The Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischThe Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding:
Philip Glass and John Luther Adams
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Every year one of the Portland Opera Company’s productions is sung by the singers in the company’s outstanding training program. In 2012 it was Philip Glass’s short opera, Galileo Galilei. There is a splendor to young voices different from the patina of the experienced singer; and these performances always have an extra charge of tension and excitement.

The bold, beautiful, intricately simple set, all circles and arcs and moving lights on different planes, was, I believe, from the Chicago premiere in 2002; the conductor was Anne Manson.

The first scene shows us Galileo old, blind, and alone. From there the story follows a reverse spiral through time, revolving back lightly and ceaselessly through his trial, his triumphs, his discoveries, to the last scene where a little boy named Galileo sits hearing an opera about Orion and the Dawn and the circling planets written by his father Vincenzo Galilei. It is all borne along and buoyed up by the ceaselessly repetitive and ever-changing music, always spiralling, never resting, and yet moving with the slow majesty of the great orbits, without reference to any beginning or ending, in a vast, joyous continuity. It moves, it moves, it moves…. E pur si muove!

Portland Opera’s Galileo Galilei — Scene 2 — Recantation
(Audio begins automatically)

I was rapt from the first moments, and by the last scene I could scarcely see the stage for tears of delight.

We came back the next night and had the same radiant experience. There’s now a recording of the Portland Opera performance (Orange Mountain Music, OMM 10091 [iTunes][]). I have listened to this with deep pleasure and will listen to it again. But I am still certain that the true power of opera, and certainly this opera, is in the actual production, the immediate, live presence of the singers and the interaction of their voices and the music with the sets, lighting, action, movements, costumes, and audience to create a global, irreproducible experience. This is how all the great opera composers have understood their undertaking. Recording, film, all our wonderful instruments of virtuality, catch only the shadow, recall only a memory of that lived experience, that moment of real time.

An opera is a preposterous proposition. It’s almost incredible that any production of any opera ever comes off. To a lot of people, of course, it doesn’t — Tolstoy was one. Philip Glass’s music is also somewhat preposterous. To a lot of people it isn’t music at all. Some of his pieces sound mechanical, even perfunctory to me; but having been deeply moved years ago by the film Koyaanisqatsi, and by his Gandhi opera Satyagraha on stage in Seattle, I’m always ready to hear what Glass is up to now. For Galileo he had a brilliant librettist, Mary Zimmerman, and rose to the challenge. The words and action of the piece are luminously intelligent: they go to the heart of what Galileo’s life and thought mean to us in terms of knowledge, courage, and integrity both scientific and religious, yet they linger also on the humanity of the man who rejoiced in his daughter, rejoiced in thought and argument, rejoiced in his work and his great discoveries, and for his public reward got shame, silence, and exile. It is a grand story, and a dark one: quite right for opera.

I found Galileo completely beautiful. I think it as beautiful in its way as Gluck’s Orfeo is in its. Neither is so dramatically and emotionally huge as much 19th century opera, but both are complete, whole, every element in them entering into a ravishing totality. Galileo has an intellectual grandeur rare in opera, but even that is in the service of making pleasure, true pleasure — the pleasure given by something noble, thoughtful, deeply moving, and delightful.

And this was my first 21st-century opera. What a marvelous start!


Just two years later, this March, the Seattle Symphony brought a concert to Portland that included a piece, Become Ocean, they commissioned (and bravo for doing so!) from the composer John Luther Adams.

There are too many composers named John Adams. The one from San Francisco is better known at present, but I’ve found his music increasingly disappointing ever since the curiously brainless and vapid opera Nixon in China. From Alaska, John Luther Adams is still marginal not only to mainland America but to mainstream fame. But I believe that will change as his music is heard.

For Become Ocean, the orchestra is divided on stage into three groups with differing instrumentations. All three play continuously, each following its own pattern of tempo, volume, and tonality. Now one group and now another dominates, the ebb and flow of each interpenetrating with the others like currents in the sea. Sometimes they all are on the ebb; again their crescendoes overlap until a vast, deep tsunami of music swells over the hearers, overwhelming . . . and then subsides again. The harmonies are complex, there are no tunes as such, but there is no moment in the work that is anything less than beautiful. The hearer can surrender to the surrounding sound as a ship surrenders itself to the waves, as the great kelp forests surrender to the movement of the currents and the tides, as the sea itself surrenders to the gravity of the moon. When the deep music ebbed away at last, I felt that I’d come as near as ever I will to indeed becoming ocean.

We stood up to applaud, but not many people did. Portland audiences tend to leap to their feet automatically for a soloist, but rise more selectively for mere orchestra. I think the response was to some extent puzzled, maybe bored. Become Ocean is 45 minutes long. A man near us was growling about it never ending, while I was wishing it never had.

Edgard Varèse’s Deserts came next in the program, a piece that skilfully and faithfully obeys the modernist mandates of discord. Maybe we have at last worked through the period when serious music had to seek anti-harmony and strive to shock the ear. Neither Glass nor Adams appears to be following a program dictated by theory; like Gluck or Beethoven, they’re innovative because they have something new to say and know how to say it. They are obedient only to their own certainties.

I came away from both these concerts marveling that, while our republic tears itself apart and our species frantically hurries to destroy its own household, yet we go on building with vibrations in the air, in the spirit — making this music, this intangible, beautiful, generous thing.






The Circling Stars, the Sea Surrounding — 2 Comments

  1. It was a pleasure to read of your experience with these two live performances! As one who makes do with “the shadows”, an occational live performance, and an active imagination, I appreciate your sharing such a vivid rendering of these events. Thank you!

  2. You’re not the only one who admires “Become Ocean”: it just won the Pulitzer Prize.