Philip Glass & the Philip Glass Ensemble: Music in Twelve Parts, Dublin National Concert Hall, 26 October 2019

Barely a month after I’d seen a sumptuous new production in Geneva of my favourite Philip Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, it was a no-brainer to make the flight over to Dublin to see Glass and his Ensemble play my favourite of all his compositions, the epic (just shy of four hours, by my reckoning) Music in Twelve Parts. This was the second day of a three-day Glass residency, which also included a pre-concert conversation on the Friday and a live soundtrack performance of Koyaanisqatsi on the Sunday, of which more in a moment.

This was the third time I had seen the Ensemble play Music in Twelve Parts, the first being at the Barbican in 2007, the second in Ostrava in 2013. Looking back at my review of the latter performance, I find I said there pretty much all I have to say about this work, so I’ll just leave a brief quote here:

“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.”

A few additional, random observations. The acoustics in the hall were exceptionally clear and, pleasingly, somewhat on the loud side. (I’m reminded of a remark made to me by the composer and former Glass associate Michael Nyman after a concert of his in Vienna: “This should have been so much louder.”) Lisa Bielawa was a total revelation on soprano vox, especially in the tumultuous rush of Part 12 with which the evening concluded. The way she added repeated utterances to the key phrase around which the part revolves, to which the ensemble responded each time with yet another mantric repetition, was nothing less than miraculous. As for the music, I was overwhelmed by its endless cyclical patterns and ecstatic transitions, and by the zest with which the keyboards and woodwinds interwove to produce music of sharp, hallucinatory clarity.

The most unfortunate aspect of the weekend, however, was that Glass was not well. He was his usual dryly funny self at the conversation on Friday, but even from my seat in row S on the Saturday I could tell that he was struggling to keep up with the daunting requirements of the score. I and a few other hardcore fans hung around by the stage door after the concert, and when he emerged he was unsteady on his feet and had to be helped onto the tour bus. He pulled out of Sunday night’s Koyaanisqatsi concert and the performance of Music with Changing Parts that took place in London a few days later, and has already withdrawn from a scheduled performance of the Qatsi trilogy in Paris next month. The Ensemble played or will play all of these concerts without him. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and look forward to more European concerts in the future.

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Geneva Grand Théâtre, 14 September 2019; In the Penal Colony, Geneva Salle du Lignon, 6 September 2019

In recent years Philip Glass seems to have reached new heights of popularity and pre-eminence, cementing his status as the world’s greatest living composer. Now in his 83rd year, Glass is performing sell-out concerts in Europe and North America, while his major operas are regularly performed at the world’s leading opera houses. Bolstered by a relentless stream of posts on his social media accounts (not by the man himself, needless to say), it’s clear that an awful lot of people are coming very late indeed to Philip Glass. The days when I sat among half-empty audiences in London and my home town of Salisbury at Glass concerts, even with the composer himself present, are long gone.

In a further sign of this ever-growing recognition, a Glass opera was chosen to reopen the splendid Grand Théâtre in Geneva after extensive renovation work lasting three years. And, gratifyingly, it wasn’t a relatively safe choice like Akhnaten or Satyagraha that they went for, but Glass’ most demanding and difficult work, Einstein on the Beach. Like the original 1976 production, which I saw revived in London in 2012, this new Einstein was billed as the joint work of Glass and Robert Wilson. There was, however, precious little sign of Wilson’s original visual concepts for the opera in this version by the Swiss theatre director Daniele Finzi Pasca. This openness is of course mandated by the official notes to the opera, which state that “the producer has two options: to reproduce the original Robert Wilson production (which exists on videotape), or to create a new series of stage and dance pictures based on themes relating to the life of Albert Einstein.”

Whereas Wilson’s stage designs were steeped in formalist rigour, all space, light and surface, those of Finzi Pasca leapt out at the viewer with a vivid, haunting intensity. Scene after scene left me slack-jawed in wonderment, the visuals forming a dreamlike and ravishing accompaniment to the dizzying spirals of Glass’ score. There are too many highlights to mention, but the most memorable images included Einstein’s assistants filmed from above, their onstage movements projected onto a massive screen which made them seem to be climbing, falling and floating at will; the lovely water nymph in a long, flowing orange dress, her graceful underwater movements watched impassively by a beautiful white horse; the forest of interlacing tubes that glowed in many colours as they glided smoothly around the stage; the gorgeous shadowplay of cyclists and mermaids as they crossed and recrossed the stage as dancing silhouettes; and the bathers on the beach, playing badminton, wrestling with deckchairs and crabs, throwing beach balls and juggling in remarkably expert fashion. (Was Finzi Pasca aware, I wonder, that juggling also formed part of the stagecraft at the ENO’s triumphant production of Akhnaten which I saw in London three years ago? If not, it was a remarkable coincidence.)

