Classic rock: Louise Gray reports on the premiere of Low, Philip Glass's latest cross-over into pop

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The Independent Culture
MINIMAL MUSIC, now into its third decade, is alive, well and, if Germany's Art Projekt '92 is anything to go by, living in Munich. This week-long festival of international music is not, of course, a rally of present-day minimalists. Philip Glass, who on Sunday presented the world premiere of his first official symphony, Low, is a featured composer in a programme that, by including such classical musicians as Gidon Kremer and Paul Hillier, as well as the jazz instrumentalist Ornette Coleman and the American avant-gardist John Zorn, is all the more stimulating for its variety.

Low itself is based on three themes taken from a 1977 art- house rock album by David Bowie and Brian Eno. Perhaps the language of minimalism is now so widely spoken that such a project is no longer instantly condemned as the progeny of a proscribed relationship. And Low, certainly, was greeted by stamping feet and a rousing reception from a sell-out 3,000-strong audience.

Glass's impact upon popular music cannot be overestimated. Compositions such as Music in Changing Parts or Music in Twelve Parts defined a world of musical possibilities that were eagerly absorbed by the burgeoning synthesiser generation. There is a sense that, without Glass, Bowie could never have written Low, an experimental and largely electronic album quickly labelled minimal because of its languid, atmospheric synthesiser tracks. In turning Low into a symphony, Glass has given this notoriously indefinable pop / art territory its first piece of concert music.

Beyond using the thematic material provided by Bowie and Eno in the three tracks 'Subterraneans', 'Some Are' and 'Warszawa', Glass's three-movement, 50-minute symphony owes little to its model. This is a distinct work that the composer, prompted perhaps by his experience with his mid-1970s Polyrock recording of Orff's Carmina Burana, has made very much his own. The symphony has its own harmonic shading. The sombre moods of the record have been enriched by textures that imply Glass's compositional approach is itself changing.

That these transformations were so apparent is due to the dynamic and vivacious performance (delivered by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Dennis Russell Davies). Glass's characteristic arpeggiations are present, but they are often underscored by carefully articulated and individually voiced instruments. The effect ranges from buoyant, fortissimo orchestral sweeps to subtle and reflective interludes. At other times, as in the second movement's ferocious scherzo, Glass seems to hint at a recent exposure to Copland or Bernstein.

Ultimately, any artistic appropriation says as much about the interpreter as about its originator. Glass's formal entry into pop-originated minimalism says many things. It speaks of homage and ultimately of a loud and continuing musical miscegenation that lies at the heart of Glass's provocative talent.