Recently, I watched Xavier Beauvois’ very good movie, Of Gods and Men. It’s a narrative film based on a true story about nine Trappist monks living in Tibhirine, Algeria during the mid-’90s, when radical Islamists were killing foreigners during the country’s civil war. The monks, a crucial backbone to a city starved for resources and leadership, must decide if they should leave and abandon their beliefs to avoid being killed, or stay and most surely offer themselves up in martyrdom. This debate takes up the bulk of the action, moving along in a slow chug of moral deliberation. It is a serious film with light moments, lovingly photographed and intermittently heartbreaking. The last scene, an extended whitewash of snow, is crushing, and trumped in profundity only by the penultimate scene, where the monks sit around a table eating dinner and listening to Tchaikovsy’s Swan Lake on a boom box. The camera pans from monk to monk, pausing on each of their faces. Some cry, it seems as much out of reverence for the music as the nearby danger. Swan Lake, bold and familiar, soaks up any possibility of terror. It is very beautiful. I was moved by the film and soon after watching read a few reviews. A.O. Scott of The New York Times ends his by discussing the scene: “[Tchaikovsky’s] lush, emotive orchestration emphasizes the utter absence of such wanton emotionalism. And yet it also serves as a reminder that even in wartime, and even in lives governed by restraint and self-denial, there is an essential need for beauty, feeling and art.” I have been blessed to have my life so shaped by the arts. What the monks feel during that scene, I feel regularly, and deeply. And while I have been moved many times in many directions by music, as a antidote to my curmudgeonliness, I am most grateful for the joyous and ebullient, even when it is a little cheesy. Which is why Philip Glass has always been so perfect to me. In college, a friend played me “Knee Play 5” from Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach. It begins with droning synthesizer, a large chorus of monotonous counting and indecipherable background chatter, five minutes later, Jasper McGruder comes in with his deeply soothing voice and narrates a love story over a meandering violin:
How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the ocean with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the seashore. Impossible, you say. Yes, and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you. My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you.
While thankfully I am not facing imminent death, I have routinely found myself grateful to this music for lifting my spirits. I recognize how saccharine this may seem, and I am fine with that.That may not have been what Glass was aiming for. When he began playing, in dingy spaces belonging to the art world, he was the consummate outsider. The simple fact of Music in Twelve Parts’ three-and-a-half-hour existence is a real screw you to convention, never mind the fact that it is mostly made up of extreme repetition. But over the years he has abandoned that minimalism for a mainstream career, becoming likely the world’s most well known living composer. As a fan of new music, that is an exciting path to see. For young musicians in a quick and digital world, the underground’s future is murky. Yes, there are ample virtues to a lifelong dedication to the avant-garde, but pushing past it to make people feel good is a path with its own merits. Most of the time, I am glad he took it. So for this year’s Icon issue, we are proud to present to you our loping meditation on Philip Glass, a 75-year-old dabbler and unparalleled hard worker. His career is a model of experimentation, something no young musician should find fault in. He has created so much music in his life that his influence is unknowable. We’ve tried to touch on most of it, though that would be like measuring the waters of the ocean with a teaspoon. May you find your Swan Lake. We did.