Saturday, February 03, 2018

Through Glass darkly

I should have expected to love Philip Glass's Satyagraha, yet I've steered away from attending it for years. A meditative opera of enormous sincerity and compassion about one of the 20th century's giant humanitarian figures? With a production at ENO by Improbable and Phelim McDermott that has propelled it to top classic status? What's not to love? Still it was only the other night I saw it for the first time at English National Opera - and came out wondering, dazed, where it had been all my life. It's left me musing on a great many things, some personal, some musicological, some about Glass himself.

So here is a long post from a Satyagraha novice...

Toby Spence as Gandhi. Photo (c) Donald Cooper, ENO
Satyagraha has one of the longest synopses I've come across in an opera programme. It's spread across eight pages, including a couple of photos and a lot of translated text - for this is a work that ENO - whose mission statement is to perform opera in English - gives entirely in Sanskrit with no surtitles (the production does include some select translations, projected onto the set). The programme provides the story, the history, the context. You wouldn't guess it otherwise.

This production melds perfectly with the music, unfurling in slow motion with moments of extraordinary magic. A woman will suddenly become airborne, mirroring the moon, as if it's the most natural thing in the world, or giant puppets of the warriors and gods of Hindu legend seem to acquire a life of their own, or strange, shimmering things are done with what looks like long strands of giant sellotape.

The pace of change and the degree of imagination on stage matches that of the music, which casts its sonorous and translucent spells with subtlety, at long, slow, steady length, the evolution and the eventual contrast located deep within the structures. Glass has said before now that the composer closest to his heart is Schubert, and one is occasionally put in mind of the moment in Der Doppelgänger at which, having set up a repetitive, pitch-dark harmonic world, Schubert inserts a rise of one semitone that can shatter your heart with a single note.

It's rare to see an opera in which a production suits the composition to quite such an intimate degree. As for the storytelling, we were advised by those in the know to read every word of the programme beforehand, but didn't get round to it, so depended on the show to do its own job, and at times it does. Gandhi's actions in 19th/20th-century South Africa, his leadership of peaceful resistance in the face of vast injustice, is reflected with moments of specificity, watched over in turn by the unmistakable figures of Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and finally, from the future, Martin Luther King. Gandhi's white-clad followers burn their identity cards. His associates are led away by armoured police. He, morphing from business-suited lawyer to isolated holy man in white robe, treats everything with equanimity.

But the music itself does not give us the story. Essentially, Satyagraha is a setting of texts from the Bhagavad Gita, apportioned to certain voices according to the story outline, but telling precious little of it in itself. And that is absolutely fine, because in certain ways Satyagraha is a natural successor to Parsifal. The wide, deep horizon unfurling in a timespan of its own. The journey to wisdom through compassion. The promise of spiritually enlightened leadership. The reminder, to a delusion-blinded audience, that spiritual truths and the goodness of which humanity is capable can only be reached when we discard materialism and ego. Wagner wanted to write a Buddhist opera, but apparently cut his efforts short when he realised he'd already done it in Parsifal.

Andri Björn-Robertsson as Krishna. Photo (c) Donald Cooper ENO

This is the point at which the spiritual, the political, the artistic and the historical blend and balance - in Wagner implicitly, in Glass explicitly. Satyagraha offers a message for today, delivered through words from an eastern scripture written earlier than 400 BC.

Many years ago, back in the 1990s when I was a very green twenty-something, I became briefly involved in a system of yoga and meditation that was, possibly, one step short of a cult. There were ashrams in many different countries, a guru, festivals, traditions, fabulous Indian vegetarian food, texts, lectures, courses, "intensives" - at which your kundalini spiritual energy would be awakened - and, not least, all-night chants. I'd never have expected to be got by such a thing, and it's hard, looking back, to comprehend exactly how it happened - though I know it was something to do with a conversation at the Salzburg Festival, of all places, around 1991. To cut a long story short, I spent three years happily immersed in the heightened sensitivity and intuition that results from deep meditation and unshakeable faith...while my life fell to pieces around my ears.

I gave it all up in 1995 when I realised that it held none of the answers I wanted. You can keep chanting - kali durga namo namah, om jaya jaya etc - but if you lose three members of your family to cancer in quick succession, your partners dump you for not paying them enough attention and your bosses take advantage of your distraction to bleed your work capacity dry for two quid an hour, you actually need to get your feet back on the ground and deal with it. Besides, some things in life, notably triple bereavements, simply don't have answers. Soon after that, an exposé of the organisation in The New Yorker proved an eye-opener, and I stopped going.

The important thing, however, is that there were good things too. In particular, the memory of the space within the mind that's opened out by meditation has never quite left me. It is one of the better, more mysterious, more creative and most beautiful spheres available to human beings that doesn't involve going to a mountaintop or the sea. It's within us at all times, waiting for us to access it. And it has immense benefits to offer us when we do. Twenty minutes into Satyagraha and I'm back in that self-same space.

