3. Philip Glass – Orbit (2013)
My parents played a lot of music when I was growing up. My maternal grandfather was an eccentric back-to-the-land hermit and collector of many things, including waffle makers, postal packaging, recorders (the woodwind kind), and thousands of albums, some of which he played on his radio show through KMUD 91.1 FM in Northern California. Others he would mail to us as gifts, usually a burnt CD wrapped in a homemade black and white label. Glassworks had a big impact on me. The first time my mother put it on, I remember freaking out somewhere between “Floe” and “Rubric.” The repeated organ + woodwind gestures were so distressing that I did not make it through the album.
As a teenager, I came to really love it, as well as Glass’ piano music and string quartets. Seeing Koyaanisqatsi for the first time in high school was a notable moment. I liked how repetition offered an opportunity to sink into music in a different way, noticing increasing layers of subtlety. I was fascinated to discover that many of the Western classical artists whose work I gravitated towards happened to draw inspiration from Buddhism. Philip is a Buddhist, too.
In university, I became very interested in the musical offspring born from the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies. Later, in grad school, I spent many hours researching the ways that some of the first composers labelled “minimalist” (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass) drew inspiration from Hindustani (North Indian classical) music. Around this time, while eating breakfast in my St. Henri apartment, I learned that Philip Glass was my roommate’s girlfriend’s father’s plumber in the 70s. But perhaps closer to home, Glass was a dear colleague to Matt, my cello teacher at McGill.
I met Philip in person in 2018 at the Scotia Festival of Music, where he was composer in residence that spring. I was playing one of his string quartets with some other young artists, and we worked with him on it for a good while. I was very struck by his openness. By this point in my life, I’d worked with dozens of composers, and many of them were meticulously specific about what they wanted. While the notes were still all written, Philip had an attitude on the more collaborative side of the spectrum—that a performer is just as much a part of a composition as a composer. He enthusiastically supported the ideas we brought to the piece, expressed genuine curiosity about younger generations and the future of music, and radiated encouragement.
Glass’ musical inspiration from working with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan in the 1960s was primarily rhythmic. He riffed off of concepts present in Hindustani frameworks of time to create his own method of stringing together groups of pulses, which influenced all of his writing thereafter. “Orbit,” was first performed by Yo-Yo Ma with dancer Lil Buck at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. Yo-Yo was the musician who inspired me to start practicing as a young cellist. “Orbit” is linked to Glass’ earlier machine-like work while in conversation with centuries of cello repertoire. It seems especially like a romantic song crafted with baroque kindling, a cycle embracing both harsh and tender.