What Makes Philip Glass’ Music So Gorgeous for Dancing?

September 7, 2008

It’s almost a cliché for a choreographer to use music by Philip Glass, and yet, there is something elusively beautiful about it that draws you in as a dancer. I was just listening to his music on the radio and it reminded me all over again why I love to hear it and to dance to it and feel it in my body. The swelling, the soaring, the lonely strings, the circularity, the shifts from 3/4 to 4/4, the prevalent use of the very circular 6/8. When the sound thickens it attains a grandeur, and then it might suddenly go into a solitary string solo. It gets dreamlike, it goes nostalgic, but it never gets sentimental. The repetitions are so kinetic that sometimes I think the music can only be understood by a dancer. That’s how we move—we repeat a motion—and his music can build or it can stay on a plateau or it can be suddenly cut off and leave you hanging. The emotion comes from being carried on the wafting, weaving measures, not from finding a “resolution.” The repeating is like breathing in and out. Sometimes he doubles, so there might be a wavelike sound going up and down and simultaneously a sound like birds flying in excited circles. It’s mysterious because he structures it according to his own math, and it’s spiritual—I’m not sure why except for something about the continuity.

     As a choreographer-turned editor (and critic), feeling so strongly about his music can sometimes be a problem for me. I used Glass music for two pieces I made, one in the 80s and another in the 90s. (I think I used pieces of his called Rushing, Mishima, and Islands.) Whenever I go to a dance concert that has Glass music, I find myself hoping that it is not the music I used. I have become so attached to certain riffs because I’ve made my own movement to them. But of course I’ve enjoyed, and been crazy about, other choreography that uses his music. Top of the list is Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, then Robbins’ Glass Pieces, and I liked Doug Varone’s Lux also.

     The piece I heard on the radio last night was Dracula, which Glass made in 1999 to go with the 1931 movie Dracula. It was recorded by the Kronos Quartet. I had heard none of it before, but it was all so familiar…..and I was dancing in my kitchen.