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


Russian Film Festival, Part One

Russian Film Festival, Part One

I have three DVDs sitting on my desk waiting for me to have time for a Russian film festival.  I’m not sure if this will happen over one long afternoon, or over three separate nights. I stumbled upon these films because the music for each, was composed by some of my favorite Russian composers. Being a composer, or artist of any sort, in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare.  More accurately, being a human being in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare, and being a composer was no exception.  There was no such thing as due process under the law, nor freedom of speech, nor so many of the things I take for granted as a citizen of a free country.  There were several “purges” over the time Stalin was in power, whereby people who showed opposition to the Party, or some undesirable trait, were rounded up and imprisoned or killed.  Many people disappeared in the night, never heard from by their families ever again.  Writers, artists and composers were under a certain scrutiny because their work had a public voice.  Censorship happened by the whim of government officials, as well as self-censorship by artists themselves hoping not to attract negative attention.

Composers seemed to fall in an out of Stalin’s favor with the changing of the weather.  The Communist Party needed music, writing, and film that fell in line with the propaganda messages they wanted to spread.  Works of art that spread an unapproved viewpoint were condemned.  When composers were on the bad side of the Party, they could hardly get a performance of their works.  They often were forced into “hack” work to survive, things like churning out film scores very quickly.  Every once in a while, however, the music they turned out for a film proved to be a real gem.  Three of these treasures are found in the DVDs on my desk right now.  

downloadI’d like to write about one of the films in this post. It is a film I have seen before, although it has been a long time.  Alexander Nevsky is a 1938 historical drama directed by Sergei Eisenstein, with music by Sergei Prokofiev.  It is often included on lists of the 100 greatest films, and truly is a powerful work.  Prince Alexander Nevsky is a legendary Russian figure, and the film is set in the year 1242 during a time when Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire are planning and attempting an invasion of Novgorod.  Nevsky is a fisherman at the beginning of the film, but rises courageously to motivate the Russian people and lead them in battle against the invaders.  There is a classic battle scene played out on a frozen lake, one which begins with ever rising suspense as the enemy is first seen way off in the distance.  The invading Knights are a huge army, and Prokofiev’s music helps build the rising tension as they grow closer and closer until the armies clash together.

Alexander Nevsky, The Battle Of the Ice

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1938 political tensions were very high as Hitler was coming to power in Nazi Germany.  The Alexander Nevsky story, with a brave Russian hero defeating an invading army, was something that Stalin could get behind.  It was a message the Communist Party could approve of, and the director Eisenstein won a Stalin prize for the film in 1941.  Prokofiev was quite pleased with the music, and extracted much of it for a concert work he called the  Alexander Nevsky cantata Op. 78.  This cantata is one of the few examples of film music that has actually made it into the standard repertoire.  I would get a ticket to see the cantata version in concert anytime I had the opportunity.  One thing I am unable to judge, is how it would be to listen to the music without knowing the film first.  The music certainly is of great depth and stands on its own very well.  I personally knew the film before the cantata, so I always have a memory of where in the film the music was originally placed.  

Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky cantata Op. 78

The other two films in my Russian film festival have scores by Dmitri Shostakovich, and I hope to write about them in a future post.

A New Beginning

A New Beginning

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesFollowing my interests this year has taken me on a winding road of the humanities.  I ended 2015 delving deeper into the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which led me to spend quite a bit of time with his operas.  I was familiar with some of the music from the operas of Mozart, but I worked to acquaint myself with the major operas in their entirety.  Turns out that the Spring season of my local Michigan Opera Theatre is ending in May with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  I was excited to purchase some inexpensive tickets to performances of four different operas at the Detroit Opera House.

LIbraryOne of the upcoming operas I have a ticket to is Verdi’s Macbeth, with a libretto adapted from the Shakespeare play of the same name.  This fostered a desire to become more familiar with some of the plays of Shakespeare that I wanted to know better.  In reading and watching a dozen or so of the Bard’s plays, and reading about those plays, I was led in the direction of more of the “classics” and “Great Books” of the Western literary tradition.

To make a long story short, this rekindled interest in literature has inspired the creation of a new blog.  This new WordPress site is about books, and I would love to invite all of you to take a peek at it.  Great Books of Old Stream is what I came up with as a name.  The “Great Books” part is probably obvious where it originated from.  The “Old Stream” part is open to your own interpretation.  Thanks for any time you can spare to visit.

Great Books of Old Stream