Is this a piano? It’s hard to believe, but it actually is a piano. No electricity involved, no laser beams, just a piano and an incredible pianist: Vikingur Olafsson from Iceland. And a piece that sounds more like a piece of electro-pop from the 1980s than Philip Glass’ “Etudes”. Glass published a first set of Etudes in 1994, a second followed in 2012. Olafsson has focused on Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 13, 14, 15 and 20 to honour the composer’s 80th birthday.
“As a classical pianist, I often find myself working more with dead composers (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and the like) than with living ones. This has its downsides. Novel ideas in interpretation tend to be met with nothing but a stern silence from beyond the grave”, Olafsson writes in the booklet accompanying his 2017 released recording. “Living composers seem infinitely more flexible and open to exploring new paths in their music […] Playing Philip Glass’s music for and with the composer himself reminds me that music, too, is alive – never a dead monument but a living, ever-changing environment, a forest of rich sensations, colours and smells and sounds.” An extensive quote, I know, but who am I to paraphrase a pianist?
Glass is one of the paramount composers of contemporary minimalist classical music. In the 1960s the composer from Baltimore went to Paris to study for two years with Nadia Boulanger “in what he describes as a re-education in the elements of music”, Edward Strickland writes in a piece for Oxford Music Online. “Unimpressed by the avant-garde establishment represented by [Pierre] Boulez, Glass encountered a more important influence in the additive processes and cyclic structures of Indian music.” He wrote chamber music, film scores, stage music and solo pieces. Glass was invited to compose the torch-lighting ceremony music for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and in 1992 to write a three-act opera to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas: “The Voyage”.
The “Etudes” presented by the Icelandic pianist invite you, like my last piece published in 2018, to a moment of joy, of freedom, of transcendence. Happy New Year!
© Charles Thibo