Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians

Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians

I suppose I should say upfront, that I may not be the best person to introduce you to the music of Philip Glass.  I am in no way an expert on music of the minimalist composers.  I normally would say that Philip Glass is not “really my thing”.  I am however, a huge fan of the J. M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, and when I found a recording of an opera based on the book I had to take a listen.  A discussion of the novel can be found on my new blog, Great Books of Old Stream.   As an opera, Mr. Glass has created a work with very accessible and listenable music.  There is an added bonus for my ears, which is the text is sung in English, a language I actually speak!  After listening to hours and hours of opera in languages I don’t understand very well, and have to follow subtitles or libretti to comprehend, an opera in English is refreshing.  

The_Thin_Blue_Line_posterSome of my favorite music composed by Philip Glass is the film music for a 1988 documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. The film is by Errol Morris about a man named Randall Adams who was convicted for a murder he did not commit.  It is a powerful film, and in some ways contributed to Mr. Adams’ release from prison about a year later.  I always thought the music by Glass was wonderful background music for the film.  Now my composition teacher would have considered that a left-handed compliment.  He would point out that music that is appropriate for the background often cannot hold enough interest to stand on its own, in fact should stay in the background and not draw attention away from the film subject.  In any case, I think the soundtrack for The Thin Blue Line works brilliantly.  Mr. Glass has also put his music to dramatic uses in composing a large number of operas and over a dozen other film scores.

Waiting CDThe opera, Waiting for the Barbarians  was commissioned by the Theatre Erfurt in Germany, where it was premiered in September of 2005.  The Coetzee novel was made into a libretto by Christopher Hampton, and the music composed by Philip Glass.  The 2008 recording that is available on Orange Mountain Music is a live performance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.  I so deeply wish that there was a video recording available, or that I could see a live production.  In addition to the sung music, there is a prelude and five different “dreamscape” episodes that happen in the opera.  I know that there is a great deal of wordless action happening on the stage during these dreamscapes, action that tells much of the story of the novel, but is lost in an audio recording.  I am familiar enough with the novel to fill in the blanks, but if you are not familiar with the novel’s plot, sadly, the audio recording may not give the full experience.

The Synopsis from the liner notes reads like this:

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed.  The protagonist is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town, ignoring the threat of impending war with the “barbarians”, a neighboring tribe of nomads.  But with the arrival of a special unit of the Civil Guard spreading the rumor that the barbarians are preparing to attack, he becomes witness to the cruel and illegal treatment of the prisoners of war.  Torture is used to obtain confessions from the barbarian prisoners, thus “proving” the necessity of the planned campaign against the tribe.

Jolted into sympathy for the victims, the old man decides to take a stand.  He attempts to maintain a final shred of decency and dignity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people – an act of individual amends.  This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture.”

Philip Glass provides these notes to accompany the recording:

“John Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature 2003, first published “Waiting for the Barbarians” in 1980.  I contacted John Coetzee about adapting his book into an opera back in 1991 and made my first treatment of the opera that same year.  I’d begun to do this kind of social/political opera in 1979 with Satyagraha, an opera that takes place in South Africa, concerning the life of Gandhi and the possibility of social change through nonviolence.

My aim then, as it is now, was to preserve Coetzee’s cold allegorical approach while dramatizing the classic themes of confrontation, crisis and redemption so the audience itself is left weighing the meaning of good and evil in their own lives.  To reduce the opera to a single historical circumstance or a particular political regime misses the point.  That the opera can become an occasion for dialogue about political crisis illustrates the power of art to turn our attention toward the human dimension of history.”

[I think Glass meant to say the opera Satyagraha takes place in India, but this is how the liner notes read.]
I am truly saddened that the story of the opera, and the allegory in the novel, are as current today as when they were written.  I think they carry an important message, a warning that should be observed, and raise plenty of questions that should be carefully considered.  I hope that the opera receives more performances and productions in other cities.  For a discussion of the novel, I would humbly ask you to visit Great Books of Old Stream, a new project of mine.  Most importantly, go out and read the novel itself.  It is shocking how current the book is today, 36 years after it was first published.  

Dreamscape No. 3, Waiting for the Barbarians, Philip Glass


Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietI just finished watching the 1968 film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The play is by far the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and I believe it is the earliest effort in the genre of tragedy that we have from the Bard.  The story is ubiquitous, and I hardly can imagine a rock to turn over where you wouldn’t find someone familiar with at least the outline of the play.  Even if you weren’t familiar, it is a tragedy, and as such really does not have any huge surprises.  It will turn out badly, everyone will die in the end, and the audience only has to sit there and watch it all unfold.  There is no suspense, as in a melodrama, where things may possibly turn out good in the end, just maybe.  Shakespeare makes it clear in the prologue of the play that the star-crossed lovers will die in the end. 

Zeffirelli cast two unknown young actors in the lead of his movie, Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet.  It was a bit of a risk, to place such weight of the production on two young people under the age of 18.  It worked out brilliantly, as the film remains a classic version of the play even until this day.

