Live: Philip Glass Shows Off His Influence At ISSUE Project Room

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Philip Glass w/Nate Wooley, Antoine Silverman, and Stephin Merritt
ISSUE Project Room
Wednesday, June 13

Better than: The sound of one hand clapping.

Philip Glass spoke briefly. It was to be expected from a minimalist so staunch that he chooses not to identify himself with the movement he helped define. He sat down at the piano, all Zen calm, and began to coax out trance-inducing arpeggios, emotion recollected in tranquility yet cold as his namesake, with the brilliant awkwardness of Glenn Gould and the fiery charisma of Freddie Mercury. Just as Mr. Miyagi found a beautiful simplicity in painting a picket fence in The Karate Kid, Glass finds so much in so little.

They say that an artist sits in a room surrounded by all his influences, then one by one they leave until he's all alone, and finally, he exits the room altogether. Cocteau and Cage couldn't be there, but at a spry 75, the elder statesman of contemporary classical still seeks inspiration in many of those he inspired. Among these acolytes are avant-noise trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist Antoine Silverman, and Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt, all of whom wouldn't ordinarily share a stage. But in the first of a three-night series devoted to Glass's sweeping legacy and collaborations, he provided a common denominator that transcends genre.

Those in the audience at ISSUE Project Room broke a sweat—the baroque space, with its ornate coffered ceiling and marble floor, doesn't have many modern-day comforts, air-conditioning included—but Glass seems to have reached a level of Buddhist nirvana that prevents any perspiration. Not so for Wooley, whose aquatic-themed "Seven Storey Mountain," the product of a year-long residency at ISSUE, had him dripping.

Wooley played an amplified trumpet without a mouthpiece, instead blowing into the brass instrument and fingering the valves to create an oceanic effect, bolstered by brushwork on two tom-toms, bell tones on the vibraphone, and an ambient string section. It had an uncanny sensuality, somewhere in between Atlantis as imagined in Cocoon or one of those soothing sea sounds compilation albums recast in the East River, with Wooley pointing his trumpet skyward and imitating the tremulous mating calls of wayward dolphins.

The evening moved onto the shore, with Antoine Silverman's thrilling take on "Knee Play 4," an excerpt from Glass's hypnotic experimental opera Einstein on the Beach. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will be presenting a full production in September, but to see Silverman's display of virtuosity was a tantalizing preview.

Then Stephin Merritt ambled up in his trademark newsboy cap. Glass met the irascible Time Out New York editor-turned-songsmith recently at the Tibet House benefit, which he curates, and approached Merritt about performing together. "Seeing him play live, he had enormous merit," Glass said, most likely intending the pun. "I asked him if he'd do it, and surprisingly he said yes." With understated humility, Glass accompanied Merritt on The 6ths' "I've Got New York," a wistful ballad of loneliness and estrangement in the city. The duet, though short, was a testament to the pervasive influence Glass has had on indie rock, an artistic exchange that goes both ways.

Merritt is a tragicomic figure—Leonard Cohen if he took a walk on the wild side, his resonant bass brimming with a gallows humor of the heart, the modern-day epitome of the medieval concept of luf-daungere, a love-longing in pursuit of the unattainable. No one else can make a ukulele sound quite as mournful. Fresh off a European tour in support of the latest Magnetic Fields album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, Merritt performed a "historically unique" solo version of "Andrew in Drag," the gender-bender Merritt claims to not remember writing. Glass had left the stage, but he'd made his point—his presence was still keenly felt.

Critical bias: Um, he's Philip Glass.

Overheard: "That's not my usual accompanist."—Stephin Merritt

Random notebook dump: Om. I. God.

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