WASHINGTON - ya wa na ni ... ya wi yo mi ... ba bo ba
Those words may seem alien to some of us, but not to Philip Glass, the high priest of minimalism who has a chorus sing them in his Symphony No. 7 - A Toltec Symphony, premiered last night by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
"I heard a recording of a 90-year-old Mexican-Indian man chanting in the desert, singing to a plant or something," says the Baltimore-born Glass. The composer wrote down what he heard and then showed the words to an anthropologist.
"He told me they don't mean a thing," Glass says. "The old man was in a religious, mystical state of some kind, and these are the words that came to his mind. They don't relate to the world, but to the spirit. So I can't say exactly what [the chant] means, but I heard it and it moved me."
Once Glass is moved - by words (ancient or contemporary), images, drama, motion - he can create extraordinary experiences out of the "minimal" elements of a style known (and, by some, reviled) for its simple, tonal chords, restrained melodic lines and reiterative, hypnotic rhythmic patterns.
Glass was at the forefront of minimalism when it emerged in full force roughly 30 years ago as an unexpected challenge to atonal complexities of the ever-prevalent serialism.
Like his prominent colleagues Steve Reich and John Adams, he has developed his own style considerably over the decades, helping to expand the genre's dimensions and expressive capacity. But whether writing operas or chamber works, or scoring such diverse films as The Hours, The Thin Blue Line, Kundun, The Truman Show and Koyaanisqatsi, Glass has remained true to himself.
And a big part of that truth is a keen interest in world cultures, which explains how a recording of that untranslatable chant inspires this new, half-hour symphony for orchestra and chorus, commissioned by the NSO in honor of music director Leonard Slatkin's 60th birthday.
Each of the three movements in the piece relates to a key element in the ancient traditions of the Toltec people of Mesoamerica - roughly the region from Central America up to New Mexico and Texas.
"The Corn" reflects the people's bond with the earth; "The Sacred Root," referring to a specific Mexican plant, is a connector to the spirit world; "The Blue Deer" is the symbolic possessor of knowledge.
"These are big concepts," Glass says. "Twenty years ago, the idea of putting them into a symphony might not have occurred to me, but it's where I am today in my thinking."
For the composer, who turns 68 this month, exploring cultures far removed from his own is a long-established practice. During the early years of his career, he visited India and other non-Western countries to absorb indigenous music.
"After many years of exploring other cultural traditions," Glass says, "I ended up in my back yard, or at least not very far, for this symphony." He laughs. "All those years I spent in India I could have stayed right here."
Setting exotic words to music is old hat to Glass. His Fifth Symphony incorporated African chants and excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. His opera Satyagraha has a libretto in Sanskrit; another opera, Akhnaten, includes texts in the time-crusted Akkadian language of Mesopotamia.
"When I go into these ethnological indulgences, I do it for me, not the audience," Glass says. "It's my response to other cultures. It's a way to open up a door into a world you and I didn't grow up hearing."
Glass' music has opened such doors for many listeners - at least those who can hook into the repetitive grooves and basic harmonic structures. One such listener is the National Symphony's principal percussionist, F. Anthony Ames.
"Phil's music explores the depths of human psychology and spirituality," Ames says. "If [Symphony No. 7] could be played in the age of Stonehenge or on the Upper Amazon, it would induce someone to embrace a larger essence or being. Back then, a shaman would probably give you a psychedelic drug to get that feeling."
Other folks conjure up less colorful images about pieces of Glass. "Sometimes orchestra players get very angry with me," the composer says with a grin.
Marissa Regni, the NSO's principal second violinist, admits to some previous misgivings. "I used to get homicidal when I played this kind of music," she says. "But I've been much calmer this time around."
Even Slatkin had his moments of Glass-aversion. "When I was a disc jockey in St. Louis in the late '60s, I was intrigued by Philip Glass," says the conductor, who went on to enjoy the composer's 1976 groundbreaking, five-hour-nonstop opera Einstein on the Beach. "Then I became bored. His music was not resonating with me anymore.
"But over the last 10 years, that's changed. He now has a more emotional way of expressing ideas, rather than a merely mechanical one."
Slatkin, one of the most determined proponents of contemporary American music, liked the idea of commissioning a symphony from "someone who, at one time, I really hated."
The conductor's renewed appreciation for Glass was evident during rehearsals for the premiere. And the orchestra, which has never before programmed a work by this composer, seemed to connect to the notes quickly.
"We're all familiar with his music, from the movies and other things," says NSO principal bassist Robert Oppelt. The symphony "is kind of fun. It's very simple and transparent. It appeals to basic emotions. Obviously, there's a lot of repetition in it, but Glass seems to know just how long to be repetitive before moving on."
The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic repetitions in minimalism "change when you least expect it," Oppelt says. "It's a challenge keeping your place," adds Regni. "You turn the page and think, didn't we already play this? It's difficult mentally and physically. You're playing in the same position for a long time; it's like standing with your arm straight out for 15 minutes."
The challenges for unsuspecting audiences can be considerable, too. While listeners steeped in pop understand Glass instinctively (two of his symphonies are based on works by David Bowie and Brian Eno), traditional classical music fanciers can become squirmy.
"You have to be focused and really centered to get the idea," Slatkin says. "I think our audience will receive it well. It's a very powerful piece."
Thirty years ago, when Glass was at the forefront of the anti-atonality avant-garde, in way-downtown New York City lofts, few people would have expected him to produce full-fledged symphonies. "I never thought I would write them either," he says.
With seven down and an eighth due for a November premiere, he might almost be mistaken for an establishment type. "But I think you can still recognize my voice in the music," Glass says with a laugh.
It's one of the most distinctive (and most imitated) voices of our time. "When you look at the whole body of his work, you can't go five or six bars of any piece without knowing who wrote it," Slatkin says.
"The individual personality is so strong. And it's music that will last. I think we'll always have Philip Glass around."
What: National Symphony Orchestra
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington
When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow
Call: 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324