Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts

On Saturday, the 25th of February, I had the distinct pleasure of attending Philip Glass’s performance of the highly acclaimed Music in 12 Parts at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. But I guess you can say that claiming it to be a “distinct pleasure” would be an understatement, in every sense of the word. The sheer energy and musicality produced by this piece is something that could never be reproduced on a recording.

A live performance of Music in 12 Parts takes a little over 5 hours to perform. That’s including two twenty minute intermissions and an hour dinner break. Before I explain the music any further let me just say that this piece is NOT for the faint of heart. It’s easy to lose yourself in the music, and as a result you will either be immediately turned on or immediately turned off. But to talk about a piece this complex in a simple light is almost futile. By the time the first intermission came I noticed older people walking about, dissatisfied with the music, obviously restless and desiring nothing more than to leave the performance so that they could regain their sanity. It’s a test of endurance, not only for the musicians but for the audience as well.

One reason, if not the main reason, as to why this live performance isn’t wholly reproducible on a record is the fact that the audience is given a first-hand look at the strength and concentration it takes to tackle a piece of this magnitude. For a musician, like myself, nothing is more exciting than seeing the limits of a player tested during a live performance. Yes, there were hiccups in this performance (mainly due to a problem with the monitors for some of the musicians), but it was actually the hiccups that made this performance all the more exhilarating. “Are they going to make it?” I would constantly ask myself as the music progressed.

Now, I know that most people see this piece as a sort of “treatise on minimalist music,” but I’ve never seen the piece as such. To me it’s the ultimate expression of the human condition in the form of music. As the music is constantly flowing, there being no escape of sound, one gets the sense that this could ultimately be a representation of the subconscious, free flowing thought provoked by nothing more than its own being. But enough of the philosophizing, let me talk about the music itself.

During the performance there are four sections as a result of the three intermissions, each section divided up into three parts. There was naturally a round of applause for the Philip Glass Ensemble as they initially walked out onto the stage set up for them, the stage being nothing more than a carpet draped over the floor. The applause was polite however, as one could tell that there were some audience members who had not the faintest idea as to what they were about to witness. As the ensemble sat down there was about thirty seconds of silence, the whole ensemble preparing for the durability it would take to play the proceeding section, getting everything in order, making sure everyone was on the same page, because once the section started there was no turning back.

It wasn’t until the opening part started that I realized that I’d be witnessing a tremendous performance. The first part had me in tears from its simple beauty. Its still astounding to me that this type of music, with its repetitive nature and instrumentation, can be so humane. Philip Glass led the whole ensemble, directing them with a simple nod of the head, over-dramatized so that it was comprehensible for the all the musicians. This was also an interesting aspect in seeing this piece performed. Mr. Glass would nod his head at the beginning of a phrase in order to let the rest of the ensemble know that the phrase would be played two more times. Sometimes the phrase lasted a couple of seconds, sometimes it lasted close to twenty. It was exciting if one could follow the direction that Mr. Glass gave, because you would wonder, “what’s going to happen once they finish the second phrase?”

As the first part gave way to the second part, a change in lighting took place in order to show the obvious change in the music. As far as the sound goes the woodwinds were barely audible during the first section, but once the second section ensued the sound was fixed and the balance was just right. The sound in the armory, like the armory itself, was massive. I found the acoustics to be phenomenal, the decay of the sound, as one section ended, lasting about two seconds. While playing through each part I got the sense that I was surrounded by sound other than that of the ensemble, i.e. the sound of the people around me. It wasn’t until a part ended that I realized that it was just the nature of the venue, and that particular piece being played in that venue, that had me hallucinating.

The dinner break was in the middle of the piece, right after the second section concluded. Once the ensemble returned to the stage, to play passed the point of no return, one got the sense that they were rejuvenated, ready to tackle down the ensuing sections. For me the third section (parts 7-9) was the most exciting section. The urgency and excitement kept rising; the listener never quite knowing if there would be a climax, never knowing if the music would give way to silence. The best way to describe this feeling is comparing it to being forced to cope with one’s train of thought; an inescapable stream of consciousness.

Before the start of the fourth, and final, section, the woodwind player, Jon Gibson, accidentally blew out a “honk” on his soprano saxophone as he was wetting his reed. Philip Glass turned his head toward the culprit disapprovingly, but a smile suddenly appeared on his face as the audience started laughing, clapping due to his silly accident.

The tenth part, in my opinion, was the most difficult section for the ensemble that night. Not only was this part complex in its phrasing, played at a neck-breaking speed, but there seemed to have been a problem with some of the monitors, particularly in Philip Glass’s and in the other keyboardist’s, Mick Rossi. At one point I thought they were going to have to stop due to a rocky transition, but the ensemble came back in with all the strength they could muster up as the keyboardist, Michael Riesman, kept the bass going in his left hand, providing a base that the others could jump off from. As expected the grand finale, part 12, was exciting, to the point that you were on the edge of your seat, your heart racing with the music.

If you ever get the chance to see a performance of Music in 12 Parts then you must go. The music may be captured on various recordings, but I can assure you that seeing this piece played live is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. But a forewarning to those who consider attending if the chance presents itself; you must have the durability to sit through a piece of this magnitude and nature, just as the musicians must have the durability to play through it.

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