Philip Glass and Friends Tibet House U.S. Benefit w/Laurie Anderson, Tim Fain, Das Racist, Antony, Lou Reed, Stephin Merritt, and Rahzel
Monday, February 13
Better than: Seeing how most ethnic Tibetans live.
Last night’s all-star benefit at Carnegie Hall began with a performance by eight unnamed monks from the Drepung Monestary, who entered the hall in silence. The saffron-robed throat singers (each of whom wore a striking orange headpiece reminiscent of a Roman centurion’s) took the stage like religious royalty being received by devoted followers. They used microphones that were hardly necessary; their throaty chants sounded like (and carried as strongly as) didgeridoos throughout the hall. It was a pretty surprising and impressive thing to look around the dress circle in Carnegie Hall and see dozens of people with their eyes closed and their hands folded in silent prayer.
Bob Thurman, the star Columbia University professor (and dad of Uma), took the stage right after the monks on behalf of Tibet House. He explained that the mural over the stage was of the Potala Palace, the Dali Lama’s historic home in Lhasa (until Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama, fled in 1959), and gave a rather depressing 20-second history of the plight of the Tibetan people. Then he told the audience to “forget all that” and to “imagine we are in a free Tibet,” and he introduced Philip Glass.
Glass strode up in casual black, smiling and looking even more relaxed than he looked on the same stage just two weeks ago when his Symphony No. 9 premiered there, and (with no fanfare) introduced Laurie Anderson.
Anderson took up her violin and played briefly as light bounced off Carnegie’s wall, then took to the keyboards and began telling a story. This one began with Anderson wanting to join a Buddhist group on a trip down the Green River; quickly, though, Anderson realized that her group had met up with a combination Outward Bound trip and incest survivors group that relied upon “Indian lore and various self help-programs.” She grew tired of these “losers” and their tales of “shitting too close to the campsite,” but had to depend on them because they had “the maps and the food.” Somehow this segued into a tale of Hansel and Gretel, at which point Antony joined her on stage. Antony began by taking up the reins of Anderson’s story (“Gretel, you can really be a bee-yotch!”) before soaring into an almost wordless, orgasmic ending.
Antony introduced British electronic music producer/singer-songwriter James Blake. Watching Blake and his band perform live is a fascinating thing. His percussionist (sitting in front of a regular drum set while working off an iPad-sized drum pad) produces sounds like a Star Wars AT-AT walker’s footsteps at times; at other times, he made sharp taps that looked totally incongruous with the fluffy covered sticks producing them. The combination of the electronics overwhelming Blake’s vocals during “The Wilhelm Scream” and the image of the Dali Lama’s Patola Palace overhead brought to mind the Red Army overwhelming the people of Tibet (and the Tibetan people attempting to fight back with peaceful, prayerful resistance).
Glass then returned to the stage to perform, although he did so at the keys of a grand piano so far back on stage, you couldn’t tell it was him playing from my side of the house. The real star was violinist Tim Fain, who played “Pendulum for Violin and Piano,” which Glass had composed for the 90th anniversary of the ACLU, from memory. How any violinist could play a Glass piece (especially that one!) from memory is nothing short of impossible to believe unless you’re actually watching it. Fain may just be the most genius American violinist since that dude who built Monticello.
Each Tibet House benefit has one Tibetan act on the bill. This year it was Dechen Shak-Dagsay, who was born a refugee in Kathmandu and now resides in Zurich. She cut a striking figure on the stage in her traditional dress, and her peformance started with a swaying, light rhythm. But by the end, her voice filled Carnegie Hall, and evoked the yodeling of her home in exile.
Glass noted when he introduced the next act that the span of ages of all the performers participating in the benefit was more than 50 years. The evening started to move into the realm of rock as The Two, a band not listed in the program, took the stage. The Two clearly didn’t consider SEO when choosing their name, and even my date last night (who knows a thing or two about the music scene) was unfamiliar with them. They were backed up by part of the Patti Smith band (sans Smith, who will make her duet debut with Glass at the Park Avenue Armory at the end of the month).
