Show review: Philip Glass and Oneohtrix Point Never

Philip Glass
Philip Glass on stage at the Englert Theatre, April 3, 2014. — photo by Kent Williams

Oneohtrix Point Never

During Oneohtrix (oh-nay-ah-tricks) Point Never’s performance at the Englert Theatre, I was standing by the back wall, where apparently all the bass goes after passing through the volume of air in the theater. Though the sound system used was not that loud, if you stood where I stood, the bass was a whole body experience without obscuring the detail of the sounds in the higher register. I saw a dimly lit stage with one man illuminated by a laptop screen and dim blue lights. What I heard was dislocated ambience punctuated with synthetic thunderclaps.

What you saw or heard was probably different; at each point in the hall the sound was modulated by the space into a different balance. There’s a term of art in electronic music, “Acousmatic,” that describes a lot of what we heard. Acousmatic means you hear a sound without seeing what is making the sound. Last night, we heard all sorts of captured industrial and environmental noises in a context where they were familiar yet unidentifiable. Each listener made a private, personal sense of what he or she heard.

And yet, it all seemed to hang together and have an emotional resonance. Maybe the theme was we, the audience and the performer, trying to make sense of the chaotic world surrounding us. It felt like there was a common feeling in the room, in response to the shared experience. The brevity of each piece presented was helpful. Daniel Lopatin, who is Oneohtrix Point Never, worked outside familiar musical structures, so three or four minutes of a particular sound set (arranged according to no discernible system) is plenty. His compositions felt more like sculptures than musical pieces with a linear structure and climax.

And you, of course, if you were there, might feel completely different.

Listen to “Boring Angel,” which he performed last night.

Philip Glass

My mom is a classically trained composer and hates Philip Glass. I have always loved Philip Glass when he’s at his best. I witnessed a performance of the Philip Glass Ensemble and his opera The Photographer in the 1980s, and they were riveting, overwhelming performances, but ones where half the audience left at intermission. Glass is like that. Even enjoying his work, I sometimes lose patience with the way he returns to the same set of musical techniques over and over in his work. I want to yell at him, “make up some new tricks!”

At the Englert, we got the unvarnished Philip Glass, just a man on a stage playing the piano. He opened with six of his Etudes for Piano, which were mesmerizing. These pieces are prototypically Glassian — the repeating arpeggiated major and minor triads, the triplet against quarter note rhythms, the small variations of rhythm and phrasing. They distill everything about his work, up to and including his massive operas.

As he said in his introduction, he wrote these initially as pieces for practicing the piano, so he must have played them hundreds of times both alone and in front of an audience. Practicing an instrument is meta-artistic — it is what you do, so you can do what you actually need to do. But etudes (or in English, ‘studies’), sometimes have an accidental artistry that transcends the practice room. In this performance, Glass used those etudes as both a personal meditation and as a way to communicate with the audience. His playing was dynamic and sensitive. I’ve grown up hearing piano music, and there were points where Glass’s touch and note choices made sounds I’d never heard before.

Listening to Glass requires a certain surrender as a listener. He isn’t going to entertain you; it’s more like he’s leading a group meditation. His performance of the Etudes was deeply affecting; graceful in the way water flows over rocks, always changing and always the same.

Once he began “Mad Rush” though, for me the spell had been broken; I’d already heard his endlessly alternate major and minor thirds, and given that this is Mission Creek Festival week I was on to the next thing … maybe not fair to Glass, but sometimes it seems Glass isn’t fair to his audience.