Songs from Liquid Days

Philip Glass

Songs from Liquid Days

About this work

In navigating the brackish waters of high art and low art that characterize his slick brand of post-minimalism, Philip Glass developed a clever business strategy for getting his more artistically ambitious (and more expensive) projects funded: according to his longtime producer, Kurt Munkacsi, Glass decided early on that by giving record company executives an occasional commercial success, he would find more flexibility when proposing less lucrative ventures. It was in this spirit that Glass composed and collaborated on Songs from Liquid Days, a collection of six songs for which Glass provided the music and a number of popular artists wrote lyrics. Released in 1986, partially as an entrepreneurial foil to the considerable expenses incurred by the recording of his opera Satyagraha, the recording turned out to be one of Glass' best-selling projects and further established Glass' position as an arbiter of pop and minimalist musical vocabularies.

Of course, one shouldn't get the idea that Glass' more commercial ventures are unsophisticated. His collaborators on Liquid Days generally appeal to the artsier end of the pop spectrum. (CBS tried to include Billy Joel, but Glass resisted.) Still, one senses a disjunction of genres that even the most postmodern ear might find hard to reconcile. Paul Simon provides the philosophically meandering lyrics for the opening track, "Changing Opinion." Glass' setting, however, lends it a kind of unnatural weight, as the pensive piano arpeggios and imposing orchestrational touches seem incongruous companions to passive lines like "We became aware of a hum in the went mmmmmm." Likewise, the frenetic, syncopations and acutely dated synthesizer sounds of "Lightning," featuring lyrics by Suzanne Vega, strains perceptibly to have a techno edge, but comes off clumsily; Janice Pendarvis' satiny voice, while appealing, seems out of place on the 1986 recording. "Freezing," also with lyrics by Vega, is a much more convincing effort, partly because the ethereal texture of the pulsing strings blend nicely with Linda Ronstadt's voice. David Byrne's texts, featured in "Liquid Days" and "Open the Kingdom," are taken entirely too seriously; with lines like "Love needs a bath / Love could use a shave," one wishes to hear Glass' pensive settings ironically, but suspects they aren't meant that way. Laurie Anderson pens the words to the remaining song, "Forgetting," which Glass sets in alternating textures -- ethereal, then ephemeral.

While this song cycle does lead a separate existence as a performable work separate from the recording, and though it remains one of Glass' most lucrative recordings, it rarely finds its way onto the recital stage. The character of the songs is shaped too distinctly by the singers who perform them, and the odd hybrid of styles perhaps seems sloppy to conservatory singers, on the one hand, and clunky and unhip to more progressive performers, on the other. When compared to Glass' groundbreaking and engaging stage works -- and even some of his more carefully wrought orchestral scores -- Songs from Liquid Days, though not entirely unredeemable, is rather unremarkable.