Refractions: An inventive EP celebrating the career of Philip Glass

We spoke to NikNak, Dan Samsa, Carmel Smickersgill and felix taylor about reinterpreting the work of the iconic composer to mark his 85th birthday year.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 18 Jan 2023
  • min read

Early last year, PRS for Music partnered with Dunvagen Music Publishers, Orange Mountain Music, and Robert Ames to offer a unique opportunity. Four composers were commissioned to write a short piece inspired by the work of Philip Glass, to celebrate the influential composer’s 85th birthday year and highlighting the impact his work has had on composers and the music world at large.

After a robust selection process by a panel including Robert Ames, Afrodeutsche’s Henrietta Smith-Rolla, Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Will Dutta, the final composers were announced. Dan Samsa, NikNak, Carmel Smickersgill and felix taylor began work on their pieces, digging back through the Glass archive to bring something brand new to life. 

Together, they have built Refractions – an inventive new EP taking in the full scope of possibilities that contemporary classical provides.

Sifting through the material for inspiration was a massive task in itself. ‘I can’t imagine ever getting near the amount of work that he’s produced, purely because I’ve been too lazy for half my life,’ Dan Samsa said at the time. 

‘I was initially overwhelmed by the library we had access to overall so going through all the tracks and looking for something definitely took more time than I’d originally assumed it would,’ NikNak agreed.

The four artists each saw a different side to Glass’s career. While Dan started collecting pieces in chronological order, Carmel Smickersgill opted to focus on the more theatrical side of things. ‘At the time, I was doing a lot of theatre stuff, incidental music. I went into more of that stuff that he did, because it was what my life had been for a couple of months before,’ she said. ‘I ended up using one of those pieces as the source material.’

While most of the composers had previously heard Philip Glass’s name in an educational context, the aspects of his career that resonated were as individual as the writers themselves. Carmel had been struck by the music for The Hours – despite being ‘a bit too young’ for the film – while felix taylor had first heard the work of longtime Glass collaborator Steve Reich and ventured outwards. 

He thinks that it’s likely the first Philip Glass work he encountered was the soundscape for experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed and produced by Godfrey Reggio. ‘It’s got no narrative, no voiceover. It’s just images of life in different parts of the world,’ felix said. ‘The music is very, very minimal and repetitive. You’re getting these almost anthropological shots of modern life.’

'I found myself not wanting to add any more to the track by scratching on it. I feel that if I’d done that, the sonic space would have been compromised.'

For NikNak, who started the commission intending to take a Philip Glass piece and improvise on her turntables, her path through the work changed as she went along. ‘Once I’d settled on something to use and began working on it, I found myself not wanting to add any more to the track by scratching on it. I feel that if I’d done that, the sonic space would have been compromised – I wouldn’t want my scratching to be fighting or clashing with the strings and other instruments in the track,’ she said. 

Sonic space was also a key consideration for Dan. Using 360-degree recording technology, he recorded his reimagined piece in Church of the Ascension Blackheath, moving through the space with violist Alison D’Souza as they moved through the decades of Philip Glass’s career. 'We’re making sure that we pass closely by the microphone so we get this nice, 3D spatial effect when its edited. What I hope we’ll hear eventually is this sonic brushstroke of his career through this time and space,’ he said. 

'Sound is also an absent present – it’s never physically there but it also fills a room, or it affects the body.'

Elsewhere, felix taylor was thinking about space, too – but in a vastly different way. Fresh off the back of his independently released project the ghost is alive, so to speak he found inspiration in the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and considered the paradox of something being both present and not. 

‘It goes through ghosts and hauntings, and how things in our lives kind of remain once they’re gone. But sound is also an absent present – it’s never physically there but it also fills a room, or it affects the body,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking about how that can translate, how I can make that work. I’m also thinking about the ghost of this guy Mishima, from the film, and how he can be present in the work as well as present in the Philip Glass piece.’ 

There is a deeply human element to all of this. In celebrating the work of an artist who has had such an effect on so many, the four composers working on Refractions have all created pieces that aim to forge connections in some way – with the past, with the physical world, other genres and other artists. Carmel is working on her piece from a pop perspective, twisting the emotional tone of the source material into something completely different to the original.

‘The piece that I ended up really focusing on is quite serious. It’s very calm and serene and still,’ she said. ‘I think it’s hard for you to answer a piece like that in the same tone, and do something genuinely interesting and different from what they’ve already done with it. So I chose that very serious and sombre piece so I could have a lot of fun with it.’

NikNak, meanwhile, dug into what her work could be for other artists. Having worked in sound design, production, DJing and more, she was able to approach her Refractions composition with other DJs in mind. ‘Sometimes people that get selected to do these kinds of things don’t take into consideration other people that may want to play them out,’ she said. ‘That isn’t to say that DJs only play out stuff with drums in them – they play whatever – but I feel like whenever a “dance” remix of some kind is made, it tends to primarily attract a stereotypical DJ more. Here I was able to come at and just respond to the ideas in my head without compromise or self-doubt.’

With the EP set for release on 27 January, the commissioned composers are yet to hear any of the others’ work. They are all excited to see what the others have done, and to see how their work sits alongside such different interpretations. When taken together, Refractions reshapes Philip Glass’s work and reflects it through many different perspectives. For the composers, it is a chance to see their work come alive in a new way. 

‘I think it’s going to be beautiful,’ said felix.