"The works that Philip Glass has designated as his "symphonies" starting in 1992 are a real mixed bag: There are the quite effective "Glass meets Bowie and Eno" first (Low) and fourth (Heroes), the rather dull second, the fantastic third for strings only, and the sprawling pseudo-spiritual mess of the fifth (Choral.) [A seventh (Toltec) and eighth have also been composed but not yet recorded.]
Though it may sound like the name of a Star Trek episode, Plutonian Ode is actually the title of a 1978 poem by Allen Ginsberg and the inspiration for Philip Glass's sixth symphony. This isn't the first time Glass has worked with the late "poet laureate of the Beat generation" and his texts: there was also the disastrous Hydrogen Jukebox, and the rather nice (and short) Echorus.
It is a curious and undeniable phenomenon that the more "interesting" Glass's music gets, the less interesting it actually is. There is probably more harmonic and melodic content in the first ten minutes of his Symphony No. 6 than in the entire five hour duration of Einstein on the Beach, but it ends up sounding like second-rate Zemlinsky, third-rate Berg, or fourth-rate Philip Glass. Repetition, gradual process, static harmonies, churning rhythms -- these are the hallmark "minimalist" ingredients that make this music tick. The more Glass tinkers with this formula, the less effective the result. I suppose you could say the same thing about his fellow "former minimalists" Steve Reich and John Adams, but Glass's music seems to be most affected by the "more is less" paradox. (Actually, of the "big four" founding fathers of minimalism, only Terry Riley has really managed to develop an effective and compelling new compositional style, in my opinion... he desperately needs a new website, however...)
Symphony No. 6 is written for full orchestra and soprano (the Bruckner Orchester Linz and Lauren Flanigan in this recording), and that's the other problem -- the soprano is almost always present, warbling near the top of her range throughout most of Plutonian Ode's 50 minute duration. This kind of singing is frankly just not something anyone should have to listen to (or perform) for this long, and now I know why there aren't many other symphonies for soprano and orchestra out there.
Which brings us to the "bonus disc", which I thought was supposed to be the music accompanied by Allen Ginsberg reading the Plutonian Ode text instead of the soprano singing it. Nope... she's still there in the mix in addition to the overdubbed recorded voice of Ginsberg which is simply too much to absorb and nearly impossible to listen to (and let's face it: Ginsberg's poetry reading isn't exactly fun to hear for long stretches, either.) It might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it sounds awful and it's ultimately a waste of time (and a waste of CDs -- which seems sort of opposed to Plutonian Ode's ecological themes... hmmm...)
Despite all of the sixth symphony's shortcomings, there is a wonderful chunk of pure Philip Glass to be found at the beginning of the third and final movement. Pulsing strings repeat ominous two-note patterns, additional instruments slowly join the texture, percussion accents kick in, and that old minimalist magic is in the air -- then the spell is abruptly broken by that damned soprano, and we're back to the overwrought operatic narrative again.
Yet somehow, that promising eight minutes embedded in this well-intentioned but otherwise unsuccessful piece confirms my hope that Glass still has some compelling music left in him... Let's hope he's saving it up and planning to blow all of our minds with his ninth symphony (but Phil -- please beware the curse of the ninth!)
"I'm not surprised to see the love-it or hate-it polarity of these reviews. I come to Glass from opera and am thus not intimidated by the operatic quality of the work and the soprano voice. I also think it is important to compare the music with Ginsberg's text which is in itself fairly inaccessible without the footnotes Ginsberg provided in his publication. But the point is that Philip Glass has taken a kernel of meaning in the Ginsberg poem that has become more significant and compelling as time has passed, and then expanded it musically so that the meaning becomes infinitely more powerful, convincing, and moving. It is also unfair to insert the poem into western religious spheres as some reviewers (on Amazon and not) have done. Ginsberg was and Glass still is heavily involved in Tibetan Buddhism, the imagery of which becomes increasingly prominent as the poem develops. The soprano voice then makes particular sense as the vajra, translated as thunderbolt or diamond, that here cuts directly through to a certain truth."
A piece which achieves new heights....
