Sally Whitwell on why the American iconoclast’s solo piano music has “heart”.

Minimalism has come of age. The two elder statesmen of the movement, who revolutionised so-called classical music in the 1960s with their hypnotic rhythms, will celebrate their 75th birthdays within the next year: Steve Reich in October and Philip Glass in January 2012. The two composers once worked together in Manhattan as furniture removalists, lugging pianos and bookshelves in and out of New York apartments. Now, they are considered living legends not only in the rarefied world of art music but also as cult figures for younger generations of listeners and performers.

One such performer is Sydney-based pianist Sally Whitwell, whose debut album of music by Philip Glass, Mad Rush, has rocketed to number three in the classical ARIA charts since its release in June. An adventurous project for ABC Classics, it has proven something of a surprise hit, not least thanks to Glass’s broad appeal across genre and age divides.

Whitwell has been astonished by the way the public has embraced the music. “Many of the people who have made contact with me about it aren’t just classical music people,” she explains. “A lot of them listen to a good deal of alternative rock or electronic music, but not so much traditional classical music. It’s a real mix.

“People have been emotional about it and have written me long emails, vivid descriptions of what they see and feel when they hear the music. I was very surprised to start receiving that correspondence.”

Like most listeners, Whitwell came to Glass through his work in film, citing The Truman Show and the Qatsi triology as favourites. “But the more research I did, the more I’ve become very familiar with the great scope of his artistry now, so I’m a fully-fledged fan.”

These film scores – Glass at his most dramatic and expansive – continued to inspire Whitwell throughout her preparation, since she had made “a conscious decision not to listen to piano players” in order to “keep [her] ears fresh.” But on Mad Rush, she is determined to showcase a little-heard side of Glass.

“His solo music is very personal. I like the intimacy of it and the immediacy of it,” she says. “I’m a pianist-composer as well so I understand where he’s coming from.” Australian audiences witnessed this flowing dialogue between creation and interpretation during Glass’s solo piano recital for the 2011 Sydney Festival, in which he performed his own Wichita Vortex Sutra, recorded on Whitwell’s collection.

The perception of Glass as a dour, brooding contemporary composer stems from the tension his endlessly repeating phrases create in film (Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War, once quipped that Glass does “existential dread better than anyone”). Although his trademark, lingering atmosphere of melancholy pervades the piano works, many of them arranged from music for film, theatre or dance, Whitwell is adamant it is time for a reappraisal of the composer’s gentler modes of expression. “There might have been that seriousness when he was younger, but his music has softened in its evolution, it has more heart,” she muses.

“People say ‘Oh, Philip Glass, it’s repetitive and it’s boring’. But in the score he’ll often write a word like ‘flowing’, or there will be other romantic gestures that he’ll write in. People miss that a little bit. I just wanted to try to bring more of the lyricism and romanticism back to his music, which I hope he likes.”

In this endeavour she found the ideal partner – unique in Philip Glass’s discography  – of a grand piano by Newcastle maker Stuart & Sons, an instrument “incredibly well suited to the repertoire” when it comes to clarity.

“It allows so many colours, such subtle gradations of dynamics, that you can’t get on another instrument in my experience. A Stuart sound is like crystal, yet it’s very flexible.”

The Australian piano played no small part in “giving the music a broader shape,” one of the most important skills to master when performing solo Glass. But Whitwell also resorted to other, unconventional means to convey a sense of overall ebb and flow in each work: “I had to create graphic representations of the structure, then I memorised everything and had the graphics on the stand to remind me what it looked like, to step back from it.”

That wasn’t the only challenge she faced – it can be difficult for a player not to lose oneself in those enveloping textures and repetitions. “Mentally and emotionally, it’s very draining music to play,” Whitwell admits, “especially Mad Rush because it’s so lengthy and required enormous amounts of concentration and stamina.”

The intriguing paradox of the title track is that the “mad rush” of virtuosic fingerwork demanded of the performer creates not a feeling of agitation but a deeply serene state of mind. The original organ work was, after all, a processional composed for the Dalai Lama. Whitwell sees it as a balm for the “mad rush” of everyday city life, which may explain why the CD has captured the public’s imagination. “I live in a very urban environment. The album has that urban feeling but is quite meditative at the same time. It’s right inside the city but at the same time it’s also somehow separated from it, looking down from above.”

Glass understood the rhythms of modern life in a ceaselessly churning metropolis, and his response to that environment forms part of Whitwell’s affinity with his music. “He’s a bit of a self-made, new generation of composer. He’s the quintessential 20th-century composer who drove a taxi and worked as a plumber to support his vision.

“He’s a contemporary man and he didn’t follow the traditions everyone told him to follow. I like that hint of rebellion.”

Does Whitwell see herself as a “rebellious” artist? “No! I just play beautiful things and I write tunes,” she laughs.

“I wouldn’t necessarily see myself as rebellious but I do like to experiment every now and then. There’s a bit of rock ‘n’ roll in me though.”

Mad Rush, Sally Whitwell’s album of piano music by Philip Glass, is available on ABC Classics.