Philip Glass
Symphony No. 5: Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya
Nonesuch (

cd cover At some point deep in a prolific composer's career, there arrives a magnum opus, a work of unsurpassed weight and accomplishment. For Glass the former Baltimore minimalist, whether Symphony No. 5 synopsizes a lifetime of musical ideas in service of the profoundest message will at the moment require more time. However, for an artist used to erecting monumental works based on great figures and themes, in piecing together a 12-movement, 110 minute setting of the most durable human thinking from the major wisdom traditions of the world to music, it is hard to imagine what could possibly lie ahead.

Glass's Fifth is more oratorio than symphony because singing occurs regularly with little instrumental activity alone. He also allows the text to write the dramaturgical cadence of the music itself. Two American theologians and Glass worked as a team to appropriate the right excerpt from each of Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and indigenous (Kumulipo, Zuni, Nihongi, Bulu, Boshongo, and Maya), sacred literatures, the propriety of which I won't discuss here. The resultant libretto, in less than 3800 English words, creates a composite cosmology with an eerie amount of syntax similarities culture to culture inside it. The music is correspondingly non-heterogeneous, moving with an overall pulse that does not vary dramatically, and maintains a coherent sense of harmony throughout. The latter might be what is of greatest interest about this project.

In Glass's sound world, there is a very limited sense of duality portrayed in major and minor keys, the traditional toggles of expansion and contraction in much Western music. In approaching the ominous movements such as "Evil and Ignorance", "Suffering", and "Death" one might understandably dread the tough-going if they were posed in the emotions that Western music has historically assigned to them. But that's not what happens here. Yes, the "Death" movement is mostly comprised of minor keys, but there are otherwise no easy rules by which Glass can be seen to code up pleasant and unpleasant experiences harmonically. Most of the time, major and minor modes are mixing or commingling, a characteristic that has been there all along in his music. Additionally, littering the score are countless ascending and descending scale motifs, evidence somehow that the very idea of high and low need obliterating, or that they are rather part of a continuum.

The effect produces a fresh look upon the big picture Facts of Life that are ordinarily experienced with a certain unbalanced agony in the West. It is as if all the contents of Life are being viewed instead with shocking equanimity; as if this stately, controlled, yet still coloristic music, allows the words of our collective ancestors to reach directly without bias. The Words become the principal experience, crucially helped by this "right envelope", which turns out to be a deeply respectful way to have approached the task of accompaniment and which clearly honors the wisdom. This is the upside of this masterfully employed and unified strategy.

Sacrificed are certain pure tonal swellings and harmonic sequences common to large religious musical events known to invite and elicit spontaneous healing responses. If you are going to transform an audience/fellow sentient being with sacred text (this isn't 'theological' or merely 'commemorative millennial' entertainment) why not also transform with sound? For reasons perhaps only an elder would know, Glass does not put an acoustic exclamation point on anything including the last and most important of the work's three themes, Nirmanakaya, (emergent spiritual reality). Though a magic chord progression or definitive moment of apotheosis are missing, Glass's Fifth Symphony does however develop to some degree a sense of drama by way of increasing volume dynamics and subtle tonal contrasts. One of the most moving "peaks" comes in the transition within and between movements 7 "Suffering" and 8 "Compassion". Other "peaks", coming via pure volume and tonal density, are reached in movements 10 "Judgement and Apocalypse" and the final movement "Dedication of Merit", when the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir, the Hungarian Radio Children's Choir and five soloists all seem to exult jointly.

But these peaks named are more like bumps. The work unconventionally minimizes the use of sound as liberator, as medicine, or its effect on the body, a sound that might release stored resistance to enlightenment not washed away with words alone. Simply, the 5th Symphony lacks crescendos, moderate or non-ordinary. So if you're thinking that some ecstatic moments should occasionally escort such heady, ultimately concerned language, you won't find that here. As it is, only the (sound enhanced) poetry of collective truth can supply that glimpse of the Beyond, the transfixing moment of rapture, or glory peak of true enlightenment, whence undifferentiated union of Everything opens into the vast fields of kindness and lived enlightened activity of Nirmanakaya. The Fifth sticks to its more gently inclined, conservative-meditative, inwardly aligned road to Realization. And feels more East than West in the end. Make no mistake, much good work is accomplished as it is, and I don't wish to disallow that the aspect of this concentrated piece will change in time as one grows with it.

It is worth mentioning the attractive package that Nonesuch has designed for this release. The complete libretto is issued as twelve individual foldout cards in a spectrum of earth tones and magnified alphabet letters in the written language attributed principally to each movement. The liner notes include a succinct Glass introductory essay "A Bridge Between The Past, The Present, and The Future" and complete bibliographic references for the text. Taken together with a commandingly precise performance of an otherwise elegant, tightly reigned composition, this release ranks high in Glass's ambitious repertory. - Steve Taylor

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