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.

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