Then came the moment we’d been waiting for all night: as the Scorchio String Quartet took the stage, Glass uttered the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Das Racist.”
Loud cheers came from the cheap seats, and Heems and Kool A.D. (wearing suits) commanded the audience to wave their hands as they launched into “Michael Jackson.” The mostly white, mostly middle-aged audience in the orchestra level seemed to be thinking, Who are these brown people running around the stage yelling? Dapwell thrusted his hips and fucked the air as Das Racist sang about wanting a million dollars; Heems and Kool A.D. also took turns dropping into the audience and molesting the members of the Scorchio String Quartet. Glass described them as “a little change of pace” when they wrapped up. Those confused members of the audience should have read the Playbill, where Das Racist had the shortest bio:
Das Racist is a white guilt art project/science experiment/ponzi scheme piloted by @HIMANSHU, KOOL A.D. and The Honorable Prophet Dapwell. Their goal is make a million American dollars.
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields came on after, reeling the mood back into a much gentler pace. He started solo with “This Little Ukulele” (“I wish I had an orchestra behind me”), did a beautiful rendition of “The Book of Love” with the string quartet, and ended with the amazingly funny new single “Andrew in Drag.”
Then, perhaps sensing his audience needed some warning, Glass came on to say, “If he’s new to you, he’s unforgettable. Please welcome Rahzel.” The Roots alum took the stage and asked the audience to close their eyes as he wowed them with his beatboxing skills. I could see Glass standing just offstage, a beaming smile on his face, which makes sense; perhaps more than any performer last night, Rahzel is the descendant of Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. What he is able to do with time and rhythm—particularly the way he seems to almost change the very nature of time, and make the listener of his music feel as though they are experiencing it in an unfamiliar way—is an ancestral descendant of Glass’s compositions. This was extremely apparent when he brought Das Racist back out (one member took the American flag from the side of Carnegie’s stage and dragged it across the floorboards), then segued seamlessly into a stunning performance with the string quartet. When he ended his performance, like a Transformer pulling from its robot form back into its vehicle form, he brought on some of the loudest applause of the night.
The night wrapped up with Lenny Kaye leading the Patti Smith band through a brief tribute to the garage-rock compilation Nuggets, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and Lou Reed, who performed three songs
, including a new one about ecstasy. Reed conducted the string quartet and the drummer to improvise with him at moments, which felt awkward in the beginning; the ending, however—as the string quartet jammed in tandem with Smith’s guitarists and Reed himself—was pretty impressive. At the very end Anderson and the whole evening’s cast returned to the stage for a curtain call, during which the room sang “Happy Birthday” to Glass.
Critical bias: I’ve been writing about Philip Glass turning 75 all month. Even though he’s been curating this annual benefit for two decades, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. Although he played one song himself, I was curious to see if Glass would venture beyond his stable of usual collaborators. Did he ever. Glass did bookend the show with longtime chums Anderson and Reed, but the acts in the middle—especially Das Racist and Rahzel—showed Glass’s ability to program outside of the “downtown art scene” of the latter half of the twentieth century, something I was worried he wouldn’t be able to do.
Overheard: “I’m with Lou…Reed!”
Random notebook dump: While Laurie Anderson performed at the top of the show, about ten different cell phones went off. Carnegie Hall is not a place for your cell phone to go off without notice; its acoustics don’t hide anything. The saving grace was that, well, when Laurie Anderson is playing, you don’t know if the cell sounds are something she’s programmed from her keyboard, or just some asshole who has forgotten to turn theirs off. They blended pretty well into her story, actually, and—perhaps prompting other audience members to check their phones again—not one went off during subsequent acts.
Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass at 75:
Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Das Racist’s Dapwell On Tibetan Independence And Playing Carnegie Hall
Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History
Q&A: Koyaanisqatsi Director Godfrey Reggio On Dragging Philip Glass Into Film Scoring
Q&A: Glassbreaks Auteur dj BC On Mashing Up Philip Glass With The Beastie Boys, Kanye And The Fugees
Q&A: Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington On Collaborating With Philip Glass
Live: The Premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall
Happy (Happy Happy) 75th Birthday, Philip Glass, From South Park