Taking It to Heart:
A Close Look at the Root of Satyagraha (Act I, Scene 1)
In Satyagraha, the “repetitive structures” of Philip Glass’s music are more than a musicological abstraction. They are a means of communication. Act I, Scene 1, depicting Gandhi’s integration of a key Hindu teaching into his political awareness provides an example, through two relatively long selections.
In the music heard in Track 15, Lord Krishna is imagined standing in the middle of a battlefield, responding to the anxieties of the warrior Arjuna. He counsels Arjuna to be even-keeled in his response to life’s vicissitudes, but unafraid to take action—the philosophical root of satyagraha. Krishna, Arjuna, and Gandhi sing boldly as an instrumental whirlwind swirls beneath them, perhaps suggesting the intervention of the divine in human affairs.
A few minutes later, as heard in Track 16, Gandhi stands alone, singing essentially the same material. His repetitions flow at first, as if he were rehearsing what he has heard. Before long, they fractionate and stutter—here a couple of syllables, there a fragment of phrase. By a minute and 40 seconds into the selection, the voice of the tenor has given way to an instrumental air with the quality of deep rumination, as if Gandhi were turning the idea over and over again in his mind. Another minute and 40 seconds pass before his voice returns—first two syllables at a time, then one. Words, then bits of word, recur pensively, finally softening into a sound that might even be pre-verbal, a human sound barely distinguishable from an instrument in the orchestra. By this point, Krishna’s words seem no longer to be on Gandhi’s mind: They are his mind. Through music, Glass has depicted the moment when a man comes to terms with a life-changing thought.