Live: Philip Glass Brings Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, And Music In 12 Parts To The Park Avenue Armory


This year’s Park Avenue Armory Tune-In Music Festival was dedicated to honoring composer Philip Glass (who, in turn, turned over a large chunk of it to honoring Allen Ginsberg). Sound of the City attended three of the weekend’s five offerings, which closed out a month of musical events around the city celebrating Glass and his 75th birthday.

The Poet Speaks: Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, Jesse Smith, and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg
Park Avenue Armory
Friday, February 24

Better than: Every Occupy Wall Street musical act.

The Park Avenue Armory is one of the grandest, most amazing performance spaces in New York City, but Friday’s performance began simply and intimately. Philip Glass and Patti Smith, two icons of a certain age, walked out onstage with their arms around each others’ shoulders, like two old friends. The carpets in front of the stage, where people in the cheapest (and best) seats in the house, worked at recreating the environment, as Glass described to us, of his loft decades ago. Though a recreating, the effect worked.

What did not work—in fact, what would be an unfortunate undercurrent through out the festival—was the sound system. No one could hear poor Smith as she started to address the audience, who seemed surprisingly nervous to begin with and who looked downright spooked as people shouted, “Louder! Louder!! LOUDER!!!” at her.

During the first half of the night, Smith read from the works of Allen Ginsberg—a close friend of both hers and Glass—as well as from her own poetry. She was usually underscored by Glass at the piano, and it worked strangely beautifully. Much in the same way Glass’s rhythms are so fast that they’ll fit within many other structures, his music suits beat poetry well. The beats were all about finding the natural rhythm within everyday speech and using, cultivating and exploiting it until it burst out into a naturally building howl.

The only way you could tell if Smith was “reading poetry” or “singing” was that she used a paper for the poems (even her own) and sang from memory. But that was it, musically speaking. When she read Ginsberg’s poems, especially “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Smith rode Ginsberg’s words, the crescendo rising until she rang them out with the force, fury and fervency of a born-again Baptist beneath a rival tent.

Smith and Glass also took their turns performing apart, Smith with guiataris Lenny Kaye and her daughter Jesse, and Glass by himself at the grand piano. One of the most beautiful nights of the entire festival—indeed, of the past month of listening to Glass’s music around town—was when he played Piano Etude No. 2, perhaps this writer’s favorite solo work of his. I’d actually first heard it remixed, a genius example of how beautifully Glass’s rhythms can be built on by DJs, but the original, with Glass himself at the keyboards, is even better.

The sweetest moment of the night was when Smith read a love letter she said she’d written that morning to Glass; in it, she said how she loved his “sad eyes in an otherwise happy face,” adored the “way you keep time with your head” (something that would become apparent on Saturday) and how it made her feel like “you’re nodding in approval when I feel nervous”, and cherished “how you stop and look up as if hearing birds, or angels.”

The night ended with quite a rendition of Smith’s “The People Have the Power,” an anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement if there ever was one, with Smith belting, Kaye on guitar, and both Jesse Smith and Glass together at the grand piano. Ever the poet and singer, Smith shifted seamlessly as the musicians played out the song back into the spoken-word realm, improvising the exhorting that the people have the power “to dream, to dance, to vote, to strike, to occupy!”

Critical bias: I’ve been a huge fan of the beats, especially Ginsberg, for many years, so it doesn’t get much better than this for me. I only tuned in to Patti Smith a couple of years back, when I read Roy Edroso’s review of Just Kids. I’ve seen her once before, at the recently closed Southpaw, and I’ve been listening to Horses on vinyl lately.

Overheard: “Louder!”

Random notebook dump: Though they have collaborated for years, this was allegedly Smith and Glass’s first time playing New York together.

Set list (Friday):
Notes to the Future by Patti Smith/excerpts from Metamorphoses by Philip Glass
Wichita Vortex Sutra by Allen Ginsberg
The Blue Thangka by Patti Smith/excerpts from Metamorphoses by Philip Glass
My Blakean Year by Patti Smith
Ghost Dance by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye
Pissing in a River by Patti Smith and Ivan Kral
Etudes No. 2 and No. 10 by Philip Glass
“Dear Philip, Love Patti”
Magic Psalm by Allen Ginsberg/music by Philip Glass
Footnotes to a Howl by Allen Ginsberg

People Have the Power

Music In 12 Parts: Philip Glass (keyboards/conductor), Michael Riesman (musical director) and the Philip Glass Ensemble
Park Avenue Armory
Saturday, February 25

Music In 12 Parts is Glass’s magnum opus from his “minimalism” days, though that term (which Glass has attributed to Voice writer Tom Johnson) is fraught with controversy. From the liner notes to the original album:

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 12 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.”

Music In 12 Parts 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 12 Parts is both a massive theoretical exercise and a deeply engrossing work of art.

The piece is typically played across three nights. The Philip Glass Ensemble, with Glass himself conducting, played the entire piece Saturday night, and the whole thing ran some 5 hours and 20 minutes long (with two twenty minute intermissions and an hourlong dinner break). Of all the tasks the 75-year-old Glass has taken on in the past month, this one looked the most physically demanding. Each segment raced for an hour without a moment’s break; Glass’s hands move faster than those of someone typing 120 words per minute the entire time.

I am not a huge fan of this period of Glass’s work, yet I was extremely curious to hear this rarely performed behemoth played in its entirety. I was introduced to Glass through his much later film scores, piano solos and symphonies, and have always had a harder time connecting to the earlier music performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble. In fact, the first time I ever saw Glass play live it was when the Ensemble performed Monsters of Grace at BAM and I hated it (though, to be fair, even director Robert Wilson kind of denounced that one).

