Philip Glass

Music in Twelve Parts


© GlassPages, 1998

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CD Cover (Robert Mapplethorpe)




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Introduction to Music in Twelve Parts (1:27; 174.288 bytes ).


Philip Glass, 1983 (Robert Mapplethorpe)Music in Twelve Parts, written by Philip Glass between 1971 and 1974, is a deliberate, encyclopedic compendium of some techniques of repetition the composer had been evolving since the mid 1960s. It holds an important place in Glass's repertory - not only from a historical vantage point (as the longest and most ambitious concert piece for the Philip Glass Ensemble) but from a purely aesthetic standard as well, because Music in Twelve Parts is both a massive theoretical exercise and a deeply engrossing work of art.

Glass wrote Part I in early 1971. "The first movement was originally intended to stand on its own and the 'Twelve Parts' in the title referred to twelve lines of counterpoint in the score," he explained in 1993. "I called it Music in Twelve Parts because the keyboards played six lines, there were three wind players involved, and I had originally planned to augment the ensemble to bring in three more lines, for a total of twelve. I played it for a friend of mine and, when it was through, she said, 'That's very beautiful; what are the other eleven parts going to be like?' And I thought that was an interesting misunderstanding and decided to take it as a challenge and go ahead and compose eleven more parts."

By this point, some new music for the Philip Glass Ensemble was needed, and needed badly. Music With Changing Parts (1970) had proven the epical possibilities of Glass's new musical language and the very early pieces were slowly being phased out of the repertory. Some of these - titles such as How Now, 600 Lines and Music in Eight Parts - are tantalizingly obscure, known only to the most fervent and superannuated Glassian, never recorded and unplayed for more than twenty years. Other early pieces - Two Pages, Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths and Music in Similar Motion - are available as reissues on Nonesuch.

The Glass Ensemble, after a rather freewheeling initial phase during which composers and players would simply drop by and join in rehearsals and performances, had now been formalized and had begun to tour. (By the early '80s, it would be playing almost 60 concerts every year.) "When I started the first Philip Glass Ensemble in 1968, it was easy to find people to rehearse with me every Thursday night because nobody had anything else to do anyway,' Glass recalled. "But I wanted to make this a professional organization. When you are creating a new musical language, you need a new technical way of playing it and to develop this, I needed to have a consistent ensemble.'

"My strategy was to play enough concerts every year that I could pay the musicians twenty times a year and provide them with unemployment and health benefits," he continued. "To organize our first tour, I sent out something like 120 letters and got six responses. We played in Tacoma, St. Louis, Minneapolis and a few other places. We loaded our van, unloaded it, played the concert, loaded up the van again and drove on. Presenters put us up in their homes. But, by the mid-'70s, we were starting to establish ourselves."

Indeed, by the time of Music in Twelve Parts, the Glass Ensemble had solidified into an aggregate of two electronic keyboards (Farfisa organs in the early years), wind instruments and voice, amplified and fed through a mixer by Kurt Munkacsi, who was considered in every way a full member of the group. When Music in Twelve Parts was completed, the lineup was Glass and Michael Riesman on keyboards; Richard Landry, Jon Gibson and Richard Peck playing winds; soprano Joan LaBarbara and Munkacsi at the mixing desk. Two decades later, Munkacsi, Riesman, Gibson and Peck remain with the ensemble; in addition, Martin Goldray on keyboards and Dan Dryden, sound mixer, have been regular members for the last ten years.

In the past, Glass vociferously objected to being called a "minimalist" composer. ("That word should be stamped out!" he said in a 1978 interview.) He now grudgingly accepts the term - with the distinction that it only applies to his earliest pieces, those up to and including Music in Twelve Parts. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a mammoth work as, say, Einstein on the Beach can possibly be called "minimalist" and Glass now prefers to speak of himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures."

The music was written in numerical order, and the parts began to appear in performance in 1971. The world premiere of the complete Music in Twelve Parts took place at New York's Town Hall in 1974 and lasted more than four hours (there were further New York performances in 1981 and 1990). The first eight parts were taped by the Glass Ensemble in 1974 and 1975; this writer presented their radio premiere in 1978 on Columbia University's WKCR-FM. Parts I and II were briefly issued on LP 1975, on the Caroline label, but the entire work (most of it recorded in the mid '70s) was not available on disc until 1989. And so this new interpretation represents not only a radical improvement in electronic technology but the accretion of twenty years thought and experience playing Music in Twelve Parts as well. "Back in the 1970s, we were creating a musical language,' Glass offers by way of explanation. "Now we know the language and we're fluent in it."

There are many beauties in the score but Part I - the original Music in Twelve Parts, from which the other eleven sprung - remains some of the most soulful music Glass ever wrote. And yet it is also one of his most determinedly reductive compositions: at any place in the music, reading vertically in the score, one will find both a C sharp and an F sharp being played somewhere in the instrumentation. Through skillful contrapuntal weaving, Glass creates, paradoxically, a drone that is not a drone - an active, abundant, richly fertile stasis.

Part I leads directly into Part II, which introduces a different key, a faster tempo, greater rhythmic and melodic variety and the human voice (the soprano, as was customary in early Glass works, sings only solfege syllables). Andrew Porter, writing about Music in Twelve Parts in 1978 for The New Yorker, described these transitions well: "A new sound and a new chord suddenly break in, with an effect as if one wall of a room had suddenly disappeared, to reveal a completely new view."

Part Ill, one of the few movements that is entirely self-contained, is a gurgling study in fourths, and one of the shortest, at thirteen minutes, of the twelve parts. Part IV is extraordinary: after a brief introduction, it becomes a lengthy examination of a single, unsettled chord that sweats, strains and ultimately screams for resolution until the musicians suddenly break into the joyous, rushing catharsis of Part V.

Part VI is another example of how Glass can take what initially seems a standard chord progression and gradually build considerable interest on the part of his audience as he presents it to us, again and again, from different rhythmical perspectives. Part VII clearly derives from Music in Similar Motion (1969) which is, in 1993, the oldest piece in the ensemble's active repertory. But the development is much more swift than that of the earlier work and it is infinitely more virtuosic (the soprano, in particular, must do her best to avoid tongue-twisting and sibilance in the exposed, rapid-fire melismatic passages). And the close of Part VIII prefigures the "Train" scene in Einstein on the Beach, with its irresistible forward motion and sheer, "boy-with-a-gadget" fascination with a systematic augmentation and contraction of the soprano line. (For whatever it's worth, Glass used to refer to those occasions when the ensemble got lost in the middle of a piece as "trainwrecks.")

"I had a specific didactic purpose in mind when I set to work on Twelve Parts, Glass said in 1990. "I wanted to crystallize in one piece all the ideas of rhythmic structure that I had been working on since 1965. By the time I got to Part VIII, I'd pretty much finished what I'd started out to do. And so the last movements were different. Parts IX and X were really about ornamentation." Part IX, after a lithe, bouncing, broken-chord introduction, becomes a study in chromatic unison while Part X begins with a blaring, aggressively reiterated figure in the winds that is eventually softened cushioned - by the addition of complementary figures in the bass.

Parts I-X had all been based on stable harmonic roots that had remained constant throughout the movement. Part XI is just as rigorous in its application of an antithetical approach: the harmony changes with every new figure. In Part XI, which is essentially an aria for soprano and ensemble, there is more harmonic motion than in all of the mature works Glass had composed in the previous ten years put together; here, once again, is a clear prefiguration of what is to come in Einstein on the Beach.

Music in Twelve Parts ends with a quodlibet - a "musical joke" - that may be especially amusing to those who remember the musical politics of the '60s and '70s. Like most young composers of the time, Glass was trained to write twelve-tone music; unlike most of them, he rejected the movement entirely. And yet, in the bass line of Part XII, toward the end, the careful listener will discern a twelve-tone row, underpinning this riot of tonal, steadily rhythmic, gleeful repetition -underpinning, in other words, all the things that textbook twelve-toners shunned.

"It was a way of making fun not only of other people but also of myself," Glass said in 1993. 'I had broken the rules of modernism and so I thought it was time to break some of my own rules. And this I did, with the shifts of harmony in Part XI and then in Part XII, where, for the first and only time in my mature music, I actually threw in a twelve-tone row. This was the end of minimalism for me. I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I'd written through it and come out the other end. My next piece was called Another Look At Harmony and that's just what it was. I'd taken everything out with my early works and it was now time to decide just what I wanted to put back in - a process that would occupy me for many years to come.'



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