As for the music, it was filled with everything I’ve come to love about Glass. Swirling and eddying with immense mathematical precision, it seemed to embody the paradox of the opera’s title and of that time in Einstein’s life which inspired it: that a man of such formidable intellect could be found among the endlessly rippling tides of the seashore.1 The choir and musicians, made up of students from the Haute École de Musique de Genève under the direction of Titus Engel, responded magnificently to the considerable demands placed upon them by the score. The sung texts, consisting mainly of numbers and solfège syllables, were delivered with breathtaking vigour and stamina, while the music (including sublime solos for violin and saxophone) held me rapt for every second of the opera’s four-hour duration. Although the producers were at pains to emphasize that members of the audience were free to come and go as they wished, I for one remained rooted to my seat throughout.

A few days earlier, I’d kicked off this mini-Glass festival in Geneva with a visit to far-flung Lignon to see a work that was new to me, his chamber opera interpretation of Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony. I wasn’t bowled over by this one, to tell you the truth. The score, played expertly by a string quintet of musicians from Geneva’s Ensemble Contrechamps, was as refulgent and animated as any late-period Glass, but I quickly became bored and then irritated by the onstage movements of the two singers and their constant shifting, like besuited removal men, of two large mirrored crates-cum-video-screens exactly into place. Meanwhile, the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer (who also wrote the screenplay for the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, fact fans) and the excerpts from Kafka’s text read by a disembodied voice offstage were gruelling stuff.

Finally, a word on the ticketing arrangements for Einstein, which frankly bordered on the farcical. From the moment this event was announced, I was aware that it was both part of the La Bâtie festival and also a regular production of the Grand Théâtre of Geneva. On the morning tickets went on sale, however, the GTG’s website had no link to any ticket-buying portal. I therefore bought them from the La Bâtie website, naturally assuming that there was no other source to be found. Having gone through the ticket-buying process and been relieved of a not insignificant sum of money, I discovered to my displeasure that the tickets I’d bought were not for individually numbered seats but were for unspecified seats within a block, and were to be exchanged for numbered tickets on the day of the show. When I turned up at the Grand Théâtre for the show, I was shocked to find that the tickets I’d been allocated were way off to the side of the auditorium, seats I would never have chosen if I’d been given the opportunity to select individual seats. Only after I’d bought tickets did the La Bâtie website give the information that it was also possible to select seats on the GTG ticket portal, by which time it was too late.


1. See Einstein’s Long Island Summer of ’39:

Philip Glass/Maki Namekawa/Dennis Russell Davies, Landestheater Linz, 29 June 2016

Since Philip Glass is nearing his 80th birthday, his previously relentless touring schedule must surely be winding down to some extent. It was a no-brainer, then, to make the journey to Linz to see him perform a piano concert of his own works, flanked by Glass’ long-time musical collaborator Dennis Russell Davies and Japanese pianist (and Davies’ wife) Maki Namekawa. This was the second time I’d seen a Glass event at the magnificent Musiktheater, the first being the baffling opera The Lost in 2013. I hadn’t seen Glass playing piano before, although I’ve seen him twice with the Ensemble playing keyboards on Music in Twelve Parts.

The concert began with Glass solo, playing his composition Mad Rush. At fifteen minutes or so it’s a comparatively short piece, yet characteristically Glass in the way it glides around the listener on a surface of glistening melodies and hypnotic repetitions. The title of the piece seemed to be something of a misnomer, since Glass played it unhurried and with a minimum of fuss. This was perhaps the saddest Glass music I’ve heard, wintry and elegiac and (even though he wrote it nearly forty years ago) perfectly suited to a composer in the twilight of his years.

Glass then exited stage right to make way for Davies and Namekawa, who together played Glass’ 2008 piece Four Movements for Two Pianos. In pointed contrast to the dreamlike euphoria of Mad Rush, this was a beautifully labyrinthine piece of music. Flying through Glass’ magisterial arpeggios in bold and lucid harmony, Namekawa and Davies made an immediate and forceful impression that became stronger and stronger throughout the four movements. By the way, I’m no expert on the niceties of classical music etiquette, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to applaud at the end of each movement as the enthusiastic Linz audience did.