Interview with Whiting and Hussey

Zeffirelli has to edit and interpret the play, because Franco cannot leave well enough alone.  The biggest diversion from the original that I see is in the ending of the play, where Romeo encounters Paris at the tomb of Juliet.  In the film version, Paris is absent at the end, and action is streamlined to Romeo encountering what he believes is a deceased Juliet.  With my musician’s ears, the most distracting part of the film is not the changes in the text of the play, but the sentimental love theme in the soundtrack.  I suppose the musical melody is good enough the first time, or first dozen times it is heard.  My problem is that it does not wear well, and by the end of the film it seems a distracting sentimental bit of mush that detracts from my enjoyment.  You can hear the melody I am referring to in the opening of the trailer to the film.

Trailer for Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

I studied the Overture-Fantasia  to Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky for the brilliant orchestration, but my favorite musical setting of the play is the ballet version composed by Sergei Prokofiev (1892-1953).  I think it is because of the familiarity of the story that the play is ripe for a ballet setting.  The audience knows the action, even without the text, and can follow a long story with only music and dance.  Sergei Prokofiev composed music for a ballet in 1935, following a synopsis of the play written by Adrian Piotrovsky.  Originally they had substituted a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers, but further revisions restored the tragic ending.  The ballet languished unperformed for five years, only receiving its premiere in Leningrad in January of 1940.  

Prokofiev extracted three different orchestral suites from the complete ballet.  These suites are performed and recorded fairly regularly, and represent some of the composer’s most familiar music.   I think my musical brother Mike prefers Dmitri Shostakovich to Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff to almost everyone, but certainly Prokofiev is one of the major Russian composers of the twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky, Overture-Fantasia to Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2

Bolshoi Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

As I am writing this, it is the Monday morning after Superbowl Sunday here in America.  I had an odd experience on Saturday, the day before the big game.  I was at the market in the afternoon, and as I walked up to the butcher counter I recognized I had stepped into a “man-zone”.  Men stood in a group in front of the counter, admiring and pointing at pieces of beef, and strangers were engaged in animated discussion about the players and teams in the Super Bowl.  The butchers were chatting up the customers, who were well versed in each teams strengths.  I have to admit that I don’t follow sports very much.  I am a man’s man, and usually glean enough from the headlines to say something acceptable in these situations, but this time around I didn’t even know the teams involved in the big game.  I was as out of place at the meat counter, as was the basket I carried, full of oranges, apples and bananas for a fruit smoothie to be made later.  

ColosseumFor a long time I didn’t understand the group psychology of the rabid sports fan.  I am such a private hermit, stuck in my own mind too often, with a nose in a book or earphones on listening to music.  I engage in lots of individual experiences, connecting with the author or characters of a book, sharing musical experiences with the composer and performers of a work.  The sports experience seems to be much more a communal cultural event.  People come together to root for their team, wear team logos, connect with other fans and feel themselves like winners when their team is victorious.  Sports champions are idolized, and as a culture, we seem to value the communal sports event greatly, at least to the extent that there is a great deal of money involved.

Confession time.  I held a lot of resentment for how much importance our culture places on sports.  My field of study in school (music) falls into the humanities side of university life, and the humanities have not been valued very much since the end of World War II.  Science, technology, and mathematics have been king, queen and emperor in the most recent past, along with professional and vocational tracks.  There is a great deal of emphasis on the economic merit of your schooling, i.e. what job are you training for.  I had a great deal of resentment for how athletes or students of the sciences seemingly never had to justify what they were doing.  Students and scholars in the humanities seem to ALWAYS feel like they have to prove why what they do has some value.  I struggled greatly with the idea of why it was important to study music.  Likewise, I think the student of English, philosophy, art, literature, theater or any other humanity is constantly facing the question of why they are spending time with their subject.  “What are you going to do with a degree in that?”

For the most part, I grew weary of the question and became even more private with my musical activities.  Some musicians just surround themselves with other musicians, and only run in circles where the question of “Why Music?” just isn’t asked.  The inherent value of musical activity is assumed, but not articulated.  It is self-evident, and time is spent on music making rather than justifying musical activity.  I turned inward and began to listen, read, write and compose simply for myself and the desk drawer.  I’m a little like Henry David Thoreau, without the pond, just doing my own thing and not caring what anyone thinks.  I haven’t tried to articulate why music (or the arts and humanities) is of valuable importance in a very long time.  

The usual thought for someone advocating the Great Books or Western Canon, the “classics” that I have been touching upon in my previous two posts, is that the Great Books teach us principles that have an everlasting pertinence to all people everywhere.  Principles of what it is to be human, in any time and any place.  (The Great Books people have been accused of many things, but rarely accused of humility.)  But even such a brilliant man as Harold Bloom is reduced to empty vacuous pieties when responding to the question of why read Shakespeare, his favorite author.  “The answer to the question ‘Why Shakespeare’ must be ‘Who else is there?’”,  writes Bloom in his giant volume titled “Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human”.  A little later on in the introduction he writes, “He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go”, and “If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare”.  All high praise, but not very effective in answering the question of “Why?”.  

