Reflections: Philip Glass – Piece in the Shape of a Square

I purchased the sheet music to this piece in 2016, intending it to be a personal project that I would record for fun when I had spare time. Naturally, life got in the way and the score sat largely untouched in my practice room until the coronavirus upended all of our lives. The first week that I was in lockdown, I didn’t even touch my flute – I needed time to process and come to grips with this massive change to my life. But once I was ready to come back, this piece was something that called to me. When your previously cluttered calendar becomes bare, when your day feels like a giant question mark, making music feels like the best way (for me, at least) to answer.

Philip Glass wrote this duet for two flutes, and the staging calls for 24 music stands to be arranged in a double square formation, 12 for the outer square, 12 for the inner square. The two players start the piece facing each other and as the piece progresses, they travel opposite directions along the square, meeting once at the halfway mark and again at the end. This visual element echoes what happens musically, with the players flirting with unison halfway through the piece before their paths go into retrograde. As Glass explained in his memoir Words Without Music, “It’s as if you counted to ten, and then counted back from ten to one again.”

The piece is interesting intellectually, with its additive and subtractive processes, but I was more taken with how the music spoke to me emotionally during this time of lockdown. On the surface, it sounds cool, detached, mathematical. But listening to the music slowly pull apart and become unhinged, separating into further and further dissonance, with brief periods of alignment and consonance? It spoke to my ongoing mental state during this time, where each passing day seemed to bring more stress and anxiety, even as I tried my best to keep a sense of inner peace. Glass makes good use of the expressiveness of silence in this piece as well. The music is written completely in eighth notes and eighth rests, and one or both players are usually playing in every beat, but during those occasional spots where both players have a rest? Depending on where it happens in the piece, the silences can feel eerie, unsettling, or like a massive relief.

I recorded this at home, within the walls that I’ve rarely left since early March 2020. My practice room’s dimensions are 10 feet x 10 feet, so it was funny to me that I practiced this piece in a literal square-shaped room! Squares are pure symmetry. Symmetry and order are attractive and comforting, but also constraining and confining, and in this music, I hear our collective desire to break free of the walls that have confined us for months. The real world is not a piece of music, and there’s no score available for us to look ahead to see how things will be resolved. However, I have full faith that things will slowly get better in time… with so many people out there working their hardest and doing their part to beat this virus, the cacophony that the world is currently in won’t last forever.

Stay home, wear masks, wash your hands, do everything you can to support and care for essential workers! And above all, keep your heart open to what brings you joy and speaks to your soul. Music makes me feel like life is worth living and fighting for, and I’m glad I procrastinated working on this piece until now; I don’t think it would been as meaningful to me had I learned it back in 2016!

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