Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Philip Glass at SFP: Origins Re-examined

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the second of the two events it prepared to honor composer Philip Glass. The program consisted of a single composition, Glass’ first extended work structured over a time span of about 90 minutes, entitled “Music with Changing Parts.” For many decades Glass has been subjected to shallow jibes at what his detractors tend to call “mindless repetition;” so it is probably a good idea to approach this massive undertaking with a clearer sense of just what takes place during a performance.

The fact is that the very title of the composition could not be a better example of “truth” in advertising. However, this is best appreciated by allowing Glass to explain himself in his own words. In this particular case those words come from his memoir, Words Without Music. Here he is writing about the pieces he discusses in the “First Concerts” chapter of his book:
In composing these pieces, I made the musical language the center of the piece. By “language,” I mean the moment-to-moment decision made when a note of music is composed. To make that work, I had to find a music that would hold your attention. I began to use process instead of “story,” and the process was based on repetition and change. This made the language easier to understand, because the listener would have time to contemplate it at the same time as it was moving so quickly.
In other words, rather than drawing upon narrative as a source of structure, such as one would find in a tone poem, or any of the preconceived abstract structures of the Classical and Baroque periods, Glass decided to go “back to the basics” of “how time passes” (the latter actually being the title of an essay by Karlheinz Stockhausen). What resulted was a series of compositions based on repeated patterns that would gradually change with the passing of time. Glass was far from the only composer to investigate such a process-based approach. The paragraph from which the above sentences were extracted cites Steve Reich, and one of the other composers from that time finding his own way of working with processes was Terry Riley.

Glass’ first major concert took place in January of 1970 in the downstairs recital hall of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. (For the record, I was at the concert. It was a part of a series of three. I performed as a “guest artist” in one of the other two, presented by the Sonic Arts Group. The third was given by Reich; and, sadly, I missed it.) The Glass program presented three pieces all structured around subjecting repeated patterns to change, “Music in Fifths,” “Music in Contrary Motion,” and “Music in Similar Motion.” Each of these pieces was about twenty minutes in duration.

Having familiarized himself with his self-made tools, Glass was now ready to work on a more extended time scale. The result was “Music with Changing Parts;” and it was first performed in November of 1970. What is probably most interesting about this composition is the sheer breadth of interpretations of the concept of change that Glass was able to summon. While the underlying pulse is steady throughout the entire work (as it is in Riley’s “In C”), Glass’ approach to change may be described a multi-dimensional.

Far from involving just patterns of notes, it delves into different approaches to phrasing, alternations of how pulses are grouped, and different strategies for overlaying simultaneous voices. All of these low-level and mid-level activities are then embraced by “the mother of all changes,” a gradual crescendo that extends over the entire duration to an almost gut-wrenching intensity. What may look abstract on paper emerges as a throughly visceral listening experience.

Last night’s performance demonstrated that such an experience could be as intense today as it had been when the music was created in 1970. Nevertheless, in his earliest days, Glass worked with a relatively small number of players, usually less than a dozen. In his notes for last night’s program book, he explained that returning to the score involved revisiting the music and orchestrating it for a much larger ensemble. Six of the players from the earliest days of the Philip Glass Ensemble (Glass himself, his Music Director Michael Riesman, and Lisa Bielawa, Jon Gibson, Mick Rossi, and Andrew Sterman) all participated last night. However, they were joined by four more recent Ensemble members, seven brass students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the full force of the San Francisco Girls Chorus conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

This increase in resources contributed significantly to clarifying the full extent of the multi-dimensional approach that “Music in Changing Parts” took to that fundamental concept of change. To be fair, one of those more recent members of the Ensemble was Dan Bora, whose performance took place behind a massive mixing board. Microphones were abundant on the Davies stage; and it was clear that, as the layers of activity began to accumulate, Bora was playing an active role in keeping them sorted and accessible to the limitations of human perception. He was probably also the most crucial player in managing that gradual crescendo that serves as “the mother of all changes,” meaning that his efforts were the ones most responsible for the full expressive intensity of the evening.

Ultimately, however, the spirit of the occasion has not changed much since 1970. Glass understands how music “lives” only through acts of music-making. Since 1969 he has been hard at work conceiving and reconceiving ways in which acts of music-making may be executed. Last night demonstrated clearly and vigorously that the making of music is still Glass’ highest priority, and that priority could not have been honored in a better fashion.

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