Philip Glass - "Music in 12 Parts"

Barbican Hall, London - 21 October 2007

"Glass is a giant among composers"

[Barbican 'Glassworks' programme]American composer/performer Philip Glass is probably the best-known exponent of the musical field labelled Minimalism. A style characterised by detailed often high tempo exploration of repetitive limited loops of notes that gradually evolve over time. To many it is maddeningly tortuous. The musical equivalent of Chinese water torture as what appear to be the same notes repeat rapidly - seemingly going nowhere. To others he is one of the greatest living composers.

Glass celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year and there's little indication that he'll be taking a break any time soon. His career began in the early 1960s where he studied in Paris, earning money by transcribing Ravi Shankar's Indian music into Western notation. In the 70s he created the Philip Glass Ensemble, a dedicated performance group. He branched out into opera, dance, theatre, orchestra and, in his most mainstream work, film soundtracks.

His innovative late 60s and early 70s era culminated in the writing of Music in 12 Parts, started in 1971 and completed in 1974. The extended cycle of music usually requires three live concerts to perform in its entirety. However, as part of the Glassworks season at London's Barbican Centre during October he agreed to perform the whole work in one performance. Including the one and a half hours of intervals (!) that meant we'd be spending five hours inside the Barbican complex. Just a tad daunting in itself, but thank goodness that the Barbican Hall has better than average seating when it comes to comfort.

Glass was accompanied on stage by his longtime collaborator Michael Riesman. A composer and producer in his own right, Riesman is also the Musical Director of the Philip Glass Ensemble. He frequently plays as part of Glass' live performances, a duty he was comfortably fulfilling tonight. Of the remainder of the ensemble, Lisa Bielawa particularly deserves singling out. As she has the unenviable challenge of providing the vocals for this epic work. Seeing the piece performed live, you realise that Glass has composed a work that pushes human abilities to their limits. Putting aside the incredibly fast playing, that both Glass and Riesman are, amazingly, still comfortably capable of, the vocal pieces are as demanding as any ever written. Less for the range required, although that is pretty broad, but it is because Glass composes using voice just like any other sound. Glass has a clear impression of what he want the human voice to add to his works. Just how someone is able to fulfill the part as written seems of secondary concern. Bearing in mind that Bielawa has spent years working as part of the Glass Ensemble, even she wasn't capable of maintaining the vocal line as written without fairly frequent pauses for breath, a sip of water, a brief respite. And I for one don't blame her. It never impacted negatively on the performance but did clearly demonstrate that, for Glass, the only important thing is the aim.

Music in 12 Parts was broken down into equal length clusters, but the overall effect, despite the intervals required for humans to function reasonably (both on and off the stage), was just as I had hoped - mesmeric. I'm not a slavish Glass fan. There are as many of his works that just don't connect with me at all as there are those that move me tremendously. Given its length in particular, Music in 12 Parts, a work I'm not overly familiar with (indeed I do not own), definitely had the potential to leave me entirely apathetic at worst, exhausted at best. Neither were the case. Some hours genuinely flew past with surprise that another interval was already due. Others passed more slowly but always the music held up. Okay, its hardly comparable with scaling Everest, but by the end I did feel a sense of achievement for having lasted the course (a smattering did not).

Philip Glass celebrated his seventieth birthday earlier this year. It is astonishing to reconcile that fact both with his appearance (he could readily pass for twenty years younger) and his dexterity. I was impressed with this when I saw Glass actually on his 60th birthday a decade earlier at the Royal Festival Hall. Ten years on and there are no tangible signs of wavering. Glass is a giant among composers. That he is still performing is the only reason anyone needs to see the man in a live setting. In doing so you will not only enrich your life but will have witnessed a living legend. 8/10

Rob Dyer