Wheels Within Wheels:
A Close Look at the Opening Aria of Satyagraha
Musical notation for the excerpts below can be found here.
Philip Glass has compared his work to a “wheel-work” in which relatively short units of music repeat, change slightly, then build into complicated cycles—sequences of repetitions with a filigree of almost undiscernable variation. The opening aria of Satyagraha offers an excellent example.
First, have students listen to Track 4 straight through. What do they think? You may hear words like “monotonous” and “repetitious.” Explain that the music is like a subtle puzzle—and the repetitions are actually the key! You only need to pay attention.
Track 4 consists of units of music that Glass assembles like building blocks. Most are only one measure long and are characterized by the number of notes in that measure—anywhere between four and nine. Play Track 5. The tenor (playing Gandhi) sings one word as the track begins. In the middle of this word, a single cello begins to play.
Students should pay close attention to the cello part. It includes four measures. There are five notes in each of the first three measures, then six notes in the fourth. (The tenor begins to sing again in the middle of this six-note measure.) From such tiny variations, Philip Glass will build his wheel-work. Play the track as often as necessary until students can acclimate themselves and successfully count off the four measures: 1,2,3,4,5 1,2,3,4,5 1,2,3,4,5 1,2,3,4,5,6.
Track 6 goes back to the beginning, repeating Track 5, then continues. Students will hear how the same set of four measures is repeated: five notes, five notes, five notes, six notes, then again 5-5-5-6.
Notice how the tenor begins to sing his same snippet of melody, but with a different word, in the middle of the last measure of the sequence. By offsetting the two simple patterns—the singing line and the cello line—Glass introduces a complex rhythm.
The obvious difference in Track 7 is a more elaborate tenor part, but students should listen for the “secret code” in the cello line. They will need to listen carefully to hear the variation: The cello line sounds similar, but here none of the eight measures includes five notes. They all include six.
So far, Glass has used his one-measure units to form two patterns in the cello line, with each pattern played twice:
5-5-5-6 5-5-5-6 (Track 6)
6-6-6-6 6-6-6-6 (Track 7)
In Track 8, as the tenor carries on, that sequence of patterns is repeated. In other words, the whole set of 16 units turns out to be a single long pattern:
5-5-5-6 5-5-5-6 6-6-6-6 6-6-6-6 (Track 6 followed by Track 7)
5-5-5-6 5-5-5-6 6-6-6-6 6-6-6-6 (Track 8)
Track 9 introduces a new building block: a seven-note unit. As in Tracks 5, 6, and 7, a four-measure pattern is repeated twice.
Track 10 includes two changes. First, another new unit: This one adds not one, but two notes to the measure: a nine-note block. Then this unit is played twice as many times as in Track 7 or Track 9 (in which the previous two building blocks were introduced):
9-9-9-9 9-9-9-9 9-9-9-9 9-9-9-9
Above this repetitive bass line Gandhi sings, “I see them ready to right, seeking to please the king’s sinful son by wagin war.”
In Track 11, Glass uses the natural and harmonic minor scale (raised 7th) to double the building block’s length. The new unit comprises two eight-note measures, one rising in tone, the other descending. The double unit is repeated eight times—a total of 16 measures:
8+8 8+8 8+8 8+8 8+8 8+8 8+8 8+8
Track 12 returns to nine-note measures, but this nine-note measure is played only 12 times (not 16, as in Track 10).
Then Track 13 returns to eight-note measures played by a flute, again played only 12 times, not 16.
Finally, Track 14, like Track 12, cycles through 12 nine-note measures. The end of the cycle is marked by the entrance of a second tenor, the mythical warrior Arjuna, in the middle of the 12th and last measure. As Arjuna joins Gandhi, Glass moves to the next section of the story—and of the music.
Philip Glass’s music is at once simple and complex, but its elaborate patterning can be hard to grasp as the notes flow by in time. A visual display will provide a different perspective. Students can set up a grid with at least 108 increments on one axis, representing the 108 measures in the selection (Tracks 6 and 7, eight measures each; Track 8, 16 measures; Track 9, eight measures; Tracks 10 and 11, 16 each; Tracks 12, 13 and 14, 12 measures each). The other axis should go from 0 to 9, representing the number of notes in a measure. By graphing the number of notes in each of the 108 measures, students will be able to visualize, in part, the way Glass creates a varying musical line through simple repetition.