After the interval, all three performers re-emerged to play a suite of six short pieces from Glass’ 1996 “dance opera” Les Enfants Terribles. Since these were pieces that relied, in their original form, on the visual as much as the aural for their impact, the suite was perhaps a surprising choice to round off the evening. Nevertheless it provided a wholly satisfying conclusion to the programme, with the composer leading Davies and Namekawa masterfully through the unflinching density of the music.

There was an interesting coda at the end of the evening, prompted by the signing session after the concert. Never having been to one of Davies’ concerts before (although I once made it as far as the lobby), I thought it would have been remiss of me not to ask him about a subject that has long interested me. It’s not exactly a secret, but nor is it widely known, that Davies is the father of the musician Annabel Lee, who together with her husband Michael Moynihan form the core of the neofolk group Blood Axis. As far as I’m aware Davies has never spoken publicly about his daughter’s music, so I thought it might be interesting to see what he had to say about Blood Axis, since it is, to say the least, a controversial project. Rather than rehash the many arguments that have been made against Blood Axis in general and Moynihan in particular, I’ll simply point the reader to this extensive analysis of his activities, which concludes by saying that “Moynihan is a racist and a Fascist, and he believes that creating a culture accepting of [Charles] Manson’s nihilism is half way to making it also amenable to Fascism”. Having said that, when you look at this photo of Moynihan, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Anyway, Dennis Russell Davies seemed disinclined to discuss Blood Axis when I mentioned the subject to him in Linz. Asked to comment on the precarious ideological basis of the project, he could only offer up platitudes about Moynihan being “a wonderful man” who makes “wonderful music”. Given his familial ties with both Lee and Moynihan, I hardly expected him to condemn their music out of hand; it’s strange, nonetheless, that he clearly feels so unperturbed by it.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten, London English National Opera, 18 March 2016

My long, slow initiation into the world of opera continues, all of it so far through the music of Philip Glass. Following the overwhelming experience of Einstein on the Beach in London in 2012, and the intermittently fascinating but relatively minor The Lost in Linz a year later, last month I made a return trip to London for my first ever visit to the English National Opera. The occasion, of course, was the last night of the ENO’s new production of Akhnaten, the third part of Glass’s major trilogy of operas about historical figures. (At this rate I should be able to tick off the second part of the trilogy, Satyagraha, somewhere around 2020.)

Although the interior of the Coliseum was every bit as lavish as I had expected, it proved to be no match for the visually sumptuous staging of this opera. Phelim McDermott’s production swirled with inventive beauty, from the singers’ resplendent costumes to the rich set designs (which may have owed something to Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking Einstein staging), while the hypnotic work of the jugglers provided a stunning visual counterpoint to the rippling tides of Glass’s music. The chorus, meanwhile, presented a vaguely steampunk image that contrasted vividly with the Egyptian splendour elsewhere onstage. Having received with glum resignation the news that the chorus were planning to go on strike for the first act on the very night I had booked to see this thing, it was a huge relief to learn that the action was later suspended. Without them, the impact of the piece would have been greatly reduced.

The part of Akhnaten was sung with great expressiveness by Anthony Roth Costanzo. In keeping with the historical tendency to depict the ruler as androgynous, the character’s sexuality was indeterminate: his full (male) nudity during the coronation scene was undermined by later scenes in which, diaphonously clad, he appeared to be exhibiting female sexual characteristics. Adding to the indeterminacy was Costanzo’s countertenor voice. The countertenor appears to be something of a rarity in the operatic repertoire, but Costanzo’s reedy yet powerful voice was greatly impressive to this neophyte.

Equally impressive was Glass’s score, as blissful and romantic as any Glass I’ve heard. With no violins in the orchestra, but plenty of woodwind and brass, the soundworld steered clear of stridency and found deep lyrical softness in Glass’s ravishing melodies. The funeral scene in Act I, meanwhile, was powered by a tumultuous percussive throb that pitched the opera into moments of high, stirring drama.

