New Statesman FEBRUARY 7, 1997 - by Giles Smith


The composer Philip Glass has written and recorded a symphony inspired by the David Bowie album "Heroes". What a task it would once have been to write that sentence while trying to fight down a cackling laugh and struggling to prevent one's knee from slamming against the underside of the desk.

Not now, though, when the idea that a modern classical composer should deem it worthwhile to tinker with an old album by a rock icon seems natural, even predictable. We begin to be free, perhaps, of that unhelpful belief, held by an entire generation, that rock music and its better-mannered predecessor are mutually antagonistic and that no amount of top-grade diplomacy can finesse them towards a lasting peace.

If the distinction ever made any kind of objective sense, it makes none now. In recent years Paul MacCartney has written an oratorio dedicated to Liverpool and Elvis Costello has composed a song-cycle in collaboration with the classical Brodsky Quartet. And in both cases the results a) were pretty good b) resolutely failed to give off the odour of rock'n'roll chancers looking for a bit of serious cred. If our age is remembered for anything musical, it will be for taking a giant hammer to the wall between the rock and classical terrains and knocking out gaps through which one can pass without having to present an elaborate collection of visas along the way.

Glass must take some credit for his share of the hammer work. In 1993 he released a symphony based on the Low album, which Bowie recorded with Brian Eno in 1977 at the start of his notorious Berlin period, a phase devoted to absorbing at first hand the effects of the cold war and to behaving very strangely.

Now Glass moves on to "Heroes", and it seems likely that he will complete the trilogy with a symphony worked up from Lodger. These are widely agreed to be Bowie's ripest works and much though many of us would have loved Glass to come up with a concerto based on The Laughing Gnome, we should probably agree his present course is the wiser one.

Glass has said of this work: Just as composers of the past have turned to music of their time to fashion new works, the work of Bowie and Eno became an inspiration for... symphonies of my own.

Heroes Symphony certainly is very much Glass's own. It renews, in particular, his commitment to pieces of music that chuff along like a train but cover less ground. To be a cellist on the second movement here, working that small, repeating cluster of notes for minutes on end, must be the equivalent of being suspended in some kind of musical purgatory. Though who knows? Maybe the sheer monotony of the task induces its own narcotic effect and one ends up away with the fairies.

Many who warmed to the Bowie original did so for the thrill of a beat and Bowie's apocalyptic voice, and there's nothing in Glass's armoury that can account for these things. But such is the temper of the times that neither the most protective Bowie freak nor the most ardent classical modernist is likely to cry, in the manner of the famous Harry Enfield character: Oi! Glass! No!

Anyone finding their residual prejudices hard to shake off could do worse than consult Brian Eno for help. Eno is in all likelihood the most intelligent person ever to have entered a recording studio for the purpose of making a rock record. Bono of U2 once said of him: Some bands went to art school; we went to Brian Eno. In the diary he published last year, which is as reliably thoughtful and funny as Alan Bennett's, Eno was moved to defend an exhibition of Bowie's art, about which Eno had fairly crisp observations of his own: Some of the work was interesting, some was poor, and I wonder if he knows the difference.

Eno noted that the critics disapproved of Bowie venturing where he should not. He wrote: Reagan can be a post-modernist sculptor if he wants... The worst thing is this pathetic English reaction, he has no right to do that. It just puts the argument in the wrong place.