sun 14/07/2024

Philip Glass: Satyagraha, ENO/ LSO, Alsop, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Philip Glass: Satyagraha, ENO/ LSO, Alsop, Barbican

Philip Glass: Satyagraha, ENO/ LSO, Alsop, Barbican

English National Opera production proves Philip Glass is a pile of trash

Satyagraha at ENO: 'shovel, shovel, shovel'Donald Cooper

It has always been a cornerstone of my personal philosophy that beauty and insight can be found in the very lowest of common denominators. That Big Brother, Friends, Love It magazine or Paris Hilton provide revelations about life that are of as much consequence, of as much wonder, as any offered up by the classic pantheon. That that which the people respond to must and usually does have plenty of merit lurking within it.

And so I have always held out hope that Philip Glass, the most popular of living classical composers, is actually quite good, somehow, somewhere. But, actually, he really isn't. Philip Glass is genuinely just a load of old bollocks.

His oratorio-cum-opera Satyagraha starts with some promise. It starts with four chords. That's three more than anyone versed in Glass's music is probably expecting. It sort of lulls you into a false sense of security. Well, four chords, eh? Might not be such a dull night after all! For the love of God, don't think this; it'll get you into trouble. You might, you know, actually get into him. Not as unlikely a thing as you might think.

Philip Glass is a dangerous composer. He has the same effect on the ears as a packet of Pringles does on the stomach. Once you pop, you can't stop - you can't stop shovelling his empty chords down your gob, even while your gob is trying to vomit up your arms, that is. Shovel, shovel, shovel. Over three hours of it. Like a good Chinese meal, you feel full and hungry and vomitous all at once.

After the ENO's revival production, you also feel terribly puzzled. Which was shittier, one wonders: the music or the staging? The music, you see, gets a little better. In Act Two, there's some variety. It sounds like it might break free into Borodin. In Act Three there are relatively exotic chord combinations and chromatic overhangs - though still nothing that would frighten any self-respecting boy band. A pretty basic rule becomes apparent: the more chords there are the better the music is. It's something Glass should perhaps mull over.

Yet the staging never gets past dreadful. There's a Notting Hill carnival-dreadful at the off - women on stilts, giant papier-mache monsters and body-sculpting - and a political video-type-dreadful at the end - Gandhi and Martin Luther King in a slow-mo vanquishing of darkness. It's twee and saccharine, like something my local Lib Dem council might cook up one evening for a bit of community bonding.

There's no libretto to speak off, just a few vapid offcut aphorisms from the Bhagavad Gita and Gandhi, which are repeated ad nauseam. What content there is is profoundly suspicious. Perfectly reasonable if truistic statements like "be friendly and compassionate" rub shoulders with pseudo-Buddhist bunk, "be same in pleasure as in pain", "be done with thoughts of 'I' and 'mine'." As Paris Hilton might say: yeah, whatever.

Symbolic of the profound lack in this opera was the silence from the pit before the start of each act. Rather than the usual cacophony of practice and play-back, there was total peace. No one has to practise before Satyagraha because there is nothing to practise. Indeed, there is nothing in Satyagraha at all: no music, no characters, no plot, no interest, no point. I would have learnt more if I had stared at a wall.

Yet despite all this cretinism, despite Satyagraha being one of the worst operas, and Phelim McDermott's one of the worst productions, history has ever thrown up, the London Symphony Orchestra's concert last Sunday might have pipped it to the post of worst classical event of the year so far.

LIFE: A Journey Through Time - for, lo, yes, that was the concert's fabulous name -  was as execrable as the title suggests. A tangle of weak cuts from Glass's film scores spliced together crassly follows a series of dishonestly tarted-up National Geographic photos of nature, looking nothing like nature does, obeying some fatuous, first-base idea of aesthetics, over-saturated, over-abstracted, whorish and wrong. None of this, I hasten to add, was Marin Alsop or the LSO's fault, who played Glass's retarded scores with gusto.


Tell it how it is, Igor. And I, for one, won't contradict you. Last time round Saryagraha's four chords in forty-five minutes had me fleeing. Yes, I felt unwell. That, I suppose, is at least a reaction. Now, let's for goodness' sake get back to Reich and Adams, the real stuff.

"Philip Glass is genuinely just a load of old bollocks." Yeah right. This is a juvenile, attention-seeking review. Aren't you supposed to be the serious professional ones?

There's clearly nothing wrong with robust criticism. However, I only wish that there could be a bit more of a middle ground between this sort of absolute dismissal and the total adulation in your recent review of George Benjamin's Birthday concert. It does seem to suggest a rather black-and-white view of things.

