Surreal Symphonies: Philip Glass in the Penal Colony

Glass does Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony' in Sydney

No stranger to the surreal, composer Philip Glass, in following the theme of Kafka (his previous orchestras have  included Kafka’s Metamorphosis), last week I had the not quite so pleasurable experience of seeing Glass’s musical interpretation of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, perhaps his most disturbing work despite its short length. Not-so-pleasurable in by no means a bad way, for any connoisseur of Glass’s work and any lover of Kafka would know that the meshing of these two elements is not one likely to produce a marvellous evening of wonder and beauty. Haunting is perhaps the word I’d use to describe it, and not in the kind of poetic misinterpretation of the word. There is a reason Glass is considered a minimalist, and that minimalism paired with the elaborate, dark, surrealist nature of Kafka’s work that birthed the term Kafkaesque—in which we find ourselves in nightmarish circumstances that make little or no sense—makes for quite an unusual, disconcerting symphony. What works well, though makes the viewer suitably uncomfortable, is Glass’s ability to tap into Kafka’s sense of imprisonment and enclosure from the story through repetition and by producing music that induces feelings of claustrophobia, quite a common feeling at one of these symphonies I’m told, though this is my first Glass concerto live.

When talking about his fantastic film Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, Glass states that it is arts lack of meaning that gives it its power:

Art has no intrinsic meaning. This is its power, its mystery, and hence, its attraction. Art is free. It stimulates the viewer to insert their own meaning, their own value.”

So to the woman I saw leaving the hall at the end with a disgusted look on her face (who beforehand had seemed out of place anyway), Kafka would have been exceedingly proud.

And since I suck at uploading videos, here is the link to the symphony conducted by Glass with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra:”  




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3 responses to “Surreal Symphonies: Philip Glass in the Penal Colony

  1. My friend Rudy Wurlitzer wrote the libretto for “In the Penal Colony” and it’s actually an improvement over the Kafka story.

    • Just had a look at the libretto on exterminating masterful stuff. It’s an interesting story to adapt -the only other adaptation I saw was the 18 minute black and white short film ‘Zoetrope’ by Charlie Deaux, which isn’t that well known. But Glass’s music captures the uncomfortable feeling of Kafka’s story perfectly.

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