"A Descent into the Maelström", Edgar Allan Poe's vertiginous short story of being swept into a huge and terrible whirlpool by a raging hurricane that "the oldest seaman in Norway never experienced" was transformed into a Musical Dance/Theatre piece by Philip Glass and collaborators, dancer/choreographer Molissa Fenley, set designer Eamon D'Arcy and theatre director Matthew Maguire.
In 1986 Mr. Glass was commissioned by the Australian Dance Theatre to create and bring a piece to the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Adelaide, Australia. He chose to write a piece based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story "A Descent into the Maelström" and invited his collaborators to participate. While researching this piece for the Philip Glass archives and Orange Mountain Music I came across a hand written document of Mr. Glass' that describes his approach. In it he writes;
"The commingling of text, music, image and movement, long honored in time and practice, is the real subject of our work. The tone poems of the late Romantics and the flowering of 19th century opera are ready examples of that in the not too distant past. Yet I feel our approach has been somewhat different.
We began with Poe's "Descent into the Maelström" as the basis for our work. We sought not so much to interpret the story but rather to extrapolate from it a new work that would articulate in theatre form the sense of the original. Though the text has all but disappeared from the final work, it has remained as the subtext to the work. And more than just that, were the story to be read aloud it would, with normal dramatic adjustments, fit into the real time of our theatre piece.
Again, more simply, we can say this new work stands as a poetic meditation in theatre form to the work of a great artist, the work of whom, in the beauty of its language and the power of its thought, continues to inspire us.
Finally, and more simply yet, our intention was, given the work of Poe and the magic of his voice, to bring to it song, image and movement."
This compelling piece of music premiered in March, 1986 at the Adelaide Festival of Arts and was only performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble during the week of the festival in Australia. Consequently, it has had very little exposure to Philip Glass' audience, although there have been bootleg recordings available on the internet. In the spring of 1986 after the Ensemble returned to New York there was a request from documentary filmmakers for an audio recording of the performance so the piece could be broadcast. Also, the Australian Dance Theatre, who performed the work under the direction of choreographer Molissa Fenley, needed a recording to use so they could continue to perform the piece after the ensemble ended their engagement at the festival.
When the 24 track live recordings of the performance were shipped to New York for mixing it was discovered that the recordings were distorted, noisy and mostly unusable. At that point PGE musical director, Michael Riesman, Kurt Munkacsi and the Ensemble members set about replacing their parts. Of course everything had to be kept in sync with the live recording for the television broadcast. The resulting recording is a studio/live hybrid. It is very similar to the mix that was made in 1986 for the video but we've remixed the material taking advantage of the digital recording technology that is available today.
— Don Christensen