Philip Glass: The Complete Piano Etudes

Do you compartmentalize?

I ask because it’s common, a given in a modern life. Whether we’re speaking of the things we do for work-life balance, as part of an artistic discipline or simply to get through a busy day, it’s not a radical idea.

I bring it up because a photo I shared in the last thing I wrote inadvertently demonstrates my inevitable tendency to pigeonhole, subdividing parts of myself. And it’s especially relevant to the book in question.

I thought it felt funny when I took the picture with my phone. Glass’s book immediately went onto the piano. This “book” is of course a musical score, read in different ways than the other two.

I’ll gallop through Mary Trump’s book cover to cover once I start. I need to read the rest of the Sarah Polley book, her essay really a secondary source for researching & writing about film & directors.

So yes there are three books in the picture, but it might be more accurate if I showed two books plus the piano. Conceptually it’s almost as though Glass’s Etudes (2014) represent exercise equipment like barbells or an elliptical trainer, the place to work out and better myself.

Or face my limitations. I bought the Glass book, nervous about what I might find. Oh sure, I had trepidations when I opened the book, but it might more properly be understood as a mirror.

Mirror mirror on the floor….

Mirror? When you go to a gym after a long interval (and this is huge for me, having quit my Hart House membership in February 2020, nervous about what I had read concerning the “new” coronavirus): you are looking at yourself, measuring yourself. How you feel, how much you can lift, how quickly you move, how high your heart rate gets (and how quickly you recover), how flexible you are stretching, all signifying aspects of fitness in various ways, snapshots of life in motion.

Exercise serves as a mirror in that elaborate sense, and it’s also true for the music we play on our instrument. Whenever we sing, especially anything taking us to the limits of our voice, we are confronted by the body’s feedback. As a church soloist I used to notice some fatigue near the beginning of the busy seasons for singing, near Christmas and again near Easter, but the busy schedule would get us all into better shape, just like workouts in a gym help us to improve our athletic performance. Indeed one can forget that making music is an athletic activity, sometimes tiring us, sometimes bringing on repetitive strain injuries, and to be understood across the great arc of our maturation and (sigh) aging.

I might be reading a bit more into this than usual, recalling Philip Glass’s statements about being a Buddhist. I don’t know what he believes in 2022 but I recall long ago that he said so. His Etudes may be studies in the usual sense, to help build one’s skills, but for a Buddhist the idea of self-improvement and discipline has an additional meditative dimension.

Let me interrupt this serious discourse to offer up the classic Philip Glass joke, relevant because so many people love him even though a lot of people seem to hate him.

Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass.
Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass.
Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass


If you’re laughing I forgive you. I’m not one of those people who laughs at this joke, indeed, I’d say it’s funniest for those who don’t “get” Glass, people who disparage his style.

You might think it’s odd that I speak of music the same way as I speak of a joke. But it’s similar I believe.

I recall having an enormous long argument concerning Satyagraha with a critic who was concerned (I was going to say ”upset” but no, I think he was pleased to have an obvious target for his critique): concerned that the music of that opera didn’t do what he thought the music should do. In other words, he was employing standards to judge Glass that were irrelevant and inapplicable.

I’m reminded of this famous image concerning intelligence testing.

If we must judge fit the test to the subject being tested. Don’t be surprised that birds fly, fish swim or Glass is repetitive.

But I must admit that I am now grateful decades later for this early (1981) demonstration of something I’ve seen many times since, especially with respect to opera productions.

Whew, let me come back to Glass. I think those who experience Glass as repetitive might not be troubled by the Etudes, given that Hanon or Czerny can seem boring too. I submit that if you’re bored maybe you’re doing them wrong. Maybe I’m sounding like a pedant nerd, to think they’re enjoyable.

But I used to love jogging (which I don’t do anymore, to protect my knees), and still enjoy long walks. I don’t use the word “boring” except when speaking of the way other people perceive the world.

Most of the music lies under the hand, but then again that’s to be expected with music designed to help exercise your hand. I played through the book, glad that they weren’t difficult to sight-read.

But it’s a deceptive simplicity. To play Glass properly one must be mindful of tempo, a steady beat inside you whether you’re counting or not. To play the notes smoothly and evenly is the goal, even if there’s lots of repetition.

So far I’ve played through the book a couple of times. It’s not really the way they’re likely meant to be consumed: closer to the way I’ll read Mary Trump’s book or an opera score, than a book of studies, to improve discipline. Ha, my lack of discipline is showing. It’s one of the drawbacks of being a good sight-reader. I don’t really practice well. To be honest, I don’t practice at all. I simply play. It goes with my compartmentalization I suppose. But I do have fun.

And I’ve also started listening to a recording of the Etudes by Leslie Dala, although I’ve only listened to a couple so far(there are 20). I found one of his interpretations on YouTube to share.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Food, Health and Nutrition, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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