Philip Glass Ensemble last night at Royce did Music in Twelve Parts (1974). It was a pleasure, yesterday afternoon, just to sit in an air-conditioned room, though AD was absolutely right to suggest that it’s a perfect piece for the Hollywood Bowl. Imagine it blasting from that titanic sound system!
It was exhilarating: five hours was not too long. If anything, the ideal performance would go straight through, without any breaks. But the reality is that the breaks are absolutely necessary ... for the performers. Forget about the audience needing pit stops, the physical challenge of MITP is daunting. David Crowell, on saxophone, seemed to be the youngest person on stage and by Part 12 he was twitching and stretching painfully.
Likewise the vocalist Lisa Bielawa, articulating simple solfège syllable patterns with clarity and grace almost non-stop, provided the focus of the performance. It was mesmerizing to listen to her, shining through the often thunderous electric keyboard din, casting off heaven-knows-how-many repetitions of the same phrase with unflappable poise. From recordings I had always assumed that there was an ensemble of singers—it certainly sounds like it. Amazingly it’s just one—singing in all but two of the Parts! What does she have to do after a performance to recover?
The idiom is declarative, all on the surface (it is what it is). The “minimalism” comes not from any asceticism, but from regularity: repetition of little melodic patterns, steadiness of beat, uniformity of (high) volume, and uninflected performance. In most music, listening is a journey; here the listener is given the whole landscape all at once, and the interest lies in detecting the details within it as they start, repeat, stop, and change.
Each Part is composed of brief patterns juxtaposed and overlapped and repeated so that the patterns shift from being lines to masses. Overlapping produces a pulse, and also a drone. But it’s never static: the patterns change, they shift key, and instruments enter and exit.
In general, there is an effect of constantly shifting from a state in which each of the patterns are given equal weight, to moments when one particular pattern is emphasized, followed by a shift back into equality. Drone to detail to drone; or, mass to melody to mass. This cellular construction is entirely different from most musical traditions, which are based on the contours of speech, or the rhythms of dance.
This is the difficulty, for people who find it difficult. All the nuances of conventional classical music are there, but within nondramatic frame. Of course one way to make this more palatable is to provide a dramatic frame (a scene, characters, Robert Wilson), which is exactly where Glass’s career went next. But what a pleasure to have a couple of hours to immerse oneself in this, without any Robert Wilson!
The idiom is idiosyncratic, but not eccentric. If anything, one of the things that really sets MITP apart from other classical music of its time (e.g. John Cage’s Etudes Australes, or Pierre Boulez’s Rituel) is how freely it echoes everything from the baroque (keyboards providing continuo) to Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Part 5 has a jubilant gospel/R&B groove that’s a welcome relief from the exquisite abstractions of Cage and Boulez. Paradoxically the effect of Glass’s systematic and rigorously plotted score feels like an intensely extended jam by The Allman Brothers or Funkadelic.
It’s part of the American modernist tradition of just-the-facts sounds (Copland, Cage, Feldman), but it’s hard not to sense a sketchy narrative. Part 1 provides a sweet and mild dawn, with the subsequent Parts increasing in tempo, volume and density. Part 5 is a joyous high point. Then the next Parts explore contrary motion (conflict?) The vocalist drops out of 9 and 10, marshaling her resources for the lyrical 11 and the tour de force of the last Part. Is this the depiction of a day in somebody’s life? A transition from quiet to activity, to transcendence?
[Images: LP covers by Sol LeWitt]