About this work
It might be expected that when composing for smaller forces, Philip Glass would sound even more minimalist than in his more elaborate and amplified works (such as the score for Einstein on the Beach or the numerous works composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble). In the case of the Melodies for saxophone, however, Glass seems to focus on an entirely different mode of expression. Rather than creating complex polyphonies of ostinato or expanding and contracting motivic cells, Glass explores the emotional possibilities of the simple, unaccompanied line. Although the 13 melodies comprising the set to some extent variously rely on structural repetition, they include a wide variety and nuances of emotion as can only be expressed through the expressive directness of monophony. The Melodies were originally composed as incidental music for a 1995 production by Joanne Akalitus (Glass' wife) of Jean Genet's play The Prisoner of Love, and also served a further purpose as melodic sketches for Glass' saxophone concerto from 1998. The score and recording of the Melodies were archived after the performance, and the work might have stayed hidden for a considerable amount of time had Glass' archivist Don Christensen not stumbled upon the recording. He was struck by the Melodies' "uncanny way of holding the ears' attention by their sheer and mysterious beauty." The melodic invention, variety, and contrast found in the Melodies exhibit an introspective vibrancy that may surprise those with little tolerance for Glass' more characteristically repetitive pieces. Several of the melodies have a haunting, bittersweet quality, such as the plaintive downward zigzag and slow, scalar contour of the first one (for alto sax), or the baritone's sentimental sixths and reassuringly regular phrase structure in the third. A variety of styles are evoked as well, ranging from the classical clarity of line and judicious ornamentation of the tenth (alto), to the brash syncopations and jazz articulations of the ninth (tenor). Some special effects are employed, such as the soprano sax's busy, Messiaen-esque birdcall figurations of the fourth; or the soft, sustained tenor sax trills of the fifth. Humor is an important theme as well, especially in the penultimate melody: the metrical uneasiness of the 12th's hiccupping 7/8 baritone sax melody is corrected the second time around by a perfunctory splat on beat eight, then comically overcorrected on the third pass with double splats. The work thus comprises a surprisingly diverse collection of concise but expressively potent character studies.