He takes his girlfriend to a Philip Glass gig but forgets to mention that it will be five hours long.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

I had told her Music in 12 Parts is a big piece, but she thought that meant it went for two hours or so. When he completed the work in 1974, Glass’ ensemble of electric keyboards, amplified winds and voice would typically play the whole thing over a series of three evenings, not in a single, marathon event like last Sunday at the Barbican. Besides two 15-minute intervals, there was an hour-long break halfway through, so that musicians and audience alike could recuperate, and I could mollify my partner with a large glass or two of house red.
Of the three main concerts staged by the Barbican as part of their Philip Glass 70th birthday events, this was the one I was interested in. It was also the one which still had tickets available on the day. The other two concerts were new works, both collaborations: one with Patti Smith, the other with Leonard Cohen. Glass has a strangely duplicitous career and reputation. Today he is best known for the numerous orchestral pieces, film scores, and collaborations he has made over the past twenty-odd years, yet most of this music is his least interesting and (I’m predicting) least enduring work.
By contrast, Music in 12 Parts is Glass’ essential composition, the full flowering of the radical techniques he developed in the late 60s and the source for all of his subsequent music. Unfortunately, since the 1980s Glass has done little to develop these innovations, preferring instead to add derivative embellishments to his earlier stylistic breakthrough. Consequently, the distinctive body of music Glass wrote for his own ensemble in the 1970s now seems even more unusual and further from the mainstream now than when it was written, when set in context against his later movie music and large orchestra commissions.
I was going to refer to Glass collaborations with Smith, Cohen, Ravi Shankar et al as crossover music, but really, most of Glass’ later output has been a crossover collaboration with the capital-C Classical music world, with all the attendant weaknesses all too typical in such hybrid genres. Returning to early Glass now always seems like a revelation of a true composer buried beneath the comparatively conservative accretions of his more familiar music.
Music in 12 Parts enthralls and exasperates in turn, its sheer length and single-mindedness acts first as an obstacle, then as a means of transmitting the sense of discovery and excitement that sustains its newly-formed musical language. There’s an appealing candour in its obstinacy and roughness, right down to the inevitable lapses in the musicians’ technique as they play a score which demands superhuman consistency and stamina, and the heedless way each new part butts up against the preceding one.
Sadly, the sound mix on the night was a little too rough, and for most of the first half of the concert the flutes and saxophones were drowned out by the voice and keyboards. Also, the whole thing could have, should have been louder. Maybe I’ve become jaded, maybe Glass has mellowed too much with age, but even in the 1980s his concerts were deafeningly loud, and it served to immerse the listener in the music, shutting out any other distractions.
After the show, the strangest thing happened. As we all left the theatre we could hear members of the audience drifting through the streets, humming the tune. Specifically, they were trying to recapture the peculiar 12-tone melody that emerges during the final part.