This is an extremely offensive, badly-written and ill-though-out review. Who are you? Have you had a proper musical education? Are you qualified to write "professional" music reviews? It certainly doesn't seem so. Sadly, you are taking up space where somebody else could be doing a good job. For example - just because some minimalist music is based on small cells and repitition, this does not make it easy to play, follow or conduct. Not liking something is one thing - varied opinions and responses are what make art interesting - but this is just a tirade of juvenile abuse, not a good critical appraisal.

Anon2, the difference in quality between Glass's Satyagraha and the works in the Benjamin concert was very black and white I can assure you. Damien, happy to be acquainted. On the subject of poor writing, 'repitition' actually has a second 'e'. And funny you should mention all that stuff about the music because I've just been playing some Glass on the piano. I actually find it quite easy to play and follow and always have, though, you're probably right, it is no doubt tricky to keep track of all the repetitions, especially while trying to marshal singers, choir and orchestra. You'll see I did in fact praise Marin Alsop for conducting 'Glass's retarded scores with gusto'. The ENO conductor Stuart Stratford was a little less effective, losing the choir a couple of times in the Second Act.

A totally self-serving, artless, unintelligent and amateurish review. What an idiot.

Is there any reason to be so disrespectful though in such a public way? Tell it as it is, but please not in such a common, debased way. I thoroughly enjoyed Satyagraha last Thursday, with colleagues who worked their socks off learning the stuff, and giving a very convincing performance. Each to their own, but there were many Indian people who perhaps had never been to an 'opera' or that theatre in their lives. Perhaps those of you who thought it was actual rubbish, just simply are too juvenile to understand both the music and its sentiment, and then lower yourselves to gutter language, particularly Igor T-L. By the way, so what if the chorus got out in Act 2 - it was a first night, live music, not a CD, and anyone who goes to a first night in straight threatre knows they are going to about a sixth night with all the previews. So don't be so hard on us singers and be such offensive and self-serving back seat drivers! Have respect for a composer who has worked very hard, been inspired and for performing artists who have to work very hard to earn a living. It wasn't rubbish, Philip Glass isn't rubbish, he and his music is just not your cup of tea but don't mock art that many of us see further than what you hear and see.

Maria, you're a performer and I don't think Igor would deny the work you all put in - though, believe me, I know players in the ENO Orchestra who have worked just as hard and come to the opposite conclusion to you. They could hardly be denounced as too 'juvenile' to understand music of such obvious simplicity. There's also the famous, if possibly apocryphal, story of the cellist for Akhnaten who left her stand and came back 45 minutes later to take up exactly where she'd left off. Not that simplicity is a bad thing, and of course we in the west are not so used to subtle evolution; I can well imagine an Indian audience which understands its ragas might take something away from this. But music that doesn't modulate perhaps sometimes needs a less than modulated response. I'd rather read someone who does know a lot of stuff speaking his mind than the over-respectful views of critics on new music who regurgitate the programme notes (and believe me, I was there when the London new music mafia applied their none too subtle pressure so that the writer wouldn't plainspeak). Purely from a personal view, few things have made me angrier than Satyagraha. This from someone who adores Nixon, Dr Atomic and Steve Reich's The Cave.

gosh, this is getting fun! Maria: "there were many Indian people"? Are you having a laugh?! There were hardly any "Indian people" at all. Do you really think any self-respecting "Indian" person - by which I presume you mean British-Asian person; I doubt many residents of Delhi or Mumbai actually FLEW in to see this production to be honest - would waste their time watching some hippie Westerner's vacuous take on their ancient and highly sophisticated culture. On the choir issue, Maria, just have another read of the review. I didn't mention the choir at all. I mention it later, in passing, in comment, because Damien Kennedy brought up the fact that the opera was difficult to conduct. Alsop was notable in her flawlessness next to the slightly "less effective" Stratford, I wrote, who lost control of the choir "a couple of times". That's hardly disrespectful. Quite the contrary. So strong was my respect for the singers, so attentive was I to the diligence that they had so obviously put into the work, that I thought it best not to name them in case one traduced them by association with the cataclysmic failure that is Satyagraha.

Igor, I must correct you there at least from my perspective during the first run - there was indeed a very large Indian contingent in the audience. And I do think it may have an important follow-on effect, as it did at the Proms after the Indian music/Bollywood day - I met and talked to many fellow Prommers who'd come back for more of a very different sort because they liked that and they liked the ambience. Though, yes, I do think it's quarter-digested stuff and the meaning of the words goes for nothing, so whether they were impressed or not in this instance I have no idea.

Well, the fact that so few came back for the second run I think speaks volumes.

Igor, go back to the laboratory and help your master with other experiments. This review is of no help to the world.

Not everyone at theartsdesk loathes all of Philip Glass. I say some sort of nice things about him in my Nitin Sawhney review:

As another arts desk critic who knows little about classical music but likes what Phillip Glass he’s heard, I would immediately distrust a music critic who starts to count chords. Some of the worst music I’ve heard is constipated and showy because of its surplus of chords, and some of the best is transcendent because it only has two or three chords. It’s like judging a painting for not including enough colours; how would Whistler have fared under such criteria? And so for this reason alone I confess I distrusted you verdict, Igor. Hey, I even know a couple of tunes that only utilize one chord, but they still rock my world!