Whereas Einstein on the Beach seemed to stretch out time itself, leading to an epic five-hour sweep that drew the viewer/listener ever closer towards the infinite, Akhnaten seemed to pack an extraordinary amount of incident and detail into its three acts. As a result the three-hour running time flew by; indeed, I frequently wished it had been longer. Sung mostly in Egyptian, the opera tells the tragic story of the pharaoh who abolishes the old polytheistic religion, introduces a new monotheistic one and is finally overthrown and killed by his own people. Thanks to the useful programme notes, the language barrier did not pose any particular problems. In any event, the narrative thread of the opera was never less than gripping, thanks to the otherworldly dream logic with which it proceeded towards its inevitable conclusion. And it was thrilling to see Glass himself join the cast onstage for a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end of this magnificent production.

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.

Philip Glass: The Lost, Landestheater Linz, 19 April 2013

I have very little knowledge of, and normally no interest in, the world of opera, but on this occasion I found it impossible to resist the enticing prospect of a new work by Philip Glass, with a libretto by ageing Austrian literary enfant terrible Peter Handke, being shown in the magnificent setting of the brand spanking new Musiktheater in Linz. I figured a little bit of self-education in this most baffling of genres wouldn’t do me any harm. I also knew Glass wouldn’t be there in person, but that didn’t matter too much (although I’m still smarting from his failure to show up at the Barbican for Einstein on the Beach last year).

In all honesty, though, I’m not sure I’m any the wiser having sat through 2¼ hours of Spuren der Verirrten (which seems to be going by the English title The Lost, although even I with my imperfect German can tell it should be “Traces of the Lost”). The opera was visually dazzling and brilliantly performed, but Handke’s determinedly opaque text (handily translated on a little screen in front of me) made it more or less impossible for me to fathom out what was going on from one scene to the next. Trace elements of the Austrian’s longstanding preoccupations were there right from the start. In the arresting opening, a character known only as the Spectator entered the audience, bawled them out and was filmed doing so; a reference to a goalkeeper followed shortly afterwards.

As the opera went on, the Spectator made occasional reappearances to comment on the action, such as it was. For the most part, the evening consisted of baleful dialogues on war, tragedy and death, sung by various characters from the large cast. These were played out against a constantly changing backdrop of stunning visual images, ranging from the disturbing (row upon row of hospital beds) to the playful (a huge Austrian scene with hares, alphorns and dancers in Tracht). Beautifully lit in deep saturated hues, the massive revolving stage swarmed with activity as crowds of singers and dancers surged around the leads. The effect was mesmerizing, although Handke’s libretto would remain incoherent to the end.

As for the music, it was quintessential late-period Glass: swirling, heady and blissfully romantic. The hypnotic repetitions that dominate early works like Einstein on the Beach and Music in 12 Parts (which I’m very much looking forward to seeing in the Czech Republic later this year, by the way) were still there but softer, more tender and more mutable. Played with glowing artistry by the Bruckner Orchestra under long-time Glass acolyte Dennis Russell Davies, Glass’s score was the emotional heart on which this labyrinthine opera depended for much of its impact. As if in recognition of this, the finale saw the entire orchestra transplanted to the stage, while the cast took the orchestra’s place in the pit, furiously mugging the movements of the players. It was a deliriously joyful ending to this strange, fascinating evening.

Concerts of 2012

Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)

It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.

A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.

In chronological order, then:

1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, London Barbican Centre, 5 May 2012

Like many people of my generation, I suspect, my first exposure to Philip Glass was via his soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. I probably saw this film for the first time sometime in the late 80s at the Duke of York’s in Brighton, where it was a staple of late-night double bills, and it quickly became a firm favourite thanks to Glass’s pulsating score just as much as to Reggio’s mesmerizing visuals. Some years later, I saw the Philip Glass Ensemble perform this piece and Powaqqatsi as live soundtracks at the Barbican, which seems to have been the venue for almost all of my live encounters with Glass. I also saw him present one of his symphonies (no idea which one) at the Barbican sometime in the early 2000s, which was filmed and broadcast live on BBC4, oddly enough; and I even caught up with him in Salisbury City Hall, of all places, at around the same time. In 2007, I travelled to London from Vienna to see Book of Longing, his collaboration with Leonard Cohen, and the epic Music in 12 Parts, my favourite of all his compositions. Now, five years later, I found myself doing the same thing again, this time to see his opera Einstein on the Beach. (Although Glass is a globetrotter, frequently giving performances of his own music, he has never played in Vienna in the six years I’ve been living here.)

Glass is by some distance my favourite composer of classical music, yet I’m well aware that he is regarded with sniffiness by some elements of the classical establishment. The reasons I like him are, I suspect, not entirely dissimilar from the reasons for that sniffiness: his prolific output, his high public profile, what many consider a relative lack of complexity to his work, his readiness to appeal to the heart over the head and his persistent exploitation of a number of specifically limited musical tropes. In short, Glass behaves almost like a rock musician, an attitude that is fine with me.