And I wonder: is this, perhaps, where our "minimalism" comes from? There's nothing minimal about a three and a half hour opera, by the way. It's massive (and it could perhaps shed 15-20 minutes without losing much import). But the musical idea that has been saddled with the term "minimalism" - the repetition of cells and phrases that slowly evolve and change - what's behind that? Is it the chants of eastern mysticism, those long, spirit-awakening chants that we used to sing? A typical chant is, for example, two eight-bar phrases (with words in Sanskrit). And it repeats and repeats, for as long as necessary. Gradually it speeds up. Usually there's a music group at the front - a tanpura providing the background drone, some tabla, perhaps some tiny clinking cymbals - and the music leader determines the pace and the intensity as the chant goes along. This can last fifteen minutes, two hours, all night, three days.

You mightn't want to stay in the London Coliseum for three days. But the principle of the chant, though much less sophisticated, is possibly not entirely far removed from Glass's opera. The sound of Glass has become ubiquitous in the modern world, its impact on film scores, TV, pop music and contemporary classical alike being immeasurable. If it all originates in spiritual chant, how utterly ironic that it's become the soundtrack to a deluded, polarised, divided, cruel, uber-materialistic world so lacking in the compassion and equanimity that Satyagraha extols.

Glass. Photo from
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to secure an interview with Philip Glass (you can read the original result in the Independent if you can find it, but the new-look site seems not to have preserved this precious moment; fortunately I've also written a longer account at Primephonic here). I loved talking to him because he was such a genuine musician, so down to earth - real musicians are utterly practical people. To him, yoga is not an optional extra: it is part of that down-to-earthness. It keeps him in shape mentally and physically, he suggests, and it will enable him to continue working into his nineties if he wants to - he was, at the time of the interview, an extremely youthful 77. His book Words Without Music is fabulous, a portrait of his times and his journey through their exceptional, collaborative, enriching, enlightening creativities. (My goodness, how sorry I am that I missed the Sixties.)

As I can't find my Independent article, I've just nipped back to the original interview transcript to snaffle a few comments from Glass about Satyagraha and the background to how he wrote it. It was, incidentally, his "breakthrough" work. I asked how influenced his music was by the world of eastern mysticism. "The connection is right in the music itself," he said...
"Satyagraha was the piece that took me into making a living. But it started off slowly and even the year before I had no idea that later on I would not be working at a day job. In fact I’d been living off of music for six months before it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a day job in six months. I remember it very clearly – my cab licence came up for renewal and I renewed it. I had no confidence that I would be able to make a living. But I didn’t use it and three years later when it came up for renewal again I didn’t renew it. That tells you where I was at!...  
"I went to India a lot of times and as well as studying with a lot of yoga teachers I was an assistant to Ravi Shankar – he was an important part of my music world, and there were lessons I learned from him – not through him, but the movie he was working on…. His teacher was there and gave me lessons just because I was there. I origianlly went to India for two reasons. I went to study Gandhism and that was an important motivation – I spent at least 10 years going back and forth and meeting people who knew him and going to places he’d lived. My opera method is a total immersion in a subject, without even considering what the structure and content will be for a while – I had no idea what I’d do with the Gandhi material, I was working on it from 1971 on and I didn’t write the piece until about 10 years later and during that period I went there six or eight times...  
"I did another big piece about Ramakrishna. People don’t look at it that way, but I know what I’ve done, people don’t know that, but if you look at that, there are songs based on a Tibetan yogi. If you just look at the libretto for my Fifth Symphony, there are 34 texts from [nearly as many] traditions. So in some ways it’s gone into the music directly, either because it’s about the person or their texts I’ve used. So if you say has it had an influence – well, I’ve used the material! It’s not an influence, it’s an actual usage! Satyagraha couldn’t have been written without that. I had a detailed and as intimate [exploration], given that Gandhi died in 1947, I was working on it 20 years after he died and I was able to meet in a bar with people he knew, I was able to visit places he'd lived, and I made a point of going to every location. When you look at the opera, I don’t think anyone could have written that opera who hadn’t had a very in-depth acquaintance with it all. There are some wonderful books by people who knew him and lived with him and worked with him… So is there a connection? The connection is right in the music itself."
You'd think, given my own little spell immersed in eastern mysticism, that I'd be a natural Glass-head. Yet I shied away from going to Satyagraha for years. The only other piece I avoided to nearly the same degree was the Ring cycle (though I did see that for the first time in my mid twenties). You'll know, if you're a regular at JDCMB, how often I curse received opinion. And have I not been as prone to received opinion as anyone else? Well, of course. That's how I've learned how lousy and insidious the syndrome is. The bald fact is that prejudice against stuff puts other people off. If you're aware that many of your friends and colleagues avoid certain kinds of music because either it bores them silly or they just don't get it, you're less likely to venture to "get it" yourself. I run with excitement to Reich and Adams, have done for years, but less so to Glass, because I thought I'd heard so much of it that I knew what it was about. But I didn't.

So there's a moral to this long weekend read for you. Never make uninformed choices. Investigate thoroughly. Understand what you're doing and thinking and saying. Never take someone else's opinion for your own. Go and hear that piece of music that scares you a bit, and only then make up your own mind, once you've been immersed in it, preferably in live performance.

And do go and see Satyagraha. It's on through this month at ENO. Toby Spence sings a bright, pure-toned Gandhi, the chorus is glorious and Glass expert Karen Kamensek conducts. Book here.