“metamorphosis two” – philip glass (1989)


Music is something I love very much, but there also times where I can become utterly bored by it.  In the Internet age, there is so much music available to us.  We have the ability to access anything at anytime and anywhere.  It is quite remarkable really.  With all of the world’s resources and information a few keystrokes away, you would think there could be no conception of boredom again.  In reality, not so much.

Our society suffers from the freedom of too much choice.  In Ben Ratliff’s book (which I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog), Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, he addresses this dilemma.  You would think that unlimited choice would motivate a listen to explore more, but it actually does the opposite.  It only reinforces the listener’s habitual music listening trends.  They become less susceptible to discovering new music.  They know what they like and they can instantly access it whenever they want.

Summer 2014, I was getting bored by the music I was listening to.  I am pretty adventurous when it comes to the music I consume, but I do have my preferences.  I listen to a lot of soul, punk, post-punk, new wave, alternative rock, and other subgenres stemming from western pop/rock/soul music.  I love this music.  This bothered me.  Dismayed, confused, and seeking answers, I vocalized my increasing boredom on social media.  A close friend joked that I should listen to Gregorian chants and others felt I was being pretentious; a typical recyclable comment completely devoid of substance that contributes nothing. I didn’t get much support in terms of recommending music outside of my immediate comfort zone and I started to think about our culture’s music consumption.

Music lovers take pride in the music the consume.  We all do.  However, there seems to be this myopic viewpoint that the pinnacle of musical achievement is inherently Western (specifically American and English) and blues/country in origin (most derivatives of modern popular music stem from those).  Look at any music publication listing their picks of the best albums of all time.  You’ll find that the overwhelmingly majority fit within those categories.  And if you listened to anything other like jazz, you’re regarded as kind of a freak and an outcast whose fringe tastes are out of touch with society.  Even think about the term “world music.”  I cannot think of a more unrepresentative and unimaginative name than that.  We have dozes of names for every facet of popular music, but the rest gets denigrated to “world music” as if music fans view it as a clear-cut case of “us and them.”  It fascinates me to hear music fans talk about how much they love music and then recite a few subgenres that are not really that different from each other barring minor aesthetic differences.

I’ve come to terms with my music boredom.  It comes in waves.  When I find myself tired of my favorite artists, I make an effort to expand and cleanse the palate.  Artists like Sun Ra, Ray Lynch, Miles Davis, and Jocelyn Pook have all helped me to break away from the monotony and I’m thankful for them.  It is my goal to hear as much as I can and to learn about them as much as I can, but it takes time.  They have whole groups of fans who have been listening for years.  I am merely an outside looking in.  However, above all of them, the artist that I return to the most during these times is the inimitable Philip Glass.

My first exposure to Glass was through my university’s library.  They had a pretty small CD collection.  Even my regional library in Chicago surpassed theirs.  So, I got through albums fairly quickly.  In 2008, my junior year, I came across Music in Twelve Parts, a three-disc collection featuring twelve parts of a larger composition.  I loved this album.  It was dynamic and complex.  I would listen while walking, studying, or just to listen to.

Glass has composed and records hundreds of compositions.  His natural gift is astounding and he has played music all his life.  It was incredibly fascinating to think that he could pursue and succeed at his craft because he was essentially born to do it.  You would have better luck winning the lottery.

Last month, I had the privilege to see Glass perform some solo piano compositions at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.  He played four complete compositions for just a little over an hour.  One of the pieces he played was “Metamorphosis,” a composition released in 1989 on Solo Piano and inspired by Franz Kafka’s 1915 short story.  “Metamorphosis” is a hauntingly beautiful piece with five parts.  Glass is known for her calculated repetition and there is plenty of that in this composition as well as moments of complex dynamic changes that almost seem inhuman to play.

While “Metamorphosis” is meant to be enjoyed in it’s entirety, each of the five parts have their own distinctive qualities that are okay to enjoy as singular entities.  It is the second part I find the most fascinating.  The way Glass’ fingers flutter across the keys at such a concentrated and controlled speed is breathtaking.  You’re listening closely to hear his patterns until these moments of bliss break through and startle you with an excitement and fervor that makes you glad to be alive.

Admittedly, there is no way I am doing Glass justice at all.  I simply cannot.  I’ve only been listening for a few years and I am not knowledgeable in music composition where I can adequately break the piece down.  I do not know how it is made.  And there is beauty in that.  I don’t have to think.  I am a stranger in this land.  I have no knowledge of the customs or traditions.  All I know is the energy and life I am sensing around me.  We may not be able to speak the same language, but we can at least feel the same.

Glass is someone I need to listen to more.  To distinguish him as something as insulting as a “palate cleanser” is just wrong.  He is so much more than that.  But, I am a man of varied tastes.  I want to hear and experience as much as I can.  I also want to enjoy the things that I love.  I know what I like and I want to hear more of it.  Everyone is like that.  That is where we get our joy, but you can still respect and find joy in a form you cannot understand.  I want my musical world to be bigger and I want that for everyone else as well.  Let’s get people to understand that there is more out there than what we hear on the radio, in television commercials, or in movies.  Let’s quit thinking that the best our culture must offer comes from what is immediately around and instantly familiar.  The world is much bigger than that.