Philip Glass

1983/84. String Quartet No. 2, “Company.” Approx 7.30 minutes.
I. Quarter Note = 96
I. Quarter Note = 160
III. Quarter Note = 90
IV. Quarter Note = 160

Philip Glass’ Company

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him.

—Samuel Beckett, Company

Philip Glass’ Company began as a score for Mabou Mines, the New York theater company that counted him as “unofficial” composer for almost three decades. The score was organized into a brief, stand-alone string quartet in 1984, officially titled String Quartet No. 2. As such, it represented his return to a genre that saw one of his very first “minimalist” works, the droning “first” String Quartet of 1966.
Company opens solemnly but with great beauty, slowly building up a swirling, melancholy melody weighted with a sense of loneliness. The feeling of sorrow is almost sweet, a solitude buffered by nostalgia, and it establishes a center of gravity for the rest of the short piece, which will sweep the basic figure through numerous transformations. The second movement immediately picks up the pace, its churning urgency evoking a cloud of half-remembered thoughts fluttering for attention. It ends abruptly, leading into the enigmatic third movement – a gentle, flowing series of repetitions punctured in the middle by a sudden passage of frustrated intensity. The final movement starts briskly, building in momentum, surging ahead and then receding, revisiting the melancholy, the urgency, and the frustrated progress of the previous movements. The end comes too soon, an unexpected fizzling out: “in the end labour lost and silence.”
Taken out of its Beckettian context, Company is quite successful as an independent quartet. A brief but memorable work, it shows Philip Glass at his lyrical best, conjuring a Romantic sense of yearning while avoiding sentimental cliché. The propulsive rhythms and the fleet, almost taunting phrases which whirl above them bring to mind Beckett’s bleak tale; one can easily imagine an old man on his dark bed, haunting himself with half-remembered voices. Of course, a convincing argument can be made that all of Glass’ works reflect a Beckettian aesthetic – both artists have been frequently labeled minimalists, and both are enamored of a repetitive use of basic structural components. But where another “minimalist” composer like Morton Feldman may better capture Beckett’s existential anxiety, Glass points to a more emotional Beckett, the author of lost souls dreaming in the dark, hearts nearly broken by so many personal tragedies and shattered illusions.
Liner notes from the Nonesuch CD, Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass

Liner notes written by Mark Swed:
Philip Glass’ string quartets may contain his most intimate music. They are works through which a very public composer, perhaps the most important opera reformer of our age and a longstanding collaborator in large-scale music theater, holds up a mirror to himself and his way of composing.
Even Glass’ most loyal listeners may be surprised to learn that he has written eight quartets to date. His first three compositions, he says, were string quartets – student works, now discarded. His first numbered quartet was written in 1966, in Paris, shortly after Glass had finished his studies there with Nadia Boulanger and had been introduced to the music of India by Ravi Shankar. It is the culmination of Glass’ earliest attempts at a highly reductive style, containing a series of short sections comprised of tiny repeated motives, and it proved the precursor to the classic minimalist technique he was soon to develop.
Glass did not return to the string quartet medium until 1983, when he provided incidental music for a dramatization of Samuel Beckett’s prose poem, Company. During those seventeen years, Glass had formed an ensemble and developed his motoric, repetitive style in a series of increasingly elaborate pieces for it; he had produced a large body of music for dance, theater and film, and he had written four operas. In the process, he had further enriched his harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and structural procedures with each suceeding work....
The seeds of the Fourth Quartet, in its use of the four strings to create a valedictory ambiance, can be found in the four very short movements of Company, written originally to accompany a 1984 staged version by Mabou Mines, the theater company with which Glass had long been associated. Company is a soliloquy in which a man, presumedly at the end of his life, hears a voice of his past and comes to terms with a profound solitude.
It was this introspective nature of the soliloquy that lead Glass to return to the string quartet form, although he intended the score to stand on its own as a concert work (String Quartet No. 2) as well. In the staging, the music, as elliptical as Beckett’s prose, appears at moments of silences. “When I sent Beckett the music,” Glass recalls, “he said, ‘Oh, very good. It will appear in the interstices, as it were.’” Glass says that he doesn’t know what Beckett’s response to the music itself was, or if he ever saw the production, but that he gave his approval.

Liner notes from the Nonesuch CD, Kronos Quartet

Program notes written by Gregory Sandow:
Philip Glass, by contrast, writes nothing dissonant. Company seems not so much modern as neo-romantic; its drenching melancholy makes it a prime example of his current, often overtly emotional style. But his compositional method is still extraordinarily pure. The piece consists of transformations of a single phrase; the transformations begin right at the start. We hear very little – and in the first and last movements none at all – of the rhetoric we’d expect in less minimal music: introductions, say, or transitions, or the stretches of comparative relaxation that in a rigorous older form like a fugue would be called “episodes.” The four movements of this piece began as incidental music for a 1983 [sic] production of Samuel Beckett’s play [sic] Company (hence the title of the piece) by the New York experimental theater group Mabou Mines. As a unified composition they fit together remarkably well, and almost in traditional ways: the third movement, for instance, functions just as a slow movement might in Mahler or Beethoven, and the fourth is not hard to hear as a finale.

CD Information

Company has had a somewhat unusual recording history. First recorded by Kronos Quartet, it occurs in their catalog no less than three times: first on their “debut” CD, Kronos Quartet, then on their magnificent all-Glass CD, Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass, and finally in the Kronos Quartet box set: 25 Years. (Not pictured above.) Gidon Kremer has recorded an expanded version of Company for string orchestra, found on his CD Silencio, where it is accompanied by works by Arvo Pärt and Vladimir Martynov.

Kronos Quartet: Glass, Nancarrow, Hendrix... / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1987

Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 1995

Kronos Quartet 25 Years / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 1998

Gidon Kremer / Silencio
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 2000
Contains Company, for String Orchestra.

–Allen B. Ruch
5 January 2008
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