Royal Festival Hall, London
9 November 2013
The first of the twelve parts, lasting 10 minutes. You'll know if you're ready for the remaining 3 hours.
How is such a long, repetitious piece of non-music so successful and deservedly popular?
I’m tempted to pass judgement on minimalism as a whole when I get to hear central works by two enormously influential still-living composers over one weekend, as part of a retrospective celebration on twentieth-century music.
Both composers (certainly Glass) claim they no longer compose in a minimalist idiom, which I take to mean that the 1970s form was the most concentrated, the purest, form.
Perhaps we should better think of a musical revolution, akin to that of atonalism 60 years earlier, or the neoclassical counter-revolution. Glass is quoted in the programme notes saying his music is not normal, not what people expect, and as a result they claim it is similar to hypnosis, religious ceremonies or other experiences that are not normal.
He has a point, but so does his audience. It is difficult to describe this music. It takes monotony to an extreme, but is not unpleasant, which is remarkable. Small variations maintain our interest, but the original theme is so brief, and the work is so extended, that the sounds become a kind of aural wallpaper, and it is impossible for me to invest all of my concentration, or even significant portions of it, to listening.
Here, Glass massively increases the monotony by allowing only small variations along any of the axes usually ascribed to music: of melody, of harmony, of tone colour, of volume, of tempo. The impression is that everything occurs in a brilliant ‘light’ that endures almost forever, though each discrete part is around 15 or 20 minutes long.
We ought to be astonished this works at all, much less that it is popular. It connects with traditional Western ideas of music in only the most marginal manner, and from what I have heard, it connects no better with any other kind of music (in this, it differs from the music of Steve Reich).
If there is a connection at all, it is with one of Glass’ teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and through her the neoclassical tradition of Stravinsky. With so little variation possible, Glass needs to create a beautiful, transparent starting point, meaning that his tone colours and orchestration need to be absorbing. And they are.
This is an extremely demanding work, but the comparisons made during the concert, or in the programme, are entirely misleading. This is not anything like reading (or attending a performance of) the Mahabharata, the Ring Cycle, or even a Mahler symphony. Those are dramatic works, with a narrative. ‘Pure’ Glass was understandably narrative-phobic, and definitively anti-dramatic in this work.
Any performance by the composer’s own ensemble is going to be unimpeachable, especially as they have performed it many times before. The key aspect of a performance is how well the synthesisers blend with the other instruments: after decades of it, this group are experts.