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Week 25 | “Heroes” Symphony and Low Symphony (1996 & 1993)

Around the time, in high school, that I was becoming a Bowie fan, I came to like a weird movie called Koyaanisqatsi and its equally weird soundtrack by Philip Glass. The movie was basically time-lapsed footage of cities against Glass’s repetitive, minimalist music. The sound was not quite classical and certainly not rock and roll, but it wasn’t too far removed from some of Bowie’s instrumental work. So it wasn’t a stretch when Glass took some of those works, from Bowie’s albums Low and “Heroes,” and turned them into two distinct symphonies.

These are two albums, and I had originally planned to give them two separate entries here, but I don’t have much to write about them. I don’t listen to them often, however I listened to both recently and was reminded that they are pretty pleasant, especially as background music. They are the types of albums that aren’t too distracting. They both manage to be soothing and tense at the same time.

They are also both more Glass than Bowie. Some of the pieces are recognizably derived from their namesakes (for instance, “Sense of Doubt” and “Neukoln” from the “Heroes” Symphony), but others really aren’t, at least to my ears. If I didn’t know what I was listening to, I would not have recognized Glass’s “Heroes” as deriving from the Bowie song. So Glass’s liberties make these different than other genre-shifting interpretations of Bowie music (such as the more traditionally classical music versions of Bowie songs from “At the Proms,” which I discussed earlier). This is actually a good thing because with the two Glass albums, we don’t have someone simply trying to imitate Bowie and falling short. His contributions make the music something different.

I’m not sure how much Bowie, and his collaborator on both original albums, Brian Eno, had to do with Glass’s albums. Bowie and Eno were at least involved with promoting the albums— they appear on the album covers and promotional materials, in images that appear to have been new (at the time) pictures. Their names are prominent on the album covers. I somehow acquired a tee-shirt promoting “Heroes” Symphony that again gives Bowie, Eno and Glass equal billing. But I’m pretty sure neither Bowie nor Eno play on the albums. They are not listed as producers, and Glass alone is listed as the composer, so Bowie’s and Eno’s contributions were probably just the original source music (“just!”)

All that’s fine by me. Glass took the source material, made something new and unique and nice to occasionally hear. He also set the stage for what could happen now that Bowie is no longer with us— without Bowie around to make new music, his music can be reinterpreted forever, and in the hands of a truly creative artist like Philip Glass, Bowie’s old songs can be the seeds of something new.

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