January 27, 2013

Classical Beat: ETHYL builds an evening around a Philip Glass film score


I am going to hear a concert by the contemporary string quartet ETHYL, "Present Beauty," at University of Southern Maine's Hannaford Hall at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (also at Camden Opera House on Saturday) because of the group's interest in, and support of, Native American music.

click image to enlarge

ETHYL, which serves as the ensemble in residence at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, produces a “vital and brilliant” show, according to The New Yorker.

James Ewing photo

The quartet serves as the ensemble-in-residence at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, part of the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project. ETHYL recorded "Oshtali: Music for String Quartet" (2010), the first commercial recording of Native American student works. 

The "Present Beauty" program, however, promises to be a pleasure in itself.

The quartet has built the evening around the music Philip Glass wrote for "The Hours," a 2002 film that explores the effect of Virginia Woolf's novel, "Mrs. Galloway," on three generations of women. 

The movie, starring Meryl Streep, was nominated for a best picture Academy Award, and Glass' music was nominated for best original film score.

One film critic called the score "relentless and over-amplified," but its popularity -- it has been published as a 64-page transcription for piano -- belies that verdict.

The music seems almost inevitable for an exploration of the use of quotidian busy-ness to avoid an examination of real life. 

The score also lends itself to dissection and reassembly, consisting of a series of individual "tracks" composed to accompany specific events in the film.

I like novels in which the drama consists of whether a painter can find the right shade of blue. I also like Glass' music, in which the development consists of infinitesimal changes in a repetitive pattern.

Maybe that's because my father was a railroad buff and maintained that each line had its own sound pattern generated by the wheels rolling over the joints in the track. One, the Baltimore & Ohio as I recall, emulated the name of a baseball player of yore: Bo-de-ga-ray-to-play-today, accents on "bo" and "play."

There is something about pattern repetition that seems fundamental to music. Slight changes in pitch or timbre within that pattern are somehow amplified, as is anticipation of the next change. (See "Bolero.") Steve Reich, Glass' model, called it "chugging," to continue the train metaphor.

It also, as the Portland Ovations flyer points out, "celebrates the concept of finding beauty in the present, without beginning or end."

Also on the program will be Julia Wolfe's "Early that Summer," exemplifying musical and political events that begin with a whimper and end with a bang.

David Lang will be represented by "wed" (sic) from his incidental music to a recent production of "The Tempest." Taking Glass to the next level, Lang suggests the music should be "subdued and still, devoid of almost all expression." 

Tickets are $42 to $46 through porttix.com. It should be a fun evening for all. The New Yorker called the ETHYL road show "vital and brilliant."

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:



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