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Posts tagged ‘Philip Glass’


How do you do that? she asks, seated on the stairs to his loft, How do you know which notes to play without sheets?

Memory, he says, I do it by memory.

It is Boxing Day, and Anna has woken to the sound of the piano. Downstairs Seth seated before it, his fingers moving slowly across the keys.

What is it? I’ve never heard anything like it.

Seth smiles, his fingers continuing to pick out the notes in ones and twos, each separated by a gap, the space between them seeming as important as the notes themselves, the way they fade into it, leaving the memory of their resonance hanging. She shivers.

It doesn’t have a name, he says, An artificial intelligence composed it.

In front of her she can see the muscles in his back shift beneath his skin, the articulated cage of his ribs beneath them.

I have a recording of it, but I prefer to play it myself. There’s an alien quality to it, a sense of another way of being I can get closer to.

It sounds . . . sad. No, she corrects herself, listening to the strange, ghostly sound of the piano, the dying notes, not sad, something else I can’t quite describe, Like the sound of wind in grass or moving water, that quietness, that colourless feeling. She hesitates. Maybe I can’t find the words because there are no words.

It’s like trying to describe the sound of geometry, isn’t it? Can you imagine what it must be like to be conscious, aware, but without matter, without form? Without place. A ghost in a machine.

Anna shakes her head. But listening to the slow patterns of this music she can hear the loneliness of this thing of bits and light, this artificial mind shifting like the aurora through the circuits of some optical computer, like the siren call of a whale in the oceanic night, the long, clicking song that goes unanswered.

 From The Deep Field.

Le Résurrectionniste

Le Resurrectionniste

I’ve always taken a pretty hands-off attitude to translation and translation rights. That’s probably partly because I’m so embarrassingly monolingual, but it’s also about an awareness that you have so little control over the process that it’s better not to let yourself worry too much about it.

That’s not to say I don’t know any of my translators. I’ve recently been in correspondence with the Brazilian translator of The Resurrectionist and I had quite a bit to do with the German translator of my first two novels. In both cases the things they needed clarifying were small, culturally-specific details (most recently about the bonding of convicts in early New South Wales) or points of fact they were unsure about (or I’d not been as clear about as I might have been).

But the one foreign publisher I do have a relationship with is Payot & Rivages, who have just published The Resurrectionist in France.

It’s a relationship that came about largely by chance. Despite my execrable French, I was fortunate enough to spend the second half of 2007 at the Australia Council’s Keesing Studio in Paris, and since I’d sold the French rights shortly before I arrived I thought it couldn’t hurt to give my publishers a call.

Being as exquisitely courteous as most French people, they not only arranged to meet me, but made a great fuss of me, taking me to lunch and inviting me to their home for dinner.

That in itself was a wonderful gesture, and one made the more special by the somewhat hilarious moment when my translators (unusually they’re brothers who work together) asked me what music I listened to while I was writing the book. It seemed a bit of an odd question, but as I’ve mentioned before that I listened to a lot of Philip Glass while I was writing the book, partly because I found its almost hypnotic qualities helped me get into the right headspace, partly because there was something in the structure and texture of the music I wanted to emulate in the way the book’s parts moved against each other, and so I told them that, at which they laughed in triumph, and said ‘We knew it! We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Anyway – the other outtake from the night’s festivities came just before I ate, when I was spirited away to a back room and interviewed on camera. They didn’t tell me I was doing the interview until I’d drunk several glasses of wine, which may or may not be apparent in the excerpts that are now available on their website, but what is apparent is how much more clever and concise I am once somebody has translated me into French. Who knew my rambling, half-drunken words could be turned into such chiselled French prose? Or that I could be so suavely epigrammatic? I suppose the lesson is that I should speak in subtitles more often . . .



Artistic tendencies linked to ‘schizophrenia gene’

PET scans of a schizophrenia sufferer's brain (left) and normal brain (right).

PET scans of a schizophrenia sufferer's brain (left) and normal brain (right).

New Scientist is reporting a fascinating study suggesting a statistical correlation between a gene linked to schizophrenia and creativity. The study, conducted by Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary:

“examined a gene involved in brain development called neuregulin 1, which previous studies have linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. Moreover, a single DNA letter mutation that affects how much of the neuregulin 1 protein is made in the brain has been linked to psychosis, poor memory and sensitivity to criticism . . .

“To determine how these variations affect creativity, Kéri genotyped 200 adults who responded to adverts seeking creative and accomplished volunteers. He also gave the volunteers two tests of creative thinking, and devised an objective score of their creative achievements, such as filing a patent or writing a book.

