In the mid 80s Philip Glass was looking for a different way to present his music. He experimented with various types of mediums including Dance (Glass Pieces), Theater (two Samuel Beckett adaptations: Endgame and Company) and Film (Mishima). He then decided to tackle an area far removed from the large scale operas and orchestral works he was famous for: the popular song. He was used to set music to librettos, but this time he needed help from folks who wrote short-form lyrics. A true New Yorker, he turned to fellow music artists around the city to write lyrics for him. He then proceeded to write music to these lyrics and cast various singers to sing them. The outcome was Songs From Liquid Days, which might be considered one of his more accessible albums, but definitely not typical radio material, and I would argue not pop either. It is an unmistakable Philip Glass album, flourishing with his signature repetitive themes that you can spot a mile away. But the lyrics and the singers make this album unique in his rich catalog.
The lyricists Glass selected include David Byrne, Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega and Laurie Anderson, who contributed my favorite song on the album, Forgetting. Setting his brand of music to Anderson’s lyrics proved to be a new type of challenge for Glass: “I had that series of words to set. They came in groups of three. but I set them in rhythmic groupings of four. That meant that every line of three had a space in it. It would go one, rest, two, three; or rest, one, two, three; or one, two, tree, rest, and so forth. I remember looking at the words and seeing that she had so consistently used this group of three that I could fit three into the four and form a kind of rhythmic tension between the words and the phrasing. That’s how I began writing that song, I set the actual words at the end. Then I took the second group “They rushed slightly by, these lovers” and I used that same music again. That left me the first group to set up. That became the narrative part of the song.”
The instrumental performance was given to the Kronos quartet who worked met Glass when they were performing the music he set for the play Company, and later played a concert version of Mishima. Forgetting was the first piece of music Glass wrote specifically for the Kronos quartet. He later wrote a major work for them, his fifth string quartet shortly after his wife died from cancer.
What makes Forgetting a special song for me is the vocal performance by Linda Ronstadt and the Roches. Ronstadt has a great voice, and while she is mostly known for her rock/pop hits from the 70s, she has a wide range of other musical interests that showcase her voice even better than the hits. Listen to her vocal interpretations of jazz standards on her recordings with Nelson Riddle and you get the idea. Ronstadt also performed a decade earlier on Carla Bley’s avant garde musical project Escalator Over the Hill. Two years after the release of Songs From Liquid Days she appeared on another Philip Glass album, 10,000 Airplanes on the Roof, although her vocal contributions there were limited to oohs and aahs. Recalling her experience singing the song Forgetting she said: “Glass’ stuff was really hard to sing. He didn’t write singer-ly stuff, he wrote eccentric stuff that would make odd jumps in a human voice.”
In contrast to Ronstadt’s vocals, The Roches contribute an operatic part on top of a signature Glass ensemble and keyboards repetitive build up. If you like Glass’s operas like Einstein On The Beach, Akhnaten or Satyagraha but you find the vocal performances on them hard to take, you may like this song better as it is a perfect match between the operatic Glass and a great vocal performance.
Songs From Liquid Days was released in 1986, a good year for the contributors to the song. The Kronos Quartet released their interpretations to the music of Bill Evans, Laurie Anderson put out her wonderful multimedia performance Home of the Brave, and Ronstadt released the third of her recordings with Nelson Riddle, For Sentimental Reasons. But their combined work on the song Forgetting remains unique, an unclassified gem in their collective careers.
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