Phillip Glass | Philip Glass
Electronic music must be getting popular in Britain. Something's definitely going on — first we get Klaus Schulze for the first time in five years, then, of all people, Philip Glass (and ensemble) for the first time, period. Things are looking up.
It's not that Schulze and Glass have the same background, or even necessarily the same following. The Glass Ensemble's performance was firmly placed in the context of the Almeida Theatre's New York performance season, which has also featured Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley over the past couple of months. Glass was born in Baltimore, entered the University of Chicago and studied at the Juilliard School of Music, where he began to progress beyond the conventional serial composition of modern classical music.
In 1964 he won a Fullbright award which allowed him to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, during which time he became interested in Indian music and worked with sitarist Ravi Shankar. After trips to Morocco and India, he returned to New York with the additive principles of Eastern rhythms firmly in his mind, and began to compose highly repetitive, modular pieces based on tonal principles and regular, rhythmic pulses. Despite criticism that his music was static and over-minimal, Glass received enough attention to enable him to form a regular ensemble in 1968, and begin to release music on his own Chatham Square label in 1971.
The earlier pieces, such as 'Music with Changing Parts', 'Music in Similar Motion' and 'Music in Fifths', resembled that of other American minimalists such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Glass had worked with Steve Reich on 'Four Organs/Phase Patterns', and Reich's ensemble members, Steve Chambers and Jon Gibson left to join the Glass Ensemble.
The music of these closely interlinked ensembles differed subtly from that of solo performer Terry Riley. The latter, after composing the pioneering minimalist work 'In C' (which gives each musician a selection of musical phrases to play but leaves the choice of how often to play them to the individual), had gone on to produce gentle and sparse keyboard improvisations. These contrasted markedly with the extremely disciplined compositional style of Reich and Glass, in which every phrase, repetition and arpeggio is strictly notated.
In 1974, Virgin records released two sections of Glass' 'Music in 12 parts', which included some illuminating sleeve notes on the Glass style of composition. In each part a simple melodic figure on flute, organ or voice is repeated, added to, subtracted from or inverted, with an almost fugue-like method of picking up melodies from one instrument by another. Glass comments that "It may happen that some listeners, missing the usual musical structures (or landmarks) by which they are used to orientating themselves, may experience some initial difficulties in actually perceiving the music. However, when it becomes apparent that nothing 'happens' in the usual sense, but that instead the gradual accretion of musical material can and does serve as the basis of the listeners attention, then he can discover another mode of listening. It is hoped that one would then be able to perceive the music as a 'presence', freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound."
By 1976 Glass was experimenting with dramatic structures in a literal sense with the Mahou Mines experimental theatre company. This work culminated in the monumental 'Einstein on the Beach', an epic musical/poetic/operatic drama about the famed scientist and amateur violinist which toured all over Europe.
Branching out further, Glass composed film music for 'North Star' again released on Virgin, and dance music for Lucinda Childs' company released as 'Dance Parts 1 & 3'. 'North Star' saw him moving away from long, repetitive compositions to a more accessible and commercial style which had the result of catching the attention of Mike Oldfield and the subsequent inclusion of the North Star finale on Oldfield's 'Platinum'. The connection here was probably via Kurt Munckacsi who engineered both albums and has been working with Glass for the last 10 years.
'Dance Parts 1 & 3' was a more 'traditional' Glass composition, in which the pulses and rhythms of bodily movement were closely reflected in the music. After some success with the performances of 'Dance', Glass went on to opera with 'Satyagraha', based on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, and after signing a recording contract with CBS, to 'Glassworks' received with enthusiastic acclaim by classical reviewers the world over.
Rather than concentrating on his latest work, however, the Sadler's Wells concert was something of a retrospective. The opener was 'Music in Similar Motion' (1969) followed by 'Dance pt 5' (1979, substituted for pt. 3 listed in the programme).
Composer Michael Riesman sat stage right, with a Bechstein grand piano, electric organ and bass synthesiser, and took most of the rapid arpeggio parts. On a dais at the back of the stage sat Jon Gibson (flute and soprano saxophone) Jack Kripl (flute, piccolo and saxophones) and Richard Peck (flute and saxophones). Stage left, Glass himself on Prophet 5, swaying violently during the more frantic passages, and next to him the glamorous figure of Dora Ohrenstein whose largely wordless vocals merged cleverly with the instrumental sounds.
Kurt Munkasci sat with the mixing desk upstage, controlling the PA mix as the wind players listened to a foldback on large 2x18 wedge monitors. As an 'integral part of the performance', a film cameraman flitted about on stage taking what appeared to be largely close-ups of the performers' faces, while a vast Louma crane boom based in the orchestra pit swayed back and forth across the whole stage area, carrying lenses for Peter Greenaway's channel 4 team who will transmit four one-hour documentaries on the New York concert series in the New Year.
After the interval the ensemble played four sections from 'Glassworks', and ended with the mighty 'Train/Spaceship' from 'Einstein on the Beach'. Here the musicians individually and collectively were seen at their full power. The winds were deft and light-footed, following the rapid arpeggios and deep bass of the organ as, for instance, a sequence of notes changed into a sequence of arpeggios of notes, which in turn changed into a sequence of chords. Glass' Prophet produced short 'wah' sounds often merging with Ohrenstein's vocals, which in turn skipped from one syllable to another on consecutive notes or even during the course of one note.
During a violent 'storm at sea' section every instrument, in total synchronisation, was required to produce a 2 octave chromatic scale, repeated several times before a sudden break to a completely different set of patterns. The standing ovation after a brief restatement of the piece's major theme was well deserved, and a hall which had every inch of seating and floor space full, resounded with applause as the musicians took their bows.
Perhaps Philip Glass will never be a million-seller like Mike Oldfield, but his influence over the years on large numbers of composers is becoming clearer. It is sure to grow after this show is televised if only a tenth of the sheer technique and atmosphere has been captured on film.