“People with two copies of the neuregulin 1 mutation – about 12 per cent of the study participants – tended to score notably higher on these measures of creativity, compared with other volunteers with one or no copy of the mutation. Those with one copy were also judged to be more creative, on average, than volunteers without the mutation. All told, the mutation explained between 3 and 8 per cent of the differences in creativity”.

I’m always a little sceptical of such studies, not least because of the reductive assumptions inherent in their methodology. But this research fits neatly with a number of other studies suggesting a link between mood disorders and creativity (some of which I’ve mentioned before).

You can read more at New Scientist. And while you’re there, take a minute or two to read this story about researchers turning brain scans into sound, a process which not only reveals patterns and rhythms not always visible to the eye, but also allows the “unsteady rhythms and cadences” (a lovely expression) of dysfunctions such as schizophrenia to emerge. Stranger still is the fact the music of the (hemi)spheres sounds just like early Philip Glass.
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Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass, Florence 1993.
Image via Wikipedia

Having just watched Scott Hicks’ biographical documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve always found intriguing about Glass is the curious way his work blurs the line between the popular and the cerebral. He seems as home writing film scores and occasional music such as the Sesame Street piece below, as he is writing symphonies and operas.

I’d always assumed this was partly to do with his relatively unconventional career trajectory – until well after Einstein on the Beach was a hit he was still working as a taxi driver, for a time before they fell out, he and Steve Reich ran a moving business together, and I’m sure everyone has heard the anecdote about him installing a dishwasher in the apartment of a suitably appalled Robert Hughes during his time working as a plumber (in Hicks’ film they reproduce a comic strip in which Hughes is identified as “art critic John Hughes” which might be a deliberate slight but is probably just a fortuitous mistake). A career which so deliberately eschewed the conventional path for a composer and performer must, I’d always assumed, bring not only its own financial pressures but a preparedness to step outside the traditional parameters of high and low art. But interestingly, in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ history of twentieth century music, he suggests it is as easily understood in historical terms:

“Riley, Reich and Glass came to be called minimalists, although they are better understood as the continuation of a circuitous, difficult-to-name development in American music that dated back tot he early years of the century, and more often than not took root on the West Coast. This alternative canon includes Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, who drew on non-Western traditions and built up a hypnotic atmosphere through insistent repetition; Morton Feldman, who distributed minimal parcels of sound over long durations; and La Monte Young, who made music from long, buzzing drones. All of them in one way or another set aside a premise that had governed classical composition for centuries – the conception of music as a self-contained linguistic activity that develops relationships among discrete thematic characters over a well-marked period of time. This music was, by contrast, open-ended, potentially limitless.

“It was a purely American art, free of modernist angst and inflected with pop optimism . . . Reich and his colleagues borrowed from popular music, especially from bebop and modern jazz, and they affected pop music in turn”.

It seems curious to me that even now Glass is so routinely derided. How anyone could engage with the beauty and intelligence and rigour of his work and not be affected is difficult to understand, not least because it isn’t really necessary to take on the major works to appreciate him: the sheer profusion of his work means that often the details and the seemingly throwaway moments are – ironically, given that his music is so much about the construction of soundscapes – themselves things of extraordinary beauty.

But – and I think this is what I wanted to say to begin with – it was particularly fascinating to hear Glass speak about his process in Hicks’ film, and the sense that he often doesn’t know what a piece – even, or especially a major piece – is about until quite a long way into the process, a feeling I’m sure any writer knows very well (as indeed they know the worry Glass jokes about, that you may not realize what it’s about until it’s being performed). But I was particularly touched by his remark immediately afterwards, that for all that he is used to working with this uncertainty, sometimes for younger artists it can be terrifying.

Oddly, given all this, Glass has more than intellectual interest for me. When I was writing The Resurrectionist I listened to Glass a lot, not just for the hypnotic effect of the music, but because there was something in the way the pieces worked as larger cycles I wanted to understand, and use. And it must have worked. When I met my French translators (brothers, who work together, and lovely guys, both of them) in 2007, they asked me whether I’d listened to much music when I was writing the book. Yes, I said, Radiohead’s Kid A when I was writing the sections in the centre in which Gabriel loses his mind, but mostly Philip Glass. And at this last they began to laugh. ‘We knew it,’ they said. ‘We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Glass must be 71 now, but in 2007, when he turned 70, The Guardian ran this piece which is well worth reading.

Here, in one of the odder cross-pollinations, is a segment from Sesame Street which used Glass’ music.

And for good measure, here’s Branka Parlic playing one of my favourite pieces of Glass’ music, Metamorphosis One.

And here, out of interest, is the trailer for Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.


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