Philip Glass: Complete Etudes for Solo Piano

Sally Whitwell
ABC 481 6592

To record the complete works of any respected composer is a daunting and emotionally grueling task, let alone a composer still living. Sydney pianist, Sally Whitwell, has said of the recording of the complete Etudes for Solo Piano (2 books of 10 Etudes each) that it was almost like a love affair.

Clearly, Whitwell is a passionate advocate for the music of international master of minimalism, Philip Glass. So much so that her talent has taken her to perform Glass in Los Angeles, and even New York, in the presence of the composer.

“His signature repetitive structures … pull you into a unique meditative space (if you let them)”, said Whitwell.

But if you harbour a pre-conceived notion of minimalist piano music, you may be surprised by the highly melodic elements that are evident herein these Etudes.

The range of emotions explores the composer’s shifts in state of mind. Each Etude presents a differing element and artistic demand. Some are heroic, thick textured (particularly using the middle register of the piano in abundance), whilst others are simplistic, lyrical and even romanticized. Some deliberately use little or no pedal, and others will resonate more with carefully considered pedalled sonorities. Particularly appealing are the sometimes quirky high register fragments of tunes that chirp out, over a more dense chordal repetition.

It could be argued that the repetitions are akin to the monotonous cycle of urban life, the constancy of “motoric” ideas (eg traffic motion, like trains).

Whitwell’s artistry here is dynamic. Articulation and expressive nuance is impressive. Her love of this music is clear, and she brings to these etudes a refined sophistication. This double CD recording places her without doubt at the forefront of exponents of Philip Glass, and should give Whitwell the international recognition she deserves.

Between the Keys: Ensemble Offspring

Dedicated to new music and new ideas in music performance, Ensemble Offspring has produced a recording of most unusual compositions, based around a new tuning system.

Ensemble Offspring

Ensemble Offspring

Various composers have collaborated with instrument makers to achieve their objectives in the creation of this new musical vocabulary. The CD booklet helps to explain, via a short historical glance, the difference between Equal Temperament, Just Temperament, and the newly devised Centaur tuning system, which is so important to this new music.


At times though, for the layman, one senses that a degree in applied mathematics or physics might not go astray, in order truly to grasp the numerical intricacies involved.

The greatest proponent of new tuning systems (and consequently the new invention of instruments to which these systems can be applied) is the American microtonal maverick composer and inventor, Harry Partch. Suffice it to say, Partch’s work in this area is enough for its own separate study, and I would recommend his “Genesis of a Music” (1947) should readers be more interested in discovering more deeply about this concept. This recording and performance endeavour, however, is Ensemble Offspring’s own tribute to that philosophy and output of Partch.

On the other hand, one can find appeal in simply listening to the recording as a collection of new music, some of which is inspired by non-Western ideas.

Mysteries by Arana Li utilises the clarinis (a type of new clarinet) and the tarhu (a spike-fiddle like the Middle Eastern Kamancheh) in what is an evocative and meditative dialogue between istruments.

Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion is appealing for its repetitive melodic and rhythmic cells.

Amanda Cole’s Hydra (three movement work), based on the Ancient Greek mythology, employs 4 clarinis to enable tunings of major, minor, phrygian and lydian modes to be used.The movements are based solely on the rhythmic and melodic adaption of 4 notes only.

Music and colour are often connected, and in Damien Ricketson’s Some Shade of Blue which uses tarhu and centaur vibraphone, allusions are drawn with the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and.

The pentatonic Akashic Torus by Kraig Grady further enhances one’s interest in eastern philosophy and the diverse patterns found in numbers.

Nuance and colour are the primary elements in Terumi Narushima’s Hidden Sidetracks, with its diverse use of many instruments, and extended performance techniques.

Such works are challenging indeed to our aural senses, but highlight the creativity of these unique performers and composers, as well as the myriad sonic possibilities that can be produced.

