Courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic Composer and conductor John Adams at Walt Disney Concert Hall


I will risk the scorn this statement heaps upon me. I was never a big fan of David Bowie. Yes, I said it out loud. So when my friend Ted told me that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had commissioned Philip Glass to write a world premiere symphony based on Bowie and Brian Eno’s Berlin Trilogy, I thought, well, I generally like Glass, and maybe I can bone up on Bowie before going and learn a thing or two.

In fact, Glass created two symphonies already, based on two of the Berlin Trilogy albums, “Low” and “Heroes,” both of which were performed by LA Phil earlier in the year. I listened to parts of these pieces on YouTube and found them pleasing to the ear, in not quite typical Glass style, which was snarkily described by the late LA Times Music Critic Martin Bernheimer as “Xeroxed arpeggios.” Apparently, these two hew closely to the music that Bowie and Eno created for those two albums.

The concert I attended on Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall featured three works: “Tumblebird Contrails,” by Gabriella Smith, a 27-year-old contemporary composer; “Grand Pianola Music” by John Adams, who conducted the LA Phil for this concert, and “Symphony #12: The Lodger,” by Glass, inspired by the third album in the Bowie/Eno Berlin Trilogy.


“Tumblebird Contrails” was a revelation, an entire soundscape created by instruments that are not usually used in this way. She writes poetically in the program about the single moment during a backpacking trip at Point Reyes that inspired the piece, “sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific (the keening gulls, pounding surf, rush of approach waves, sizzle of sand and sea foam in the receding tides)” among other sounds and images, including the droning hum of airplanes exuding contrails across the sky. She describes the title as a “Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.”

This piece succeeded in evoking Smith’s experience, using musical instruments to create environmental and man-made sounds, and the harmonic and dissonant way those sounds resonate and separate in nature. The waves were indeed rolling over us, as were the seagulls flying and crying overhead, and I could hear the hum of the planes as if they were just above us at that moment. You’ll never walk out humming anything like this piece, and in my humble opinion, you want to see and hear it performed live because it’s such a visceral experience. We’ll see what it sounds like recorded because the concert was being recorded the day we were there.

The audience loved it. And so did I.


Next up, Maestro John Adams conducted his own notorious “Grand Pianola Music,” which he says was inspired by a moment while driving down the I-5 and being overcome by two “gleaming, black stretch limousines,” that transformed into a vision of “the world’s longest Steinway Pianos, giving off volleys of B-flat and E-flat major arpeggios.”

And it’s quite a piece of music: two grand pianos, spooning together onstage, their lids removed and innards visible, and the pianists facing each other. Three vocalists added a layer of unearthly sounds that float above and sometimes capping off the music being performed. The instrumentation was also unusual: no strings involved. But it’s amazing what the right combination of percussion, horns, reeds, wind instruments, voices and pianos can pull off, and in this case did. “Grand Pianola Music” was a minor miracle to my ears.

I was completely baffled as to which instruments were being played when, and I tried to follow them. But my ears were really drawn to the unusual percussion instruments:  glockenspiel, crotales, marimba, suspended cymbal, maracas, woodblock, 2 triangles, tam-tam, xylophone, tambourine, bass drum, small pedal bass drum, crash cymbals, 5 tenor drums.

Percussionist Matthew Howard played an impressive role in all this; the crotales look like racked bells and he used two bows, pulling up and down along their edge, making them sound something like the eerie theremin. He also played them as bells with four brass mallets. He bounced between a number of instruments and did a masterful job.

“Grand Pianola Music” was badly received when first performed, but times have changed. I found it completely engrossing and the audience responded with a standing ovation.


But now we come to what was the big ticket item on the program, Glass on Bowie…which I absolutely hated. I could not wait for it to end, and judging by the comments I heard others make, they were very happy to leave the concert hall after this one.

The music is bombastic and simply imposes itself on the lyrics. Instead of trying to make music out of music, Glass focused on text (he did say it was the most difficult part of Bowie’s trilogy for him to get a grip on). But even in context of the album, which was experimental in nature, the lyrics make little narrative sense because they were randomly generated to begin with.

Pair these lyrics from seven of Bowie’s Lodger album songs, with a wonderful pop singer (Angelique Kidjo), whose greatest vocal strengths are not showcased here, and on top of that with no melodious correlation to the music, and you get what I consider to be a compositional failure.

Sorry folks, I call it as I see it…or in this case, hear it.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. 

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