Six SongsIn music, there seems to be a universal presence of music making activities in all known cultures and civilizations.  In the Daniel Levitin book “The World in Six Songs”, he points out that “There is no known culture now or anytime in the past that lacks it [music], and some of the oldest human-made artifacts found at archaeological sites are musical instruments.”  Levitin goes on to present his ideas on how there are basically six kinds of songs that humans create, songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.  He has some very interesting, and perhaps radical things to say in his book, and certainly shows some of the ways human culture use music.  Elena Mannes points out in her book “The Power of Music”, that “We humans know instinctively that music has primal power.”  She points out that “Archaeologist in Slovenia recently unearthed a flute that had been fashioned from the femur of a bear by our Neanderthal cousins.”, a flute that is 36,000 years old and more than twice as old as the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.  So people have seemingly always made music, and used it for lots of stuff, but I still don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question of “Why?”.  

The several arguments that are the usual defense of the humanities.  One is to say that the humanities are a study of the meaning making practices of a culture.  People express meaning through their art/literature/music etc.  Another argument for the study of the humanities is that they contribute in some way to the individual and collective happiness of humans.  A way of working out the issues, inner conflicts, and inner struggles of what it means to be human.  A third argument is one that is often presented to government agencies when searching for funding for the arts.  That argument is that democracy needs the humanities, because they teach us a range of ways of understanding what a society is, how human beings live and work together. What the underlying values are, what we mean by justice or the human good, in ways that are not defined simply by economic worth. The fourth common argument in support of the humanities says simply that they have intrinsic value, which is little more than saying they are important because they are important.  This thought plays well among artists, writers, actors, musicians, and philosophers who already believe what they are doing has value, and does little to convince someone who doesn’t see the value of the humanities of what that intrinsic value is.  

I am certainly not claiming to have a well articulated, all-persuasive argument for why music or any of the humanities is valuable.  In 1997 Don Campbell wrote a stupid, stupid book titled “The Mozart Effect”, discussing the theory that listening to Mozart may temporarily raise a person’s IQ and have other beneficial mental effects.  This was based on a misunderstanding and bastardization of a 1993 study published in Nature about what effect listening to some music by Mozart had on a specific test of spatial reasoning.  This led to a sequel book entitled “The Mozart Effect for Children” and an entire line of musical recording that hopeful parents were supposed to play for their toddlers to make them smart and have higher IQ scores.   I call it “stupid” because it reduces the importance of Mozart, and by extension music, to how it can make kids perform better in science, math and technology.  Humanities are again subservient to the ever present technocracy that has existed since World War II.  

Mozart, Andante from Piano Concerto 21

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

I think the tortured figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer reveals some of the ways that the sciences and humanities might interact and be equally important to human life and culture.  Oppenheimer became known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, for his role in the Manhattan Project which created the first nuclear weapons.  He was deeply troubled by the technology with which he worked, physics that could be used for a peaceful, plentiful energy source or also used to created the most destructive weapons that have ever existed.  Once it was clear that a weapon was technically feasible, for Oppenheimer “The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.”  He was said to have thought to himself “”I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, after the first successful nuclear explosion test.  During the development of the atomic bomb, he was an invaluable adviser to the highest levels of the American military and government.  After WWII ended, he fell out of favor. Oppenheimer was hounded by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, called up to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, and ultimately stripped of his security clearance for potential communist sympathies.  


Doctor AtomicOppenheimer’s story has been dealt with in the Heinar Kipphardt’s play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as the play Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith.   A biography entitled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won a Pulitzer Prize.  Of all the treatments of Oppenheimer’s story, I am most familiar with the 2005 John Adams opera, Doctor Atomic.  The theme that is most prominent is the question of the scientist’s’ responsibility toward humanity, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggle with those questions.  Not just the scientific achievement of what we CAN do, but the questions of what SHOULD we do.  These are questions of values,  judgement, of what is good and what is right.  These questions are wrestled with in the area of the Humanities.  Questions about science and it’s capabilities, and man’s ego,  were central to the story in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein messes around with creating life and creates a monster.  The early Japanese Godzilla films started as a similar cautionary tale of an enormous, violent, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation, a monster that was a metaphor for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb before it was a pop icon.  The German legend of Faust has a scholar selling his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  Even in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the fruit that gets Adam and Eve into the trouble that causes them to be kicked out of paradise is from the tree of Knowledge.  Oppenheimer’s is a real life story that fights with the issues of how the atomic fruit of the technical knowledge he worked on has kicked humanity out of the Eden of the Pre-Nuclear age.  

I still may not be able to clearly articulate what the intrinsic value of studying the humanities really is, but it is clear that the values, questions, ethics, and human qualities that are being worked out in all of the various subjects in the humanities are real, relevant and unavoidable.  

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Batter My Heart”

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Am I Your Light?”