Ensemble Offspring is a group of innovative musicians, comprising amongst others, Claire Edwardes, Damien Ricketson, Bree van Reyk, Jason Noble, and Diana Springford, who are joined on this recording by Anna McMichael, Peter Biffin, Kraig Grady and Linsey Pollak. This recording has not been released by one of the major recording labels, but rather those wishing to purchase a copy (or individual tracks) can do so via the website

The Good, The Bad and the Awkward

The Good, the Bad and the Awkward
Sally Whitwell (pianist)
ABC Classics 476 4898
Reviewed by Barry Walmsley

At first, I picked this CD up and wondered what it was all about… Great music played by a pianist who is one of the fastest evolving personalities in the Australian classical music scene today – a performer who cannot be described as one dimensional at all. So, instantly there was intrigue.

Recordings which grab you with titles such as this one are sure to be successful. But Whitwell’s intelligence in devising an anthology of music which, on the surface may not bear any relationship to each other, shows incredible courage and passionate about what she loves, or what inspires her.

This is a disc which is a unique tribute to film characters to whom she finds an attraction, most importantly the most-loved of all French films, Amelie (with its five beautiful and simply stated pieces by Yann Tiersen).

“I started thinking about why I feel so attached to the film and particularly to her (Amelie), how I identify with her and feel her joys and sorrows so intensely. It’s all about being a bit socially awkward, about how awkward people eventually can find their place in the world, can ultimately triumph. Here was an experience I wanted to share,” said Whitwell.

So it is with this dedication and passion that performer meets music.

Rota’s Gelsomina (from La Strada) uses melodica and toy piano and conjures an image instantly, as does Badalamenti’s L’Execution (from The City of Lost Children). Later, Badalamenti’s Falling (from Twin Peaks) is a slow moving piece which will appeal to the melancholic at heart.

Nyman’s Candlefire (from The Diary of Anne Frank) is so poignant with its simplicity of melodic theme and harmonic gesture, that it is a real tear-jerker. Of course, a work from The Piano cannot be ignored from such a disc, and here Big My Secret conveys the originality of this great film composer.

Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 (as used in The Painted Veil) is intriguing as is all of Satie’s piano music. The French-inspired Delicatessen features music by D’Alessio using piano, toy piano and melodica. The Hours, a film featuring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and based on the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs Dalloway, uses Philip Glass pieces – and this piano music doesn’t disappoint (as it seemingly contains more melodic material than expected!). Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared is a new discovery with his C’est le vent, Betty (from Betty Blue), and its repeated knocking against a quirky but joyous fluency. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag (as used in the Australian animated film Mary and Max) changes in mood from the slow opening to a more fluid section, and returns to a reflective moment, which masks the rag influence momentarily.

The Portrait of a Lady (based on Henry James’s novel of the same name) uses the music of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D899, which Whitwell gives the necessary elegance and brooding drama. Other uses of classical music may cause surprise, such as the adaptation of Delibes’s Flower Duet in the vampire movie The Hunger, Debussy’s Clair de lune (Ocean’s Eleven), Haydn’s Adagio e cantabile from Piano Sonata in E flat (from Interview with the Vampire), and JS Bach’s Prelude No 1 (Bk 1) as used in Bagdad Café (the Preludes are used more in this film, as one of the characters plays them throughout).

Distinctive for his authentic voice in film composition is Ennio Morricone, and here The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (from the film of the same name) employs Whitwell performing harpsichord, melodica, recorder and recording her own voice, in what is a great realisation of a film classic.

This was such an interesting collection of music showing the wealth of material set for film. Some of the selections and their use in film are so intriguing that I have to now go out and deliberately watch or re-watch some films to confirm how this music has actually been used to support the visual image and dramatic content.

Whitwell’s choices show an obvious connection with French music, minimalist orientations, vampire films and strong female story lines.

This music would be richly rewarding for any student. Whitwell has collected some of the best film repertoire for piano. As well, this disc would be a valuable addition to a school teacher’s collection for the teaching of Music and the Media.