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Philip Glass

Publisher: Chester Music

Itaipu (1988)
commissioned anonymously for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Work Notes
A Symphonic portrait for Chorus and Orchestra in four movements: Mato Gorsso - The Lake - The Dam - To the Sea
Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
38 Minutes
Programme Note
Philip Glass Itaipu (1988)

I. Mato Gross

The inhabitants of the first land reached, all of them, the state of indestructibility.

Those who prayed, those who possessed understanding, those who reached perfection, drove towards their future home.They themselves created their homes form the eternal soil in the land of the minor gods.
Those who lacked understanding, those who were inspired by bad science, those who disobeyed the ones standing above us, had a bad fate, suffered metempsychosis (re-incarnation). Some were converted into birds, or frogs or beetles; our Father converted into a deer the woman who had robbed: only by living in accordance with the precepts set down by our good father will we prosper.

Our Incestuous Lord challenged our First Fathers: he married his paternal aunt. The waters were coming: the Incestuous Lord prayed, sang, danced; then the waters came, but the Incestuous Lord had not yet reached perfection. The Incestuous Lord swam: with his wife he swam; in the waters they danced, prayed and sang. They were overtaken with religious fervour; at the end of the two months they gained strength.

They reached perfection; they created a miraculous palm tree with two leaves' in its branches they rested and soon set for the towards their future home, there to be converted into immortals. The Incestuous Lord, the lord of the abominable union, built himself a home of indestructible soil in the land of the minor gods. The Incestuous Lord became our Father Tapari; he was converted into the true father of the minor gods.

Itaipu. Ah.

II The Lake

Our Papa Mirí created this land. He made the sacred chant of man sound on his land. The accompaniment of the sacred chant of man - in this earthly home - was the sacred chant of woman.

Before making the sacred chant of man to be heard over the earth, he expelled his mother and then called her back home. Before having filled the whole of his earthly home with the sacred chants of man, before having covered his earthly home with caresses, our Father went back home.

III The Dam

The place where our grandmother comes from is called the land of surging waters. This place is the centre of the world, the centre of the world of our father Papa Mirí.

Standing above this place is a miraculous palm tree. When the miraculous palm tree flowered for the first time, it was the bird Piri'yriki who first licked its flowers.

IV To the Sea

Itaipu. Ah.

His new work for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, 'Itaipu', is the third in a series of concert works Philip Glass thinks of as "portraits of nature". After all, as he notes, his music has always been strongly programmatic, and programme music arose as a response to nature. Previous installments are 'The Light', premiered in 1987 by the Cleveland Orchestra, and 'The Canyon', presented last year in rotterdam. He is considering a fourth "portrait of nature" for the future, to be called The Antarctic.

Itaipu originated as his response both to nature and to a modern technological wonder, the great hydro-electric dam, by far the worlds' largest, now being completed at Itaipú on the Paraná River that forms the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Everything about this project is astoundingly huge. Half as high as the Empire State Building and almost five miles wide, the dam backs up a lake of 563 square miles. Any of its 18 generators alone could handle the entire flow of the Potomac River; they are so enormous that the Brazil Symphony once gave a concert inside one of them.

Mr Glass visited Brazil's spectacular Iguassú Falls in June 1988, accompanied by friends who also took him to see the dam construction site nearby. (Igassú was not submerged by the man-made lake at Itaipú, but the falls at Sete Quedas, the world's largest by water volume were.) Touring the immense ducts and massive turbines, he marvelled at the act of imagination through which humankind has transformed nature, an undertaking comparable in daring and inventiveness to the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. He immediately dropped the ideas he had been developing for the Atlanta commission and conceived the present choral-orchestral work inspired by Itapú: ""I looked at it and said, I know the piece!"

Although his involvement in making 'Koyaanisqatsi' might suggest that he believes technology is alienating us from the natural world, Mr Glass' admiration of the dam at Itaipú is unreserved. He does not see this as a contradiction, noting that he is not against technology, but is uncomfortable when it is allowed to develop unrestricted: "Technology is not neutral; it takes over everything." The important thing is to take care to give it a human face, to control the impact it has on traditional ways of life. "We can't return to the 10th century. The best ecological arguments see the world as it really is." He is concerned that we "keep the human factor in the equation."

With the music already forming in his mind, he began to look for a text. Friends in South America soon came up with what he considered the perfect solution, a creation myth of the local Guraní Indians, for whom the Paraná River is "the place where music was born." In their language "Itaipú" means "The singing stone" and refers to the unique sound of a loose stone that once vibrated in the rapids at this location.

While the music itself hymns the wonders wrought by nature and by humankind, the exotic text recounts the creation of the world, the actions of the gods and how the first people came to this special place.; this seeming dichotomy will not be surprising to those familiar with Mr Glass' portrait operas, for there too, the text is frequently in an exotic language, is usually compiled from sources already in existence and is used to supplement rather than duplicate the thrust of music and action. These words will be understood by practically no one among the audience (or performers), and the composer prefers the distancing this inevitably causes. He hopes the music can succeed as pure music, as a work of art inspired by something palpable and dramatic.

Writing for large and well-disciplined choral forces, he calls for the largest orchestra he has used in any work. Itaipu is in four movements, each with a programmatic title. The music follows the waters of the Paraná form their source in the highlands of Brazil's Mato Grosso province, into the sprawling new lake, past the mighty dam, and finally on toward the sea. The translation of the Guarani words above is by Danielle Thomas.

© Nick Jones


Vocal Score

  • Ensemble
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra / Atlanta Symphony Chorus
    Robert Shaw
    Sony Masterworks:
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  • 12 JAN 2002
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