I agree with your basic premise, Howard, but I think what Igor was saying - though I'm sure he can reply for himself - was that four chords actually promised much. I'll fill in the ensuing gap in the article (ie what happened next) from my perspective. Surely it's what goes on melodically above those chords that matters, and over 45 minutes I heard no interest in that. You could even argue that lack of modulation over such a length of time isn't a failure in different cultures; but here different sentiments, if hardly drama, are unfolded, and yet it stays the same. Try comparing the opening of Adams's Nixon in China, which starts with nothing but ascending minor scales but shifts, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, to reflect the changing inner and outer landscapes. That's what I think of as music-drama. I have the same problem, by and large, with the 'democracy of tonal atoms' in strict twelve-tone music. Neither anything-goes complexity nor extreme simplicity says anything to me once it's been said once (as it was, way back in the birth of minimalism, by LaMonte Young). BTW, I'd be quite happy if any of the enthusiasts below could tell me what makes Glass tick for them, but I haven't seen any attempt so far.

To an extent, Howard, a fair point. A high number of chords does not equal a high rate of success. Having said that, I know of no other piece that resides so stolidly - so clunkingly - within one key and within the framework of a few chords for so long - except other Glass. My point about the paucity of chords is merely to point out the general lack of variety in the work as a whole, not only in the basics - in the harmony, the melodies, the rhythms, most of which don't look beyond Brahms - but also in the so-called development of these. This is, I am told, where Glass's subtleties and interest are meant to lie. And, as David rightly says, this is the problem. The developmental ideas (of rhythm and melody and harmony and timbre and orchestration) are excruciatingly pat. They resemble the sort of thing your computer screensaver does. Or the kind of thing you chance upon on the piano when 14. It's seriously glib, unsubtle stuff. About as glib and unsubtle as my review in fact.

One last point and then I'll shut up. Rhythms that don't look beyond Brahms? Could Glass come anywhere near Brahms's complex sense of across-the-bar phrasing and rhythmic variety, at least in his songs and chamber music? I don't think so. Believe me, there's a lot that's much more 'modern' in Brahms than there is in Glass, for all the old Hamburger's surface conservatism.

Oh couldn't agree more with you, David. I realise I was flattering Glass a tad with that comment. Simply had in mind their common obsession with three-against-two rhythms and their real reluctance to throw caution to the wind with fluctuating time signatures.

Rising to that bait - I saw a documentary about the early satellites on TV that used Philip Glass's music which worked perfectly, the bright, forward propulsion, the modernity but with a sense of nostalgia provoked by a C minor to G sharp major shift with the melody mirroring the spinning satellite. There wasn't another composer whose music would have been more appropriate. Steve Reich goves a good argument for one-chord music in a recent lecture at the Red Bull Academy (google it, it's good) - from Charlie Parker to Terry Riley - often inspired by India and Africa, the idea is that repetition needs a differerent form of listening, where you end of focussing on the minutiae, which has trance like effects. And check the brilliant Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground on the week's Birthdays on the Tube on the site, which came out of that period - John Cale having worked with La Monte Young - droning one-chord with a couple of others thrown in. None of the above means I think everything Glass does is good, far from it (I saw this opera and got bored, Einstein On the Beach works though) , but it's not all bad either and the argument that more chords is more interesting or better is, to coin a phrase, bollocks - I agree with Howard on that front.

If Igor said it was bollocks then it must be so since he is an authority on the subject. I have read so many of his reviews and he seemed very knowledgeable and if something or someone is worthy of the praise he would spare the words. It is important these days to have a good backer and anything goes. Thanks God for Igors and the likes.

Yesterday evening the audience was ecstatic (by British standards) but apart from a few beautiful parts I too felt short changed by the opera: too little music, too few words, schematic storyline, trivial symbolism. The "Notting Hill carnival" production brought some most welcome activity, and (mostly) kept me from drowsing off. Should have read Igor's review before I went: Glass is beautiful as a soundtrack, but too thin on its own to keep me going for three hours.

I do hope that Igor Toronyi-Lalic isn't being paid to compose this nonsense. On the bright side, at least the responses to his work are intelligent and considered, unlike the article itself. Igor, if you don't like Glass, then don't go to listen to his work. Do you compose yourself? I hope not, because your music, judging by your prose, would be full of self-importance, too many chords, dense textures and a rather disappointing finale.

What an immature review. You sound like an angry teenager! The staging for this piece was one the most beautiful I've ever seen, even if the music was a bit thin on the ground. You obviously have very poor taste in stage design.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters