Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 3 of 8): The Move Back to New York

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 2 - The Early Years

In March of 1967, Glass found himself once more in New York City.  He and his wife at the time, JoAnne Akalaitis, had an apartment located on 9th Avenue and 23rd Street in the heart of the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan.  According to JoAnne, the art scene was thriving and "you could do anything."

Shortly after arriving in NYC, Glass attended a concert featuring the music of Steve Reich, including his famous Piano Phase.  Much like how John Adams was profoundly affected from hearing Glass' Einstein on the Beach, Glass heard Reich's music and decided to make a radical departure towards a "consonant vocabulary."

Now that Glass had a new musical language, he had to find a way to broadcast it to his fellow artists.  The opportunity presented itself during a meeting with Jonas Mekas, an avant-garde filmmaker.  As Glass describes it:
At that moment, I'm sure Jonas didn't know a note of my work, but when I described the music I was writing, he immediately invited me to give a concert at the Film-Makers Cinematheque.  And so, in September 1968, my new music had its New York debut.  It was, by the way, my personal debut as well.  (And wonderfully enough, this debut performance has just been released as an album.)
A number of pieces made their way into the concert, including Strung Out and Music in the Shape of a Square.  The first work's title comes "from the way the original manuscript score of some twenty pages was bound.  It unfolded in such a way that it could be 'strung out' around the performing space on music stands, or even pasted on the wall."  Music in the Shape of a Square is a play on Erik Satie's Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear...
This piece was set up in a big square, each side about ten feet long.  On the inside was tacked Jon [Gibson]'s flute part; on the outside, [Glass'] part.  We began to play, walking in opposite directions around the square."
Altogether, it was "a very conceptual concert.  A very neat concert." And for Glass, this was an important moment in his career:
The audience was mostly artists, about 120 people... It was considered very successful but, more important, these were 120 very enthusiastic people.  The music meant something to them in terms of their own aesthetics, something they were familiar with.
Moving forward, Glass decided to form his own ensemble to perform his works.  In its early stages, the Philip Glass Ensemble was comprised of, among others, Kurt Munkasci, Richard Peck, Dickie Landry, Jon Gibson, Iris Hiskey, and Michael Riesman.  However, these individuals weren't just performing for free; Glass spent many years working as a plumber and cab driver to pay his musicians (which resulted in an amusing cartoon from Pulse! magazine); it wouldn't be until the age of 41 that Glass would receive any royalties from his own music.  In spite of this, Glass remembers it as a wonderful period in his life.  The ensemble allowed him to be independent of other music venues; "I didn't have to ask anyone's permission or approval.  I could just do what I wanted to do."

A number of conceptual works arose from this period (many of which were inspired by Boulanger's rigorous counterpoint training), including Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Changing Parts.  However the piece that is still constantly performed to this day is Music in Twelve Parts, an epic study on repetition that is more than 3 hours long.

These lengthy performances often took place in SoHo lofts and art galleries.  The audience of 60-100 people would lay on the floor, while the ensemble sat in a circle in the middle of the room.  Out in the periphery, four large speakers broadcasted the music towards the center.  "Everybody was part of the same sonic experience."  Usually, about a quarter to a third of the audience would leave, while the others stayed, almost in a meditative state.  As Kurt Munkasci explains, the music had to end at some point...
What would happen is it ended suddenly... the audience would just sit there for a minute or two, and then would just applaud.  It's like they had a revelation.
It would be only a few years later that this expansive music would find itself not in someone's loft, but at the Metropolitan Opera.

Part 4 - Einstein on the Beach

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this marvelous history of this amazing man. I can't wait to read the next installments. Great work!