Monday, May 19, 2008

Satyagraha

Yesterday, I turned the radio on and was greeted with one of the chorus sections of Satyagraha, the opera by Philip Glass. The male chorus was energetically poking the same chord at our ears over and over, while the orchestra (sounding as though it consisted mostly of flutes) waffled in the background, playing the same phrase endlessly. When the chorus finally stopped their minimalist mutterings, a soloist took over, and waffled on in the same way…endlessly.
Later on, after the interval, (which was the most entertaining part of the broadcast), two women same the same two phrases at an equal pacing constantly, continually landing up on the same chord.
Monotony unbounded.
In the end I looked up Satyagraha and monotony and bored on Google, and came up with a review of the production that I was listening to. It’s by Andrew Byrne, who obviously attends the Met regularly. His enthusiasm for opera is evident in his other reviews, but the following extract shows the Satyagraha didn’t quite make the cut:
The ‘music’ of Satyagraha is nothing if not repetitive. All composers repeat their music yet this must break all bounds for cutting and pasting in music. One single semi-quaver note on the word ‘ha’ was sung 80 times at one stage - I was so bored that I started counting, like sheep in the night! And this monotony went on for what seemed like 20 minutes: ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ 8, 16, 32 or more times in half or quarter notes separated by arpeggios of 4 crochets. If this is a useful, pleasant or beautiful musical device, and I am not sure that it is, then only a mighty ego in a composer could think that repeating it with only the slightest chromatic modulations over 100 times would be musical, tasteful or indeed, tolerable. I found it boring and unimaginative. Many patrons near me slept during much of the performance.
Amazingly, plenty of other people write about the opera with enthusiasm. Maybe they were so struck by the production, with its giant puppets and slow-motion movement that they didn’t notice the music too much. There’s no production to get in the way of listening on the radio. Mr Glass’ music has to stand on its own dubious merits.
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