Philip Glass, Palindromes, and What I Learned by Lying on a Stranger’s Living Room Floor
A work of art is an odyssey. It is the jumping-off, the traversing, the destination. It is the hero’s journey: the ordinary; the call; the threshold; the ordeal; the return. In music this is conveyed through phrasing, dynamics, intonation, rhythm, structure, form. We follow these journeys with our ears and our minds, and though they were not written to mirror our own paths, we feel ourselves in them nonetheless.
Recently, in a stranger’s third-floor apartment in Bed-Stuy, I lay down on the floor with 15 other strangers and listened intently to Philip Glass’s 1982 album Glassworks in its entirety. It was an educational experience. New York City, to me, has been a cold and unwelcoming place where I have struggled to connect with the swiftly-moving lives that rush past mine on a daily basis. I am traveling my own timeline, they theirs. We are intersecting lines only, never parallel. But as I listened to this album whilst lying still and silent with others, I heard my own saga and I listened to the effects of these strangers on my journey.
Glassworks is a process piece. It is a minimalist, palindromic work that builds upon itself in each movement, surprising you with new and unexpected instrumentation and sound mixing, yet maintaining its central ideas throughout and, in the end, bringing you full circle to its conceptual beginning, but this time synthesising what you’ve heard and requesting that you return with more complete comprehension, greater awareness, and fuller appreciation for the journey you’ve taken. It moves forward and backward, growing and learning in each direction. In the end it is itself, but more.
Life is a process piece, too. My encounters with the swiftly-moving New Yorkers may be brief, but they affect my storyline anyway. They build upon my base identity and twist my form, restructuring me and calling out like horns in the second movement, shocking me and altering my dynamics like saxophones and synthesizers in the fourth, reprising me in more detail like the full ensemble in the sixth. They weaken some facets, strengthen others, and create some that were never there before. I move forward and backward, growing and learning in each direction. In the end I will be me, but more.
Let’s start with two. The first: 2/4. A reliable signature. A baseline and a starting point. We’ll call this trust. It is upon this tenet of trust that the work will be built. In music it is as steady as our heartbeats, and as near to us. We feel it regulate our breathing, we feel it reverberate in our bones. We trust the composer, the conductor, the musicians. We trust the chairs on which the musicians sit, the stands that hold their music, the printers that produced the score. We trust the sound. Without any one of these, the work will fail. If they are present but without our trust, the work will fail us all the same.
The second: 6/8. A quick pace for the right hand. A balance and a pattern. We’ll call this hope. This is the fluidity that separates the passages. It changes each movement and defines each phrase. In music it is what surprises us, challenges us, and draws us forward. It catches our breath and flutters our eyelids. It keeps us on our toes. It’s the contrast that allows us to value more what came before it and what will come after it. Without it we have no past or future. Without it we have no dreams.
And so it is with life: we trust the process and we trust the foundations and we improvise on phrases of that trust with hope in and for ourselves and others. In life I trust that the ground will still be there even when my feet are not touching it. I trust that even though the MTA might be extraordinarily delayed, it will eventually deposit me at my destination. I trust that when I’m lying on a stranger’s living room floor listening to a vinyl record no one will step on my hair or spill beer on me. If I don’t trust these things I have no tether, and no baseline on which to ground my saga. These are the lines. And yet, I hope that each time my feet leave the ground it will be to jump higher and farther. I hope that just this once I’ll have a commute free of train traffic. I hope that as I lie on the floor with strangers I’ll learn about myself and I’ll learn about them and when we leave it will no longer be as strangers. These hopes are what separate each day, what motivate and inspire me in all my movements. These are the colors within the lines.
Music does not exist in a vacuum, and it does not exist in solitude. When you create music, you interact with the body of work that came before it. When you play music, you interact with the composer who wrote it. When you listen to music, you interact with the musicians who played it. In each interaction with music there is a conversation with people. In each there is citizenship.
Lying on a rug in that third-floor apartment, I interacted with Philip Glass; with the musicians who played the recording we listened to; with the producers who distributed the recording; with the professor who taught us about Glass’s work that night; with the people who lay around me; with the teachers who taught me to read and play music; with the family who taught me to listen and to appreciate music. Widening and contracting circles of influences. And in all of them: myself and others. A citizenry brought together by one work of art, all at different chapters of our own sagas, all grounded and surrounded by the same tenets, all learning and growing. All ourselves, and more.