Review: Philip Glass and the Meaning of Life

There is a version of “Tao” — call it the best piece of theater we never saw — that would have featured Glass playing piano alongside the action onstage. But early in development, the idea was shot down by his manager; Glass just didn’t have the time.

But his score is a substantial, crucial contribution. This is late Glass — far from the echt Minimalist sound of “Glassworks,” McDermott’s obsession — performed by a quartet of the percussionist Chris Vatalaro (the show’s music director), the clarinetist Jack McNeill, the violinist Laura Lutzke and the pianist Katherine Tinker.

There is experimentation with found-object percussion, and recent Glass touches including colorful texture, expressive shifts in harmony and soundtrack-like tone painting. McDermott’s childhood memories are matched by naïvely excited music; the flotation tank, by a soporific étude; the simulated coma, by music so shapeless yet alluring that it could have been written by Satie.

Glass does appear briefly, in the form of a Steinway Spirio piano — an instrument that can record sound and touch then reproduce it, like an advanced player piano. He tells McDermott that this way, he can be with him onstage “like a ghost.”

It was a reminder that while Glass, 86, is still with us — he was in the theater on Thursday, and bowed with the performers — he won’t always be. But his art will remain, and it’s through his music that McDermott reaches the Essence level. Culture, McDermott suggests, is the route to our deepest selves.

With a running time of two and a half hours, “Tao” doesn’t make that point quickly. By the end, though, McDermott’s scattered thoughts satisfyingly cohere like kintsugi, the Japanese art of rejoining broken pottery pieces with golden lacquer, which he describes near the beginning. Some of his memories reveal a clear, clean image; others are imperfect shards that don’t seem to fit. But together, they create something new, and beautiful.

Tao of Glass

Through April 8 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan;

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