Richard G. | NYC via Boston | 03/08/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I first heard Symphony No.6 'Plutonian Ode' at its world premiere at Carnegie Hall with the American Composers orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. As with many premieres, works are often under-rehearsed and/or suffer from a lack of experience with the piece. This is a general indictment I have toward a lot of new music. However, this may have been the case with the performance, which I, in tern, held against the piece. Last November, at the same time as Orange Mountain Music's release of this album, I had another chance to hear this symphony. I was less than excited, but I WAS excited about hearing the piece with which is was programmed: the world premiere of Glass' Symphony No.8 for orchestra-this time with the Bruckner Orchester Linz performing. This time around, I recognized Symphony No.6 as nothing less than a masterpiece. Not only has the piece grown with the artists, Davies and Flanigan, but the orchestra (which had know the piece for years now), embraced the music with virtuosity and a european sophistication which lends itself very well to this most american of composers. It was really like a new world. Flanigan's word's have meaning...the transformation of Ginsberg's character undergoes a very sincere voyage to personal transformation in the face of something ugly in the world. There have been mixed reactions to the second disc featuring Ginsberg's narration of the original poem. At the very least it lends different perspectives to each recording.
A real masterpiece. A true example of how Glass continues to amaze!"
An Angry Angel
David B. Edmonston | Bowling Green, VA USA | 02/24/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In "Symphony No. 6, Plutonian Ode," Glass takes as his libretto the late Bohemian poem of that name by Allen Ginsberg. This is Ginsberg's outrageous "howl" against thermonuclear weapons, which he personifies as the specter of "plutonium" and forcefully confronts in the poem. Right from Glass's dissonant opening measures that roll toward us like black storm clouds, we feel the dark power of the specter. With level eye, this poem sees the horror of mankind's own creation of a powerful weapon against itself and addresses this specter eye-to-eye with a malediction, a curse, an incantation for its extinction. This poem is both pagan and prayerful, and the music fully engages its angry, impassioned, and even hopeful moods. With loud, staccato rhythms played against a powerful soprano voice--I hear an angry angel--the poet's visceral malediction is brought home on the evil specter:
"I call your name with hollow vowels, I psalm your Fate close by, my breath near deathless ever at your side
to spell your destiny. I set this verse prophetic on your mausoleum walls to seal you up Eternally with Diamond Truth! O doomed Plutonium."
Ginsberg paints the sweetness of life on earth, the "tranquil politic [populace]" under "blue sky transparent rising empty deep & spacious to a morning star" and juxtaposes this scene of innocence to the "Satanic [war] industries projected sudden with Five Hundred Billion Dollar Strength." Glass delivers these statements with characteristic luscious orchestral colors interspersed with jarring dissonance.
At the beginning of Movement III Glass gives the listener an instrumental reprieve that opens in the sweetest mood, using few instruments, simple repetitive melodies, and close harmonies in his signature minimalist style. But subtly tension grows in the music, and the listener feels the evil more strongly as the powerful specter roars back in the percussion with unexpected harshness. The text then invokes the blessings of all including "you Congress and American people,/ you present meditators, spiritual friends and teachers...."
"enrich this Plutonian Ode to explode its empty thunder through earthen thought-worlds
Magnetize this howl with heartless compassion, destroy this mountain of Plutonium with ordinary mind and body speech,
thus empower this mind-guard spirit..."
Glass delivers this spell with pounding chords and musical hammer blows. Then he gives the last word to the soprano, who softly closes the symphony for the shaken listener.
To me this is some of Glass's most exciting music. But I warn the faint-of-heart that "Plutonian Ode" will disturb his comfortable stasis and set his teeth on edge as it looks in the eye of this technological horror.
5 Stars (if only for Act III)
Aaron | 04/15/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Act III of this album is absolutely beautiful and insane! (However, I must admit that the first two acts - aside from the classic and glorious Glass pompous marching themes - are rather annoying due to the never-ending soprano voice: Our ears can only withstand so much! In fact, I've converted only Act III to my iPod.) Back to Movement III: Wow! This is both Classic & NEW Glass. I dare you to listen to the intro without weeping. And the climax...with the layering of Polyrhythms, the orchestra members seem to be momentarily fighting amongst one another for rhythmic domination, when they fold into a beautiful and NEW plateau of Glass madness! What an accomplishment Mr. Glass! I'm proud of you! I'm sure as you we're writing the climax of ACT III you were thinking: "There is no way they're gonna pull this one off." If there is one fault with Act III it is the SKIP in the recording - where, no doubt - there was an edit: because, ultimately, the orchestra COULDN'T pull if off! I'm sure several takes were needed for the orchestra to pull off the beautiful and insane complexity of the climax, and was thus edited together. The SKIP is annoying however. All in all...Movement III is a Philip Glass masterpiece! Wow Mr. Glass...They will remember you for this one!"