9 November 2013

Music in Twelve Parts by Philip Glass at the Royal Festival Hall

The Rest is Noise was the umbrella title for a programme of modern classical music at the Southbank Centre. As part of this, I saw Decasia by Michael Gordon  a year ago.

It took something special to get me back and this was really special. I would have been strongly tempted by a performance of Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts anyway and knowing that Philip Glass would be leading his own ensemble was the clincher.

It was an attraction for lots of other people too and the Royal Festival Hall was sold out. We were told in the introductory talk that an early performance in Liverpool had attracted 12 people.

I was reasonable quick off the mark and got a decent seat about 10 rows back and on the left-hand side. This worked very well as it gave me a clear site of the playing of two of the organists and the female singer was looking right at me.



Music in Twelve Parts is something of an endurance test as the playing time approached four hours.

It was presented as it is on the CD, in four separate sessions with intervals between them. Each session had three dances that were played straight through without a pause.

There were two short intervals, the first and last, and a longer interval of an hour in the middle. That was a good opportunity for us to eat and for the performers to rest.


This is Philip Glass' own score. I took the picture in the last interval before the final three dances. I found it interesting that Ten started immediately below Nine, rather than on a new page.

Glass played the organ on the far right from where he conducted the other musicians with his head, giving extravagant nods when it was time to move on to the next part. The musicians were (including Glass), three organists and three playing a mixture of flutes, saxophones and clarinets. Those six and the two vocalists (only one of whom was on stage at any time) were the sum total of the ensemble.

The music was typical repetitive Glass, the sort heard all the time as background music to TV programmes, made richer through the use of several instruments playing separate lines.

Think of it more as a large rock band than a small orchestra.

The music was amplified, rather necessary with electronic instruments, and it was the proverbial wall of sound that filled the hall. I caught somebody else describe it as being embalmed in music, which was fair.

Musically the twelve pieces were very similar but I still had my favourites; four and eight were two of these. The clever thing was to keep the basic repetitive theme but to continually change some of the elements within that. For example, I was watching the bass organ a lot and could see how a single emphasising note at the end of a sequence changed to two notes and then back to one again.

With almost four hours of repetitive music spread over five hours, this could have been a challenge but not once did it lose its intensity or interest and the time flew past. And we all had plenty of energy left at the end to give a thunderous reception of the performers and composer.

I have Music for Twelve Parts on CD and see all the Philip Glass operas that I can (usually two a year) but still this concert exceeded all of my expectations. That's what great music does.

1 comment:

  1. Love the description "embalmed in music". I have tickets for "Twelve Parts" in early May here in Los Angeles and can't wait; I am listening to the piece at work, at home, on repeat. Parts two, seven and eight are probably my favourite ones. Didn't really put one and two together as to Glass until about a year ago. Knew the name, recognized the music in his film scores, but was more or less unaware of his non-movie work until I caught the original-trio "Einstein" production last November. More figured it was an experience not to be missed but had no expectations to enjoy it - which I did immensely - and now I'm "back-tracking" through his minimalist/repetitive works.

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