Throughout this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story “Philip Glass’s Life as an East Village Voice,” Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.
Today we dial back to longtime Voice music writer Tom Johnson. In our interview with Glass, he credited Johnson (who is also a composer) with being the only music writer covering the scene downtown when he was getting started, as “The New York Times, for example—they had a rule that they didn’t review any art events below 14th Street… Believe it or not, that was a policy of the paper!” Glass has even reportedly told others that he believes Johnson coined the term “minimalism.”
Before we head off to the Park Avenue Armory to see Philip Glass perform his epic, mammoth five-hour long “Music in 12 Parts” tomorrow night, we thought we’d take a look at Johnson’s review of the same piece exactly four decades ago.
“Philip Glass’s New Parts”
by Tom Johnson
Published April 6, 1972
One of the most important new trends in music is the area I like to refer to as ‘hypnotic music.’ It has a hypnotic quality because it is highly repetitious, and employs a consistent texture, rather than building or developing in traditional ways. Usually pieces in this genre are rather long, and they can seem tedious until one learns how to tune into the many subtle variations which go on underneath the sameness of the surface. Then very new and exciting musical experiences begin to happen.
Philip Glass’s work for the past couple of years has been at the very center of this new trend, and his ‘Music with Changing Parts’ is one of the finest pieces of this type which I have heard. It is an hour-long piece, in which electric organs ripple along in little repeated patterns, while sustained notes in viola, voice, and wind instruments fade in and out. The music uses a simple white-note scale, and most of the rhythms are also relatively simple, but the patterns shift constantly in subtle, unique ways, and enough of them are going at any one time to keep the ear more than occupied.
Glass’s latest piece, ‘Music in 12 Parts,’ is a continuation of this style, the main difference being that it uses a different structural format. It is divided into sections, or ‘parts,’ which are about half an hour long, and quite different from each other in character. Parts IV, V, and VI of the new work were presented at Village Presbyterian Church on March 26, as part of the Spencer Concerts series. Two organs were used through the evening, and the four wind players worked with various combinations of flutes, saxophones, and trumpet.
One hardly notices that Part IV is actually a labyrinth of rhythmic complexity, so smooth is its flow. Usually at least three simultaneous patterns are distinguishable, each independent of the others. Without stopping, the performers made a rather abrupt transition into Part V, which is built on a simple waltz rhythm and maintains interest through melodic shifts, particularly in the saxophones and trumpet. After intermission, they played the last half of part VI, which features quick patterns in two flutes, and many metric shifts. In some ways, ‘Music in 12 Parts,’ or at least these three sections of the work, is less succesful than the earlier ‘Music with Changing Parts.’ The transitions from part to part are somewhat jolting, and seem to go against the hypnotic character of the music, although that may have been just a performance problem. And sometimes the variation procedures do not seem as intricate or subtle in the new piece, especially during Part V.
But that is just quibbling, because both pieces are really wonderful in so many ways. The loud textures are extremely rich and sensual, and the organs and other instruments are so well blended that it is sometimes difficult to tell which instrument is playing what. The music has a sensitivity to subtle differences between modes, which can only be compared to the Indian raga system. And such finesse informs the details that the music is always interesting, although it never moves outside a small confined area. Finally, it conveys a mood which is overwhelmingly joyous. Although the music does not resemble anything by Bach, it sometimes lifts me up the way a Brandenburg Concerto does.
Also, here is the PDF of Johnson’s wonderful book of gems, The Voice Of New Music – New York City (1972-1982): A Collection of Articles Originally Published in The Village Voice
Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass at 75:
Philip Glass’s Life as an East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Philip Glass On The Economics of Art And Music
Live: Das Racist, Rahzel, Laurie Anderson And Many Others Play Philip Glass’s Tibet House Benefit At Carnegie Hall
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