A rare musical event: a bad Philip Glass performance that isn’t Glass’ fault

Thursday 9 March 2006

Icebreaker is a new music ensemble that lacks one of the most basic skills required by musicans in any genre: they can’t count. They listed seven pieces before the interval on their program at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, but played only six of them. For some reason the first piece got dropped from the concert.
We don’t know why the piece was dropped because noone, in either of the two awkward announcements to the audience, bothered to even acknowledge there was a change in the program. So, if you don’t usually go to concert halls gigs because you suspect that they’re a private party for incestuous cliques where you don’t belong, Icebreaker are here to prove you right.
The first piece they actually played was an ensemble arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No.2b. Not many people applauded it, probably because they’d read the program and were expecting a piece 11 minutes long, and so wondered what had gone wrong when the musicians suddenly broke off after a couple of minutes. Of course, something had gone wrong: it was a bad arrangement, played badly.
I have never understood why people would want to arrange Nancarrow’s player piano music for ensemble, other than to allow musicians to show off at the expense of the music they purport to serve. The result is usually the aural equivalent of a watercolourist attempting to ‘enhance’ an Escher drawing. Nancarrow hand-punched music rolls for the player piano to play dazzlingly quick, complex rhythms with pinpoint accuracy. This wheezy arrangement for clumsily amplified winds and strings reduced all the detail and shape to a flat, muddy mess.
The remaining selection was a forgettable collection of condescending gestures toward accessibility, with all the ambition, depth, and canny grasp of cultural zeitgeist of an advertising jingle. There were two student pieces that sounded studenty: shapeless, limpdick prog-rock academically divested of any vitality.
The band pretty much admitted they were playing this stuff because it flattered them, so I hope at least they had fun playing it while boring the pants off anyone who had to listen to it. Honestly, there were more cheap thrills and a better rapport between musicians and punters at the supposedly egghead Elliott Carter gigs in January.
The second part of the concert was the main reason I went: Icebreaker were playing Philip Glass’ big 1970 opus, Music With Changing Parts. The concert hall was noticeably emptier after the interval: most of the absentees likely students who had dutifully turned out to see their colleagues/teachers in the first half, and felt no need stay a moment longer once their obligation was fulfilled.
Quite possibly, they were also superstitious types and wanted to avoid the curse of exposure to a piece by the ridiculously successful Glass written at a stage of his career when he still had to unblock toilets and drive a cab to make a living.
The derivative bombast which has fuelled the more financially rewarding phase of Glass’ career now obscures the fact that his music from the 1970s remains some of the most exciting and challenging music around. The early stuff doesn’t get played much: Glass restricts circulation of his scores, particularly ensemble pieces like this, written for his own group of dedicated musicians.
Unfortunately, it seemed like Icebreaker didn’t want to play this piece tonight. In the first place, fatigue was visibly setting in amongst the musos during the latter stages of the gig. In the second place, their interpretation of Glass’ piece was trying its damndest to make it sound as much like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as possible.
Thirteen musicians (Glass typically made do with 6 to 8), some of them doubling on different instruments, were needed for this performance. Perhaps Glass would have liked to work with a broader instrumental palette when playing this piece in the 1970s, but I doubt he would have done it at the expense of keeping his ensemble tight, or together.
These days, maybe, he might simply hire a couple more mbira players to cover the bald spots, but he would not say to himself, “I’m sure the audience won’t notice when that really loud bass part drops out for two bars every now and then because the keyboard player has to turn pages.” (Pssst, Icebreaker. Rehearsals. Page turners.)
The unvarying pulse essential to Glass’ music was marred by sloppy changes from one figure to the next, poor and irregular intonation of some figures, and just plain disagreement between musicians about what the basic speed should be. Too often, when some kind of momentum was building up, another muso would take over after sitting out for a while and kill the pace. No more than three of the four keyboard players were active at any one time, but this relay-team approach failed to maintain any consistency across the piece.
The sound mixer spent much of his time working on damage control, trying to sort out the imbalance of instrumental sounds that the performers were incapable of resolving. Based on the first half of the concert, I’d say this particular Glass piece appealed to Icebreaker as one of the very few that allows some form of limited improvisation, but their excessive indulgence in these opportunities led to the musical material occasionally being swamped, and frequently chopped and changed so rapidly that the point of the piece was lost.
Pretty much everything Glass has written over the last 20 years has left me cold, so here’s one positive thing I took away from this gig. Given the crummy work he’s turned out over the last decade or so, I often start to doubt that he was ever any good. I still like this piece a lot despite the tone-deaf mangling it got from Icebreaker that night, so he must have been some kind of genius once upon a time.
I almost forgot: the one thing the band got right on the night was their early run-through of Frank Zappa’s brief Möggio, which I attribute to Zappa knowing his instruments and, more importantly, knowing his musicians: “Yes, you are all individuals – now do exactly what I tell you.”
Theatrical highlights: Electronic recorder guy almost getting garrotted when he went for a walk and forgot the lead on his instrument was only so long. One of the excessive number of keyboard dudes manically pattering out Glass’ repeating figures on his thighs when he wasn’t playing. Pity it didn’t help when he was actually touching the keyboard.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: The usual “music student going to see their lecturer get a performance” glad-handing.

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: See the Xenakis reviews.