Glass: Satyagraha / Keene, Reeve, Perry, Cummings

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After experiencing Koyaanisqatsi twice, I thought I was inoculated against Philip Glass. However, a friend, who knows the opera – and very few do – insisted that Satyagraha was different, and good. Since his tastes are more conservative than mine, it was a recommendation to act on. He was absolutely right: Satyagraha is amazing!

The opera deals with M K Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa in 1906, when India was part of the British Empire. At the time, Gandhi was a lawyer in a three piece suit, dutifully embracing the image of Edwardian idealism. He mixed with other liberals, who believed that colonialism could be changed by earnest discussion and writing letters to the newspapers. But Gandhi realised that words weren’t enough for real change. Gradually he developed the concept of Satyagraha, a raft of ideas which were a complete antithesis to the materialism and power politics of Empire. Instead of challenging Empire on its own terms, Satyagraha presented a far more fundamental alternative. Ultimately, by rejecting the colonial power game, Gandhi was able to win Indian Independence.

Gandhi's inspiration came from Ancient Sanskrit texts. . . . The printed word was important, and Gandhi’s journal Indian Opinion was widely read. . . . “Action”, says Gandhi, is a form of “spiritual exercise”. The Satyagraha movement revolved around simple living, focussed on idealistic communes where humble tasks were shared by all, regardless of race or status. In colonial society that was revolutionary and profoundly subversive. No wonder the authorities reacted violently, with savage racial laws. . . .

Satyagraha is a spiritual experience because of its subject matter, but that alone doesn’t “make” an opera. Much has been made of the fact that the text is in Sanskrit, but I believe that is a deliberate part of Glass’s method. Of course few can understand the language, but that’s the whole point. When you read a Buddhist sutra, it’s not “what” you are reading that counts but what you learn from absorbing the spirit of the texts. Words are just beacons in a wider mental journey. It’s not nearly as important to understand the exact words as they are sung, but to understand their overall portent. This is completely different to what we’re used to, just as non-violence was a complete reversal of authoritarian power. Words here become an extension of the very concept behind the subject. . . .

Even Glass’s minimalist technique seems to work in this particular context. The very repetitiveness of it means that a listener doesn’t need to focus on every note. Instead, the imagination can float “over” the notes, so to speak, the better to concentrate on meaning. It’s very similar to Buddhist chanting where single sounds are repeated over and over until they blend into the subconscious, freeing the mind from temporal concerns. It’s not a technique unique to Buddhism, of course, but it works. On closer examination though, Glass’s music is surprisingly natural, rather like the normal rhythm of breathing. Accordingly, the vocal parts, while demanding, are not forced. Indeed, some sections are quite beautifully lyrical, such as the long aria (if you can call it that) for Gandhi in the Final Act. I don’t like minimalism for its own sake, and find a lot of Cage, Reich and Glass soporific. In the case of Satyagraha, however, minimalism makes sense because it’s used in support of what is essentially minimalist, oblique subject matter. In the first act, the conflict between two opposing worldviews is expressed though contrasting string and woodwind passages.

In the final act, cadences rise ever higher, “climbing a ladder” aspirationally, just as the Martin Luther King character does on stage. It’s also tricky music to perform, as missing a bar, or fluffing a note would disrupt the organic flow. . . .

-- Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb International [reviewing a 2007 English National Opera production]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SONY39672

  • UPC: 074643967228

  • Label: CBS Masterworks

  • Composer: Philip Glass

  • Conductor: Christopher Keene

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New York City Opera Chorus, New York City Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Claudia Cummings, Douglas Perry, Rhonda Liss, Robert McFarland, Scott Reeve, Sheryl Woods