On Akhnaten

What a treat to be able to attend a Philip Glass opera at The Met. I first read about Glass’s operas in the 1980s and was fascinated by the commentary I read of Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha and Akhnaten. The musical descriptions were intriguing, especially to someone who had feasted on King Crimson’s early 80s music (Discipline and Beat, most notably). The accounts I read of Glass’s ostinati and the shimmering surfaces of the music from these operas made me think that, when I finally encountered them, it would be as exciting as Crimson’s ‘Frame by Frame’ or as beautiful as ‘Matte Kudasai’.

In New Zealand actually seeing one of these operas was completely beyond the realms of possibility, but even finding copies of recordings was challenging. It wasn’t until some years later that I discovered a recording of Einstein on the Beach in the library. By that stage I had heard a lot more music (and in that particular vein, some Steve Reich, and some Glass too – Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi had made it to New Zealand cinemas by then and I had been left both dazzled and beaten up by the experience of seeing and hearing them) but even so, to be able to finally hear this music excited me.

As far as I recall I did make it all the way through to the end of Einstein on the Beach – three long CDs – but found it a marathon of endurance more than a voyage of discovery. There were moments of transcendent beauty (‘Building’ with its improvised [?] saxophone over the shimmering matrix of keyboards – exquisite!) but on the whole I found the experience, and I’m loathe to admit this, a  bit boring. Too long and too much of the same thing.

Never-the-less, the chance to attend the 2019 Metropolitan Opera season of Akhnaten was too good a chance to pass up and Suzi and I went with open minds. We were high up in the balcony but had good unobstructed views of the action. The sound was excellent and the audience disciplined and respectful – hardly a cough or a murmur all night.

The music was fine. It was simpler than other Glass I’ve heard but the timbres were lush; lots of cello and bass, a goodly number of wind and brass, and some percussionists to keep things jolly. The orchestration meant the music was reasonably various and there were some lovely moments where dynamics offered the music nuance and drama, but on the whole I found Akhnaten pretty monochromatic. I’d listened to Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps that afternoon, and in Glass’s music I missed the dissonances that felt so natural in the Messiaen, and the way silences punctuate that quartet music to such powerful affect. The Glass just seemed to go on and on, and while the subtlety of the timbral shifts of the music were lovely it did feel like the music could have been so much more. The love duet between Nerfititi and Akhnaten possessed attractive lines but otherwise Glass was parsimonious with the distribution of melodies. And given the meager resources Glass employed, it was long (somewhat over two hours).

But here’s the thing: I was captivated. And what was captivating was the visual spectacle of the work. Light, props, costumes, blocking, jugglers (yep, jugglers) and projections together made this a ravishing affair. And the somewhat monochromatic nature of the music colluded with the staging – supporting without over-shadowing it – to mean the sum of the parts was a very considerable whole.

This got me thinking about a lot of things. Mostly, about the value of using spectactle to accompany a musical performance. A lot of jazz – to make an example of the music I am most familiar with – depends upon a kind of intellectual, abstracted listening. As we listen we’ll think about the tune and the history of its performances (if it’s a standard or repertory tune), or about the arrangement of the ensemble or the soloists and their improvisatory flights. But we don’t spend a lot of time attending to the visual action of the performance; well, I don’t, anyway. It is nice to watch the players but that is, for me, a secondary concern. And, possibly as a consequence of privileging that kind of listening, most jazz gigs are visually dull.

With Akhnaten, somewhat monochromatic music wasn’t boring at all because it was part of a whole, a Gesamtkunstwerk to use Wagner’s term. For me, most concerts – irrespective of genre – are a bit boring these days, because as nice (or exciting or sinister or challenging) as the music may be, after a while I kind of get used to the sound of it and then there’s usually not much left to hold my attention. My own shows are guilty of a failure to attend to the visual spectacle of the event. Little wonder people are pleased to book us for festivals but reluctant to have us back to do a similar show but with different material.

So, I have some thinking to do.

Cheers, Mr. Glass.