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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.