Bruce Brubaker: Glass Piano

Whilst listening to Bruce Brubaker's Glass Piano, the listener conversant with Philip Glass's own 1989 recording Solo Piano will likely find him/herself comparing the performances on the releases, especially when Brubaker's set-list includes every piece featured on Solo Piano (he also supplements those selections with a piano version of “Knee Play” as well as two vinyl-only pieces).

The pianist playing Glass's music faces a number of challenges, but perhaps the most fundamental one concerns what the pianist does with Glass's minimalistic settings to personalize them and make them different from the composer's own versions. But if any pianist is up to the challenge, it's Brubaker. A student and eventual faculty member of The Juilliard School, the Iowa-born and now NYC-based musician has issued solo piano recordings featuring pieces by John Adams, Nico Muhly, John Cage, and, of course, Glass, and is considered to be an especially expressive interpreter of the latter's music. Brubaker's understanding of Glass's artistry has been nurtured over a twenty-year period during which the two have met repeatedly to discuss the composer's music.

If there's one thing that differentiates Brubaker's renderings from the composer's own, it's a delicate touch that brings the lyrical side of the music into sharp relief, something especially audible during “Mad Rush,” the longest of the album's pieces at seventeen minutes, and the softer passages in “Knee Play” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In “Mad Rush,” the quieter passages assume a gentle, even fragile quality that's powerfully affecting, and Brubaker's graceful tempo modulations also exemplify a marked sensitivity to the material (the whirlwind-like character of the faster episodes, on the other hand, dazzles as intended). Hearing “Knee Play” outside of its Einstein On The Beach context and in an elegant piano rendition also proves arresting.

The music featured on Glass Piano will be long-familiar to Glass aficionados. Some parts of the oft- ponderous, five-part Metamorphosis, its title derived from Kafka's infamous short story, include melodic content Glass worked into his soundtracks for Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line and Stephen Daldry's The Hours. Titled after the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” also appeared on 1993's Ginsberg-Glass collaboration Hydrogen Jukebox as a spoken word setting.

Brubaker would be the first to acknowledge that the notes he's playing on the recording are the ones Glass wrote. Yet that doesn't mean a pianist can't individualize a performance with phrasing and touch, as Brubaker himself does throughout the recording. Despite the presence of some declamatory passages, much of the material is performed at the level of a whisper, and in keeping with the recording's intimate tone the repeated inhale of the pianist's breath can be heard, too.

May 2015