Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts, Ostrava Gong Auditorium, 16 August 2013

The last time I saw Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts was way back in 2007. This was at the Barbican Centre in London, as part of a weekend devoted to Glass’s music that also included his collaboration with Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing. I hadn’t really got up to speed with this blog back then, so the review I wrote at the time was woefully short (it neglects to mention, for example, that Cohen sat in the row behind me for the performance of Music in Twelve Parts, and indeed stayed for the whole thing). Since, however, this is the cycle that encapsulates everything I love about Glass’s music, it was a no-brainer to make the trip to Ostrava to catch it again.

A word on the venue and the festival of which this concert formed part, both of which were rather special. A tough mining city in the industrial heartland of the Czech Republic, Ostrava is not often mentioned as a stop-off on the international funded arts circuit. Yet the city puts on a biennial festival of contemporary classical music, Ostrava Days, which this year included visits from not only Glass, but also from Christian Wolff and other New Music luminaries as well. As for the location, it was extraordinary. Situated in the middle of a disused ironworks in the suburb of Vitkovice, the concert took place in a former gas holder which has been beautifully converted into a 1,400-seater concert hall – a project from which those responsible for the unattractive Gasometer site in Vienna might well learn some painful lessons. My only complaint relates to the pitiful provision of food and drink at the venue. With over 1,000 people coming down for a five-hour event, the organizers really should have cottoned on to the fact that two people serving drinks and two more manning what was essentially a wurst stand was never going to be enough. The queues during the intermissions were simply horrendous.

As for the music, it was a phantasmagoric whirl of melody and harmony that I found utterly captivating. I’m no musicologist and have nothing to say about the theoretical basis of the piece; what I can say is that it is sheerly, head-spinningly enjoyable from start to finish. It’s become a cliché to cite Glass’s objection to being labelled as a minimalist composer; nevertheless, listening to Music in Twelve Parts in its entirety makes clear the inadequacy of the term to describe what he is doing in a piece like this. If minimalism can be loosely defined as music where nothing much happens, then I’m happy to ascribe it to people like Glass’s near contemporaries La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine, concerts by both of whom I snoozed through in London in the 1990s. Palestine is a particularly egregious example. Seen stumbling around the Gong on Friday night in his usual ridiculous get-up, bawling out the staff and coming late into the auditorium, he stated in a 1996 interview that “by the end of the 70s I found myself in direct competition with the commercial minimalism of Reich, Glass, Adams; cutesy New Age composers who were diluting minimal piano music to Richard Clayderman-like spiritual pissings.” In response to which I can only wonder who Palestine is trying to kid if he sees himself as competing in any shape or form with the likes of Glass and Reich.

Anyway, it seems to me that, far from Music in Twelve Parts being a work of minimalism, it actually teems with activity in the midst of the repetitive structures that form the basis of the piece. Listen to the thrilling rush of keyboard clusters hammered out by Glass, Michael Riesman and Mick Rossi, and it’s never long before Jon Gibson, David Crowell or Andrew Sterman (last heard by me laying down the mighty sax solo in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, by the way) slip in with elegant, gently pulsating threads of sax and flute. Not to mention the shape-shifting vox of soprano Lisa Bielawa, whose uncanny syllables lend the piece a vivid extra dimension of colour and clarity.

In fact, Music in Twelve Parts seems almost synaesthetic; it’s music driven by an immense, transformative urge to fuck with your senses. There’s no feeling in music comparable to the one you get as Glass’s hypnotically repeating patterns drill relentlessly into your head, only for the tiniest harmonic shift to come along and burst the whole shebang open. Alive with light and rainbow hues, gripped by an inner compulsion to thrive and regenerate, Music in Twelve Parts is total music, flowing endlessly through you and leaving you changed forever.

Dead Can Dance, Vienna Stadthalle, 9 June 2013

I came late to Dead Can Dance, but the 4AD aesthetic appealed to me from the off. In the seismic shift in my musical tastes that occurred during the 1980s, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil certainly loomed large, with Treasure and Filigree & Shadow wafting along my student hall of residence corridor more often than was strictly necessary. Somehow, though, Dead Can Dance passed me by, until a chance encounter with 1990’s Aion propelled me into their strange, mysterious fusion of dark folk, medieval and world musics. I was hooked, and set about their back catalogue with relish, finding all but the rather too goth-leaning eponymous début album to be essential listening.

Unfortunately, though, Dead Can Dance were already on the wane. There was one more excellent studio album, 1993’s Into The Labyrinth, and a beautiful career-spanning live album, Toward The Within; but 1996’s Spiritchaser was a lacklustre affair, and after that the group disbanded, riven by the personal conflicts that seem to affect nearly all groups in the end. As far as live performances go, I saw a riveting solo gig by Lisa Gerrard in the splendid surroundings of the Union Chapel in 1995. DCD toured Spiritchaser the following year, and I duly secured tickets to see them at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. As I approached the venue on that warm summer’s evening, I realized something was amiss when I saw hordes of black-clad goths gloomily heading in the opposite direction, back to the tube station. Yes, the gig had been cancelled.

It was to be another nine years before I did finally pin down DCD live, at the Barbican Centre on their first reunion tour. They had the excellent idea of releasing limited edition CDs of every show on that tour, one of which I gratefully snapped up (more groups should do this). When this second reunion tour came around, I had to wait a year for it to come to Vienna. I would have put money on them playing at the Konzerthaus, but they actually turned up in the unprepossessing surroundings of Hall F in the Stadthalle. It’s a soulless (if comfortable) venue at the best of times, and the acoustics were distinctly sub-optimal from my front row vantage point, although others reported that the sound was fine further back.

As for the show itself, it was a disappointingly anaemic experience. With a setlist that relied heavily on the watery new album Anastasis, it was hard to avoid the impression of a group out to take care of business with as little effort as possible. Looking like a grumpy old geography teacher, Brendan Perry glowered irritably into his beard for most of the set, while Lisa Gerrard smiled beatifically from behind a ludicrous Cleopatra-style get-up. The two of them barely exchanged a glance all evening, an approach that contributed significantly to the overall feeling of shivery stiltedness emanating from the stage. And there was a telling moment when Perry testily cut off the audience’s ecstatic applause at the end of the soaringly beautiful “Sanvean” by instructing the band to launch straight into the next song.

None of which would not have mattered much were it not for the fact that the Anastasis material is such a plodding rehash of former glories. To take just one example, the 1980s Perry would never have allowed a couplet like “We are the children of the sun/our journey’s just begun” to pass muster, while in general DCD now seem content to play up the serene and portentous aspects of their music at the expense of the wild and disturbed elements that drew me to them in the first place. The few old songs that were performed – “Sanvean”, “The Host of Seraphim”, the stunning duet “Rakim” – were not only undoubted highlights, but also unfortunate reminders of what has been lost.

Gerrard’s multi-octave voice and glossolalic texts are still things of unfathomable beauty and wonder, although she is no match for Geoff Smith as a player of the hammer dulcimer. Perry’s rich, warm baritone, meanwhile, is heard to best effect over the doomy chord progressions of “The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove” and on a painfully emotive reading of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”. Making explicit the lineage back to the group’s illustrious (and, sadly, long gone) past on 4AD via This Mortal Coil’s celebrated version of the song, its air of haunted brokenness stood in stark contrast to the over-egged nature of much of this concert.