Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes: A Diary of an Influential Life
Then and now, Childs said, she has felt “a tremendous freedom” within his carefully structured scores. For example, the Joyce’s program features a duet of hers set to the 18th Etude. “My first reaction is just to listen,” she said — to the Rachmaninoff-esque shading, the mellowness and alluring romanticism. “There’s passion in this music. I like the idea of that.” From there, she took her work into the studio, eventually bringing in dancers, for a process that she described as fundamentally intuitive.
Peck similarly described his étude, the Sixth, in poetic rather than structural terms. “There’s this layer of anxiousness in it,” he said. “It made me feel something emotional, almost like being in a waiting room and not knowing what test results you’re going to get. And the amount of time the étude takes, it feels like an eternity.”
Not everyone has such strong emotional reactions to the études. Some have found them downright unmusical. “There’s always been a cadre of people, specifically in the more entrenched classical music world, for whom Philip’s music does nothing,” said Andres, the composer and editor of the new folio set, who is performing in the Geffen Hall concert. “What Philip would say is, there’s plenty of other music in the world.”
If there is any agreement on the études, it may be about their specific difficulties. Like works by Mozart, they sound easier than they are, and punish anything short of precision in players. They demand metronome-specific steadiness and crystalline articulation, without sacrificing expression or shape, sculpted over several bars or several slow lines of score.
They teach pianists, Davies said, to “be relaxed when dealing with a technical problem, while also building up endurance.” Otherwise, playing the music becomes physically painful. He recalled the story of a musician running out of the orchestra pit during the premiere of Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” because his arm was hurting so much; the études, he added, also “expose weaknesses in anyone’s technique” that can lead to discomfort.