What I like most about Glass’s music, though, are his glorious, pounding ostinatos and arpeggios, those vast maze-like constructions in sound that seem to go on forever, endlessly multiplying and revivifying themselves. There are few more vital and euphoric sounds in all of contemporary music, to my mind, and they are all over his score for Einstein on the Beach, his groundbreaking opera realized in collaboration with theatre director Robert Wilson. Wilson was known to me – I vividly recall his haunting installation HG, shown at the old Clink Prison in London in 1995 – but this was the first time I had seen one of his theatrical productions. It couldn’t really fail, and it didn’t, instantly becoming one of the most beguiling and memorable live performances I’ve ever witnessed.

In its advance publicity, the Barbican made great play of the fact that audience members were free to come and go as they wished during this five-hour, no-interval performance. In practice, though, very few people left their seats. I certainly didn’t leave mine until the time came to give the cast a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end. Consisting of nine 20-minute scenes and five interludes known as “knee plays”, the opera proceeded with scant attention to plot or narrative but still kept me engrossed from start to finish. There was just so much to marvel at, so much that took the breath away: the dancers with their beautifully choreographed movements, the spaceship scene with its stunning wall of light, Andrew Sterman’s powerful tenor sax solo in the ‘Building’ scene, the virtuoso violin of Antoine Silverman, the miraculous, word-perfect singers, the uncanny calm of the infinitely repeated numbers: in sum, the transcendental interplay between light and darkness, sound and silence, words and music, movement and stillness. Einstein on the Beach is a landmark achievement, nothing less than a reimagining of the limits of theatre in the modern age.

Philip Glass: Book of Longing, Music in Twelve Parts, London Barbican Centre, 20-21 October 2007

Back from a short trip to London, the main reason for which was to attend two concerts at the Barbican in honour of the 70th birthday of Philip Glass. The first was Book of Longing, a collaboration with another of my musical heroes, Leonard Cohen. The pre-concert talk was remarkable in the fact that it was the first time I had seen Cohen in person for 14 years, since his last London concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was interesting, but I don’t think Leonard came out of it particularly well, his responses (to some predictably batty questions) being somewhat gnomic and underwhelming. Glass dominated the conversation (before the Q&A, that is), and acquitted himself much better.

The Book of Longing concert itself was excellent. Again, it was Glass who came out with his credibility intact rather than Cohen. With one or two exceptions, these late poems are bitty and inconsequential. Glass’s music, however, gave them a stature I’m not sure they really deserved.

The main event was on Sunday afternoon – a rare performance of Glass’s superb Music in Twelve Parts in all its sumptuous entirety. This piece is a towering achievement in 20th century music. Endlessly vital and kaleidoscopic, it was performed magnificently by Glass and his ensemble.

Various Artists: Glass Cuts

According to the sleevenotes of this remix (or, more accurately, covers) project, Philip Glass is known as the “Godfather of Trance.” Not only was this title news to me, but it also displays a fundamental lack of understanding of Glass and his music. For while trance may use repetition as a means towards ecstatic release, Glass’s repetitive patterning is based on a different set of premises entirely. You can’t dance to it, for one thing. And while it’s entirely possible to derive a visceral thrill from Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios, it’s also important to keep in mind that his historical roots lie in the academic minimalism of ’60s art galleries, a world away from the dance floor.

This project is unfortunately hamstrung by licensing difficulties which meant that none of Glass’s major works for theatre or orchestra could be included. As a result, the pieces chosen come from the more obscure corners of his output. There are three piano études, three soundtrack excerpts, and two different versions of the same concerto. Highlights include a fiery interpretation of “Dance from Akhnaten” from project curator Don Christensen (as impLOG), on which Glass’s melodic pulse lurks dangerously beneath clattering beats. Dietrich Schönemann also impresses with the delicate tracery and sensuous percussion of “Thin Blue Line.”

Elsewhere, Kate Simko builds the momentum nicely on “Houston Skyline” with repetitive violin and touches of flute, while Hector Cassillo and Eduardo Larez bring unexpected textures to “Saxophone Concerto” with chunky guitar and a looming synth melody. Most other contributors attempt to overlay elements of trance, techno, hip-hop, and down-tempo onto Glass’s rigorously formal structures, and unsurprisingly come unstuck as a result.