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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Live Review, 6/25/12: Philip Glass, Joanna Newsom, and Tim Fain Team Up for the Henry Miller Library at the Warfield

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 8:52 AM

Joanna Newsom and Tim Fain at the Warfield. - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Joanna Newsom and Tim Fain at the Warfield.

Philip Glass, Joanna Newsom, and Tim Fain

Benefit for the Henry Miller Memorial Library

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Warfield

Better than: Your last experience at a concert with assigned seats and a program.

"I don't want to embarrass Mr. Glass, but I think this is the happiest day of my mom's life," said Joanna Newsom last night, giggling from behind her towering harp. It was somewhat unusual territory for the acclaimed San Francisco singer-songwriter, whose records are puzzled over and adored in the indie world. But Newsom appeared comfortable and more than capable sharing a stage with Phillip Glass, one of the world's most famous living composers, and his young violinist friend, Tim Fain, in what was a stunning benefit for the Henry Miller Memorial Library. (The library, an outpost of high culture amid the foggy ridges of Big Sur, will soon be forced to close if it doesn't raise enough money to make federally required building improvements.)

  • Christopher Victorio
  • Philip Glass

With no program announced beforehand, and no information on what would be played in the paper program given to the audience, each performance was a surprise. The only hints about the music for the evening where those Glass dropped in interviews last week. As it turned out, the musicians alternated performances, with everyone performing solo and in every combination possible.

  • Christopher Victorio

Newsom's solo performances were the only parts of the program that wouldn't be considered classical music, although calling them pop doesn't quite seem accurate, either. Even given the clear country influences in "Sadie," for instance, Newsom's performance felt more like art music on last night's stage. She played a sped-up version, with Fain adding fiddle-esque exclamations on his violin, soaring into the upper registers with plenty of Appalachian swing. Perhaps it was the formal setting -- seats on the floor of the Warfield, an older, richer crowd, etc. -- but "Sawdust and Diamonds" also felt like more of a "piece" than a "song," a long tale set to music, rendered with the unflappable rasp of Newsom's mighty mite of a voice.

Glass' performances were haunting and powerful, of course, from the solo piano of "Metamorphosis Two" to his jaw-dropping collaboration with Fain on "Pendulum for Violin and Piano," a piece written in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the ACLU. Rather than minimalism, the works Glass performed last night demonstrated his ability to evoke motion with music. Maybe I've seen Koyaanisqatsi too many times, but Glass' repeating musical phrases, speeding up and slowing down, rising and falling in volume, seem like the fluttering motions of a heart valve, or the hi-rev precision of a hummingbird flapping its wings. His pieces seem to have a working mechanism at their core, one that Glass sometimes showed in plain view -- as on solo works like "France" -- and sometimes obscured under, say, bright flashes from Newsom's harp, or long, moaning phrases from Fain's violin.

  • Christopher Victorio

Fain got some of the show-stopping moments of his own, with his evocative playing on "Pendulum" and a thrilling performance of the ultrafast violin solo from Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach. (You should just watch that and have your mind blown.)

Oddly, though, one of the highlights of the night came from someone who wasn't even onstage: Glass performed "Wichita Vortex Sutra," the spare, dramatic music he wrote to accompany Allen Ginsberg's anti-war poem of the same name, and played along with a recording of Ginsberg reading it. Written in about an hour as Ginsberg streaked across the plains in a car, the poem is an ecstatic, optimistic work about the effects of war on the psyche of a nation. "Let Congress legislate its own delight!" Ginsberg's voice exclaimed in warm, welcoming tones, prematurely declaring the Vietnam War over. Glass here truly felt like the accompanist, his deep, oceanic chords getting a bit lost under Ginsberg's excitement.

  • Christopher Victorio

Glass introduced the piece by explaining that after Ginsberg's death in 1997, he had trouble performing it, as it reminded him his poet friend was no longer alive. The work fit perfectly in last night's program, though, emphasizing Glass' connection to the line of American literary dream-chasers whose legacies and loves -- Henry Miller announced Big Sur as actual paradise upon discovering it, then quickly moved there -- this concert aimed to preserve.

Critic's Notebook

When the lights go out: There were men asleep in my row before the music even got started. Pretty sure they woke up when Joanna Newsom walked out onstage, though.

  • Christopher Victorio


1. "France" (Glass, Newsom, Fain; from Glass' The Screens)

2. "Sadie" (Newsom and Fine; from Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender)

3. "Metamorphosis Two" (written and performed by Glass)

4. "The Orchard" (Glass, Newsom, Fain; from Glass' The Screens)

5. Partita for Solo Violin, Movement 1 (Fain; written by Glass for the soloist)

6. "Sawdust and Diamonds," (written and performed by Newsom)

7. "The French Lieutenant Dreams" (Newsom and Fain; from Glass' The Screens)

8. "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (words and recorded voice by Allen Ginsberg, music by Glass)

9. "Pendulum for Violin and Piano" (Glass and Fain; written by Glass)

10. "Diver," a new, unreleased Joanna Newsom song, in its live debut


1. "Closing," (from Glass' Glassworks)

2. Violin solo from Einstein on the Beach (Fain, written by Glass)

3. "On a Good Day" (written and performed by Joanna Newsom)

See also:

* Q&A: Philip Glass on Collaboration, Minimalism, and His Henry Miller Library Benefit Show with Joanna Newsom

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