Philip Glass: Music in 12 Parts

Music in 12 Parts

Philip Glass Ensemble:
Philip Glass, Michael Riesman & Mick Rossi (keyboards), Lisa Bielawa (vocals), John Gibson, Andrew Sterman & David Crowell (woodwinds), Stephen Erb (audio engineer), Dan Dryden (live sound-mix) & Kurt Munkacsi (sound-design)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 October, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Having taken in recent collaborations with both Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen, the Barbican Centre’s “Glassworks” series climaxed with a timely revisiting of Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts. Timely because this remains not only his magnum opus for the ensemble he created some four decades ago, but is also the point at which he left behind abstraction for the theatrical and mixed-media works that have since dominated his output – and with varying success – ever since. For those wary of the very concept of ‘celebrity’ collaborations, this performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble was thus one to savour.

Composed between 1971 and 1974, Music in 12 Parts is a compendium of the techniques Glass had been evolving since the mid-1960s – a summation as crucial to his development as was the contemporaneous Drumming to that of Steve Reich. As with the latter, Glass’s piece is no mere collage of techniques; rather it evolves systematically from basic premises in rhythm and texture to exploit their potential to the limit, then reaching beyond those limits in anticipation of future developments.

Interestingly, the ’12 parts’ of the title originally referred to the number of musical lines in what was a stand-alone piece, and it was a misunderstanding on the part of a friend which led Glass to render that title literally. The outcome was a work that, playing for 150 minutes, is normally performed over two or three consecutive evenings, but whose cumulative variety within and between parts makes it ideal for concentrated listening – the need for an early start and strategic breaks notwithstanding.

Such was the case with the present performance – given by a PGE that still includes Glass, Michael Riesman and Jon Gibson, along with sound-mixer Dan Dryden and sound-designer Kurt Munkacsi, from the original line-up; while Lisa Bielawa and Andrew Sterman are both featured on the 1993 complete recording that represents the work’s performance (one hesitates to say interpretative) touchstone.

The present performance, expertly mixed by Stephen Erb and amplified so the interweaving parts had the requisite clarity without their impact being at all overbearing, underlined just why the work has an important niche within late-twentieth-century music. From the deceptively simple interchanges of Part 1, it builds (more or less) incrementally in complexity over the ensuing eight parts so that all of Glass’s ensemble practices can variously be brought into play: the remaining four parts then focus on new, primarily harmonic possibilities – culminating in Part 12 with the incorporation of a twelve-note row in the bass, over which the music erupts in cascades of tonal consonance. Glass has described this conceit as a joke as much at his own expense as that of the post-war avant-garde, but when as discreetly yet scintillatingly worked into the texture as here, the joke is a necessarily purposeful one.

With Glass (co-ordinating the performance with pronounced nods of the head) and Riesman the secure bedrock, Bielawa tackling a vocal part which itself calls for fêtes of syllabic singing and melisma with self-effacing mastery, and the remaining players evincing the relaxed intensity that makes this music ideal for ‘visual listening’, this account left little doubt that the musicians involved prize the virtues of ensemble performance. And, unlike in so much of Glass’s later music, the substance matches the vision with absolute sureness. Certainly the outcome – five hours or so after beginning – was a standing ovation such as those who might otherwise balk at the name Glass could not think other than well deserved.

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