. In that context I’d describe it as a limited edition artwork that will be highly sought after in future years, and which is currently extremely reasonably priced.
No question this is a must purchase for Glass fans. For the wider listener, I assure you it is a box containing equal measures of treasures and paradoxes.