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October 4, 2000
ince the early 19th century symphonists have tried to wrap music around transcendent ideas, from the concepts of heroism or universal brotherhood (in the Beethoven Third and Ninth Symphonies, respectively) to the mystical aspects of fate, death and resurrection, or heaven and the afterlife (in much of Mahler). Implicit in these works is a notion that is as old as the Psalms and that runs through medieval and Renaissance motets and Bach Masses: that music has a direct, emotional power that can magnify any idea, however mundane or profound.
With his Symphony No. 5 Philip Glass joins the list of composers taking on big themes. The work, which has just been released on CD by Nonesuch, opens the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight. Its subject is, basically, everything. A 12-movement, 97-minute work for orchestra, chorus, children's chorus and vocal soloists, it begins with the Hindu "Great Hymn of Creation," which describes a time before the creation of the universe, and ends with the "Dedication of Merit," a Buddhist prayer in which one asks to be worthy "to dispel the misery of the world." Between them are thoughts on love, evil, suffering, compassion, death, judgment and paradise, in that order, drawn from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mayan, Hawaiian, African and Asian sacred texts and poetry.
Mr. Glass assembled these diverse texts in a collaboration with the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, president of the Interfaith Center of New York and dean emeritus of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Kusumita Priscilla Pedersen, the chairwoman of the department of religious studies at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights. The work, however, is more of a spiritual essay than a religious one: it touches on the mythic, the moral and the philosophical but keeps clear of specific dogma and ritual.
"I called it a symphony rather than an oratorio because I didn't want it to be seen as a religious work," Mr. Glass said during a late-night interview by telephone from Switzerland, where he was touring with the Kronos Quartet. "I thought of it more as a secular piece, although Jim and Kusumita probably don't look at it that way. We all have different ideas about what we were doing. My own short description is that this is 5,000 years of human meditation on eternity. And saying it that way tells you a lot about the weight of the piece."
The work came about partly as a result of a friendship between Mr. Glass and Dean Morton, which goes back to 1979, when the Dalai Lama made his first appearance at the cathedral. Mr. Glass played some of his organ works for the occasion.
"Philip came back to perform many times, and we became friends," Dean Morton said. "I performed his wedding. I buried his wife when she died. And at one point we began talking about him writing a Requiem, something for the turn of the century. When I say Requiem, that was shorthand for a major piece. But from the beginning the idea was that it was to be not just a Christian piece, using only the Christian liturgy, but more inclusive. And I think he was interested in something that reflected on life and death, and the bigger themes."
Mr. Glass, busy meeting other commissions, put the Requiem aside until 1997, when G´rard Mortier invited him to compose a work to celebrate the millennium at the 1999 Salzburg Festival. Mr. Glass, thinking on a large scale, elicited Mr. Mortier's promise of grander performing forces than Mr. Glass had ever used before, even in his operas. He then called Dean Morton to say that he had a commission for the Requiem, or at least something they could work on together. The dean then invited Ms. Pedersen to join the team, having worked with her at several interfaith organizations since the mid-1980's.
"What Jim didn't know," Ms. Pedersen said, "was that I was a serious Philip Glass fan. I had lots of recordings and a file of clippings about his works. This is by far the coolest project I've ever worked on."
The three met at Dean Morton's office every two weeks for about a year, except during periods when Mr. Glass was away either performing or composing. He quickly established the idea of dividing the work into 12 movements, the subjects of which were negotiated during several early discussions. Ms. Pedersen, for example, persuaded Mr. Glass and Dean Morton to include a section on love and joy to counterbalance the movements devoted to suffering and death. Dean Morton convinced Mr. Glass that there should be a section on resurrection.
Having established the form, Mr. Glass, Dean Morton and Ms. Pedersen searched for texts that suited the agreed-upon themes and could be found in singable English translations. Often sections from different sources dovetail, as if each culture were offering part of the story. Mr. Glass did no composing until the libretto was complete.
"At one point," Mr. Glass said, "I was going to set the texts in their original languages. But nobody would understand everything, and we felt that putting everything in English gave the texts a single voice. I like the idea that you don't necessarily know that you're moving from, say, an Old Testament text to a Hindu one."
Mr. Glass, who grew up Jewish but gravitated toward Buddhism, came to the meetings with several Buddhist texts, including the "Dedication of Merit," which closes the work. Dean Morton was, naturally, particularly strong in the Christian literature, and Ms. Pedersen had an expertise in Asian and Hindu texts as well as the Koran. Together they also found material in the ancient Mayan "Popul Vuh"; the Hawaiian "Kumulipo"; Bantu, Bulu and Zuni creation stories; works by the Persian poet Rumi; and quotations from Japanese Noh plays and haiku.
"I'm a historian of religion, so I feel like I have prepared my whole life to do this," Ms. Pedersen said. "It was very meaningful to us to share passages from religious literature that had meant a lot to us and to know that they would be immortalized in this symphony. I dreamed for years that someone would set to music the Great Hymn of Creation from the 'Rig Veda,' " an Indian religious text. She continued: "I also always loved the Basho haiku that is used in the section on death, and when I read it to Philip, he immediately said, 'I'll use it.' The three of us became like three pilgrims moving through the worlds of these different traditions."
Using non-Western texts was not a great stretch for Mr. Glass. His second opera, "Satyagraha" (1980), about Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, used a text drawn entirely from the "Bhagavad Gita," sung in Sanskrit. "Akhnaten" (1983), his opera about that monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh, included ancient pyramid texts in its libretto. His film score for "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982) uses an evocative fragment of Hopi Indian prophecy, and his score for "Powaqqatsi" (1987) quotes the Muslim call to prayer.
"I've had a lifelong infatuation with things that don't come directly out of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition," Mr. Glass said. "I don't know where that started for me. Maybe it was when I went to India to study in the 1960's. And don't forget, I'm a child of the 60's. I was only nine years younger than Allen Ginsberg, and he was part of a generation that was discovering the wonderful texts of what Jim calls the wisdom traditions. John Cage was a pioneer in that, too, and although I don't think he used the texts that much, he introduced us to the I Ching and Daoism."
There were squabbles among the collaborators. In the "Creation of the Cosmos" movement Mr. Glass wanted to drop the line "Let there be light" from a quoted section of Genesis. Dean Morton and Ms. Pedersen insisted that it be retained. Creation begins with that spoken command, they argued, and removing it destroys the integrity of the passage. Mr. Glass relented. He also restored a phrase from a Koranic description of the Day of Judgment when Ms. Pedersen argued that the line "when the buried infant shall be asked for what sin she was slain" evoked an image so vivid that the passage lost its power without it.
"Part of what made this project so fascinating was the task of choice," Dean Morton said. "I think we were participating in the texts, not just as aesthetes savoring them, but with our whole beings.
"This is one of the most powerful things about this piece, and about interfaith work itself. You don't come out of yourself, but you become richer and more understanding. There is nothing more exquisite and penetrating than the images of total desolation in the Japanese texts on death. And what really did me in was the 'Dedication of Merit.' I had known it. I had heard it from the Dalai Lama. It's his favorite prayer. But I hadn't swum around in it. Working with it, the power of it came to me. And I think this happened to all three of us. This took us to different levels of emotion. Which is what art does."