But I went in with an open mind, largely pondering one question: as radical as Music In 12 Parts was in the 1970s, would it seem at all cutting edge today? After all some Glass collaborations—like the film Koyaanisqatsi—look dated today. Koyaanisqatsi‘s genius is still in its empirical beauty, but the techniques it originated have been so copied by MTV and the internet that they seem cliché.

Though I wasn’t alive when it was first heard in its entirely, I think Music In 12 Parts is clearly, unequivocally even more radical now. First, there is still nothing like it, in is scale, size and scope. (Though you can hear what he eventually evolved to on the opera or concert stages, nothing Glass has ever made since is so large in size or possibly even in pure, aural aesthetic ambition.) Even to an ear like mine, which is not trained, the music is not repetitive as such; 12 Parts is constantly changing shape and dynamic, though in a way that really forces you to listen and to focus in a way I’d never before thought possible.

When 12 Parts came out, Glass was considered radical for making music that forced you to sit, over and over again, with musical phrases, rather than letting music take you from point A to point B on a traditional journey. You had to really listen, and listen closely, to get anything out of the music. But in the age of the always-streaming Internet, we are even less inclined to listening carefully or for long periods of time. And so many listeners of Glass’s music, including me, are so used to hearing his music in time with fascinating images—be they from the Qatsi movies, animated drawings of the Illusionist, or even the occasional car commercial—that we’re less likely to just listen to the music as purely music.

I never felt the slightest bit bored, and was fascinated at looking at how Glass used just three sheets of music—never turning a page—during the entire first hour. Of course, the musicians are repeating bars of music over and over again; but they’re not doing it at the same time, giving the piece a dynamic, constant sense of gradual change.

Parts 9 and 12 were by far my favorite, and they used the human voice the least (a strictly personal taste; the singer Lisa Bielawa, was extraordinary, and gave me new respect for how vocalists act as instrumental musicians even under the most technically complicated conditions). Throughout the evening I kept thinking of Godfrey Reggio, who would have been hearing Music In 12 Parts before he talked Glass into composing the score for Koyaanisqatsi. The music was much different, but I kept thinking, “This is why Reggio hired Glass,” and “This is what Reggio meant when he said Glass’s music is ‘never-ending’.”

As it ended, I thought about how Reggio told me he doesn’t use email or the Internet because, among other things, he has an “addictive personality.” I can see now how an addictive personality would choose the person who composed music as never-ceasing as Music In 12 Parts to score his film.

Critical bias: This is not my favorite period of his work.

Overheard: “After five hours, I still didn’t want it to be over!”

Random notebook dump: My date for the evening, a musician and writer whose encyclopedic knowledge of Glass and modern composition put me to shame, had never heard him perform live before… except when she was an infant and Glass came to her home and played on her piano for her mother, who was studying musicology under him at the time.

Set list:
Parts 1,2,3
Parts 4,5,6
Parts 7,8,9
Parts 10,11,12

Another Look at Harmony: James Bagwell (conductor), Michael Riesman (organ), the Collegiate Chorale and the Brooklyn Youth Chrous
Park Avenue Armory
Sunday, February 26

Better than: The South Park Elementary “Happy Non-Denominational, Non-Offensive Christmas Play.”

Another Look At Harmony, Part IV is one of a few pieces that were largely gobbled up by and absorbed into Einstein on the Beach. Part IV was originally written for organ and 80 voices, and longtime Glass collaborator Michael Riesman wrote a new arrangement for 160 voices, half supplied by children. Last night, Riesman played the organ, with the Collegiate Chorale and the Youth Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing.

It was—ironically, given the number of performers on stage—a quiet way to end the festival. Even sitting in the first row, it was difficult to hear the mass choir. They were barely on the microphone, and were often overpowered by Riesman on the organ despite their numbers. My date and I couldn’t help but wonder what those voices would have sounded like in a church or a hall with sharp acoustics, rather than in the cacophonous armory.

In fact, sound problems were a thread through all three performances I attended at Tune-In, starting with Patti Smith’s silent mic. During Music In 12 Parts, Glass and most of the musicians threw angry glances and gestures toward the sound board operator. And during the first 10 minutes of “Another Look at Harmony” and throughout the evening, the board operator was not even sitting at his console, but with an iPad on his lap in a house seat.

What worked, in a sweet way, was the youth choir paired with the adults, which looked every bit a youth choir. The combination of the two choirs created some lovely moments, when the child sopranos were singing in long phrases against the staccato adult base lines; the tenors of the Collegiate Chorale shown brightly in the third movement.

Other than Stan and Cartman peforming the Glass parody “Happy Non-Denominational, Non-Offensive Christmas Play,” I had never seen children perform Glass before. Glass was sitting in the front row, and lots of kids were on the carpets. Their siblings were singing in front of them, sometimes getting tired and sitting down, sometimes yawning. Still, it was sweet to see a school choir performing his work, as if we lived in some small town where a local conductor had composed some music for the junior high choir.

In a way, I guess that’s true.

Overheard: “What’s that guy using an iPad for?”

Random notebook dump: After interviewing him on the phone for an hour and a half in January and writing about him nearly every day in February, I actually had the chance to chat with Glass in person right before Another Look at Harmony.

Set list:
Another Look at Harmony

Tune-In closes out the month-long, citywide celebration of Glass’s work. We’ll continue covering other events that happen in New York during the composer’s 76th trip around the sun—including his performance with Tim Fainn in the Temple of Dundur in April, and the return of Einstein On the Beach to BAM in September—but tomorrow, when Sound of the City will publish an interview with Glass where we ask him about the meaning of love, will represent the end of our Glass retrospective.