Philip Glass. Three Pieces in the Shape of a Square (pieces arranged for solo trumpet)—Craig Morris, trumpet—Bridge 9508—52:00, ****:
Before auditioning this release by Craig Morris, I was unfamiliar with him, but also unfamiliar with the pieces he was performing by Philip Glass. Glass is probably more closely associated with his symphonies, his early release on CBS of Glassworks, his opera Einstein on the Beach, and the film music he’s composed over the last decade, from Kundun to The Hours.
Craig Morris currently teaches trumpet at the University of Miami (Florida), and has been an active professional. In this recording, he plays a standard trumpet, flugelhorn, and piccolo trumpet. The recorded sound captures Morris’ excellent technique. While every color and sound of the trumpet isn’t called for in this music, Morris is still revealed as a first-rate horn player with an exquisite tone.
What’s interesting about the music and the album is that Glass didn’t compose these three pieces for trumpet: Melodies (1995), Gradus (1968), and Piece in the Shape of a Square (1976). I am more familiar with Glass’s solo music for piano and violin. His pattern making on the piano is probably one of his more signature motifs; for violin, he stretches the rhythm of patterns to include more melodic material. In Melodies, the thirteen short pieces originally scored for saxophone are like etudes for practice or sketches the composer was making for future use.
In fact, material for his Saxophone Quartet Concerto (released on Orange Mountain Music, The Concerto Project Volume III) is to be found among the melodies; #2, for instance, dominates the finale of the quartet concerto.
Morris uses three instruments to best accommodate the range and flavor of the melodies. Among my favorites are those already familiar to me and those he plays on the flugelhorn (such as Melody #8). The dark, smooth tone of his instrument seems ideally suited to Glass’s music, however naked it seems to me, without accompaniment. #12, for me, is an example of one of these melodies that is more challenging for the listener. Alone, for instance, it feels as if I’m listening to someone practice an important part from the trumpet section in a symphony by Glass. And it’s not a criticism of the performance itself, nor of the musical material. It simply, for me, calls into question the suitability of these pieces played alone, no matter the instrument.
The far more successful piece for me is the Piece in the Shape of a Square for two soloists. The performance instructions call for two players to move on stage as they pass material between themselves. Morris opted to record his arrangement for trumpets by himself, using multi-tracking. Of anything by Glass, this piece has more in common with pieces written around the same time and later by Steve Reich. It’s the rhythmic dialog between the two parts that is the most interesting. And among the many listens I made of this recording, it was this piece I always returned to first.
The chronologically-earlier Gradus is a more challenging listen, for the same reasons I identified in Melodies. An instrument only capable of sounding one note at a time is somewhat limiting, given Glass’s stylistic idioms. The musical “germ” that starts the piece is elongated over time, with Morris adding more intensity as the material continues to evolve. The fixation with the rhythmic aspect to the licks, punctuated by Morris in tonguing, I thought was fitting. By the piece’s end, that’s about all we are left with, the rhythm, intoned on one note.
While Gradus is not a piece I would return to often, it is well-performed, working idiomatically for the trumpet. And given your concentration over time, it is an artful piece, making something long and interesting from a small germ of a seemingly simple idea. It brings to mind an art exhibition I saw some years ago featuring the work of Jasper Johns, where he took elements from another artist altogether, and repeated them in a series of works. Just as the basic melody presented at the start of Gradus is interesting, but not profound, any one of the Johns pieces were “just okay.” It was only when you could see them in context of one another did the work take on special meaning. In the same way, giving yourself the thirteen minutes of concentration to enjoy Gradus is a reward.
Craig Morris should be applauded for exposing us to more of Philip Glass. If you’ve opened yourself to Glass’s music already, this will be an interesting counterpoint to what you may already be familiar with. I wouldn’t start getting to know Glass, however, with this release. It’s the connection I made with what I already knew—of the composer, of his style, and his other works—that made this listen engaging.