Review: Philip Glass Complete Etudes for Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell


As a music listener, I’ve begun to ponder what is it that makes a ‘lifetime’ album?

That is, one that keeps you company through the decades. One that inspires and consoles in good and bad times. Like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I fell in love with these as a teenager spinning black vinyl on my Mum’s antique Dansette record player. Today, as a 50-something, they are as fresh and inspiring as ever.

I reflected on this question last week after slapping on yet another new CD and only mildly enjoying it. Some early-70s jazz fusion. Fast, virtuosic, yet somehow ephemeral too. As I place it on the shelf, I pat myself on the back for filling a small hole in my train-spotterish knowledge of that genre. Yet I sense I may never listen to it again.

It’s not unusual: My wall unit has 750+ CDs collected over three decades, shelved alphabetically and chronologically in mild-OCD fashion. It’s a movable feast. New albums are added to it monthly. Older ones, I no longer have use for, get shipped off to Ebay to make space for new arrivals. There are lifetime albums. And  flavour-of-the-month ones that sooner or later just ‘die’.

Musical trends are ever-evolving and as a fairly promiscuous listener, I’m always up for checking what’s out there. The internet suckers me into new CDs (Amazon and Spotify are pests). There are friends’ recommendations I feel obliged to listen to. And there’s my fave artists tipping outtakes onto their fans (I’m looking at you, King Crimson). Yet relatively few of these purchases stick around forever. There’s maybe just 10% of my collection that I consistently listen to through the decades.

So, back to the question at hand: What is it that creates a lifetime album? Hard to summarise. But, if pushed, I’d say music that nourishes mind, body and spirit all at once, which refreshes itself on each listen, which matures and ages well, as you do.

Easy, huh? No actually. They only come once in a while.

This autumn, a new one landed on my doormat that seems to tick all these boxes: Philip Glass’ Complete Etudes For Solo Piano – performed by Sally Whitwell.

So far, I’ve listened all the way through just thrice (it’s a double album, two hours, not easy to make the time in one’s daily routine). It’s still early days, but I sense this one will stay with me for however long my remaining lifespan turns out to be.

At first, it comes over as a bunch of repetitive solo piano tracks. And yet as one listens in – to find out if there really is nothing going on here – you end up being seduced by the subtle inner motion and developments that invariably occur.

The opening minute sets the template; slow minor chords repeat over and over until the sheer accumulated weight of repetition opens out – like a blossoming flower – into rippling arpeggios and lyrical melodies. It’s like when you close your eyes; at first all is darkness. But study the darkness and amoebic blotches of colour float past your retina. It’s the same here with Whitwell’s endlessly rolling chords.

If you just go with the flow, don’t strain impatiently for immediate developments, sooner or later each Etude track will reward you with subtle variations in tempo, time or timbre. Or the main rhythmic current will spin off into new eddies of fresh chords or tumbling melodies, before returning to the main current.

Etudes is split across two CD discs – ‘Book 1’ and ‘Book 2’ – each with ten tracks numbered 1 to 10. Yet the lack of descriptive titles positively invites the listener to find their own themes or meanings within. As one track follows another, my stream-of-consciousness free associates: ‘the calm before the storm’ – ‘frantically meeting a deadline’ – ‘a butterfly’ – ‘raindrops on a window’ – ‘my father’ – and so on. This is the power of Etudes; lacking any programmatic theme or lyrics to signpost your thoughts, it empowers you to personalise your own relationship with it.

When he started out in the 1960s, Philip Glass was the archetypal New York minimalist the cartoonists loved to mock (images of grand pianos tumbling downstairs). But if his Etudes evoke the ghosts of Schubert, Chopin and Debussy, he refracts them like a beam of white light fed through a minimalist prism until new colours fan out from the other side. Fast, slow, mid-tempi. Furious, calm, or in-between. Monolithic or shape-shifting.  Urban claustrophobia or open spaces. All life is here.

This is where Sally Whitwell comes into her own: her fingers dance in and out of these apparently simplistic modes and moods, an astonishingly supple and agile performance. Not just mechanistically playing from a written score but confident and playful enough to interpret the music and bring something extra to it.

As with Sally’s previous albums, recording and mastering engineer Virginia Reed brings a remarkable clarity to these tracks. Sally may be down under in Sydney 10,000 miles from my North London sofa where I write this. Several layers of digital technology separate her ivory keys from my ears. From her recording studio’s contact mics and mixing desks to my CD player and my cochlear implant that electronically routes the audio signals to my brain (as I’m partially deaf too). But you wouldn’t know it from this recording which brings every note and chord to vibrant life. It feels to me as if Sally were playing the piano right here in my living room. The notes travelling up my spine, tickling the nape of my neck, massaging my scalp.

Her piano’s full dynamic range is beautifully caught here – all the way from Book 1 Etude 10’s loud fist-pumping motif to the quiet a will-o-the-wisp passages. Each track seems to emerge from silence and return to it.

When I first began buying CDs in the 1990s, they had a bad name for reducing the warm analogue tone of acoustic music to pixelated 10011 00110 10010 codes with shiny and sterile timbres. But thirty years, on the best engineers are maturing the use of digital technologies to the point where the distinction between live acoustic performance and digital reproduction is almost imperceptible (to my ears, at any rate).

So, Etudes has all elements of a ‘lifetime album’ for me. Some of the tunes are now embedding themselves into my brain as earworms that pop up randomly during the day as I’m walking through the park or tidying the house. (They’re in very good company here, with the Floyd and Joni).

But I’m on a journey that never ends. Each time I hear Etudes, I hear it slightly differently; passages that I can memorise and hum to myself along with subtle details that had earlier escaped me. That’s key here. This is an album that will continually reinvent itself in the years ahead. It’s utility is endless, I can play it when I’m feeling upbeat or down.

Last but not least, the photographer in me loves the cover artwork too; Maja Basaka’s iconic portrait with rainbow-tinted lights exudes the music’s sophistication and warmth while also capturing Sally’s radiant personality (with a nod to her LBGT pride and activism too).

For now, this isn’t yet a definitive finished review of Etudes. More a review-in-progress, field notes if you like. I’ve often thought it strange that a review typically gets written almost immediately after an album’s release, to meet publishing deadlines. Note to self: I should return to these notes in a year and update them, as the album grows further on me over time (as it surely will), revealing further unexpected vistas and secrets.

For me, Sally Whitwell’s Etudes is one of those ineffable always-the-same-never-quite-the-same-twice albums that rewards repeated listens over an extended period time.

And I’m thinking that’s key to what makes a lifetime album.

Philip Glass The Complete Etudes – performed by Sally Whitwell (2018). ABC Classics 481 6592

For more about Sally Whitwell, visit her website.

More about Maja Basaka photography here.

Stephen Iliffe, December 2018.


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