In the early 1970s, a young maverick composer named Philip Glass developed a cult following by playing a new style of motorized, melancholic music in the tumbledown lofts and art galleries of Lower Manhattan.
"That was an incredible time for art and music in New York City," longtime Philip Glass Ensemble director Michael Riesman told the Scene in 2007. "Lower Manhattan had all these derelict warehouses that artists and musicians turned into lofts. ... I first heard Philip in one of those lofts in 1972 and was blown away."
Much has changed in 40 years. Manhattan is now largely bereft of tumbledown lofts. And these days, Glass, long the classical music world's most famous (indeed, only famous) living composer, is more often found at Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House than in small, intimate venues.
This weekend, however, Glass is returning to his roots, performing once again in the cozy confines of a converted warehouse. The famed modernist composer will present a pair of duo concerts on Friday and Saturday in Nashville's newest performance space, the former cigar warehouse of Cano Ozgener that has blossomed into OZ Nashville. The terrific American violinist Tim Fain, who is perhaps best-known for his performances in such movies as Black Swan and 12 Years a Slave, will join Glass in concert.
Glass catapulted to fame in the 1970s for composing an austere, extremely reductive style of music known by the moniker of minimalism. Depending on one's point of view, the swirling arpeggios and pulsating repetitive patterns of Glass' early works came across as either mesmerizing or mind-numbing.
Critic Tim Page found Einstein on the Beach — Glass' Gertrude Stein-like absurdist fantasy that was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976 — to be an intellectually delightful, life-altering event. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, on the other hand, considered the diddle-diddle-diddle patterns in much of Glass' music to be devoid of personality and imagination.
For his part, Glass has always hated the term minimalism. "People have been calling me a minimalist composer for years, and though I've largely gotten used to it, the term is still a misnomer," Glass told the Scene in 2007. "At best, minimalism applies only to a short period in music history from about 1965 to 1975. To apply it to any music written afterward does nothing but cause confusion."
Glass, of course, knows what he's talking about. His early works — Music in Twelve Parts, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths — were as hypnotically repetitive as they were stylistically simple. Indeed, the titles themselves were little more than bare-bone descriptions of what was happening in the music.
In the decades since Einstein, the once edgy avant-gardist has become a prolific composer of more traditional concert music, writing symphonies, concertos, string quartets and even film scores. Repetition is still a key ingredient in his music, though it now often seems self-derivative and formulaic.
Yet in recent years, Glass has also composed pieces that dig deeper in search of a more profound musical meaning. One such piece was Book of Longing, a 100-minute-long song cycle from 2007 that sets to music the poetry of Leonard Cohen. Fain was part of the small ensemble that toured the country with that work.
"There's one place in Book of Longing where the violin gets to play a solo," says Fain, who spoke recently by phone from New York City. "The solo was short, lasting only about 90 seconds, but it was some of the most compelling music I ever played. It was so good that I wanted more, so I eventually went up to Glass and asked if he'd be interested in writing me a bigger piece. I was utterly thrilled when he agreed."
The work Glass eventually delivered was a seven-movement, 32-minute-long Partita for Solo Violin. In the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach's mighty Partita in D minor, Glass' piece includes a "Chaconne," music of vertiginous virtuosity that indeed sounds like the 18th century musings of Bach filtered through the 21st century prism of Philip Glass. "This is some of the strongest, most personal music that Philip Glass has ever composed," Fain says.
For their joint concerts, Glass and Fain usually alternate between playing solos and duos, with the composer accompanying at the piano. The two often play such familiar works as the shimmering Pendulum and soulful French Lieutenant. Fain also plays a finger-twisting violin solo from Einstein along with several movements from the Partita.
Lauren Snelling, OZ Nashville's artistic director, recently saw Glass and Fain perform together in Atlanta. The experience convinced her that the duo would be the perfect act to cap the new venue's inaugural season. "Tim Fain and Philip Glass don't just stand onstage and play," says Snelling. "They are wonderfully interactive and entertaining, which is what you'd expect from two world-class contemporary artists."