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A Vital Pulse: The Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians at BAM

This month the Brooklyn Academy of Music opened its 2014 Next Wave festival with an extended concert celebration of 50 years of Nonesuch Records. In a time when the future of the record business is up for grabs, Nonesuch continues to put out beautifully packaged CDs, and does so with as eclectic a roster as there is (Joni Mitchell, Elliott Carter, Youssou N’Dour, and George Gershwin are label-mates). Asked if there are any special criteria for deciding to work with an artist, Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz has said he looks for people “whose music is something that I love and who don’t sound like anybody else.”

The festival began September 9 with three nights of concerts from the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians. Glass and Reich met at Juilliard in the late 1950s and shared an aversion to the reigning academic orthodoxy of serialism. When he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, Glass found the serial mafia had taken over there too. “There were these maniacs,” he told Robert Ashley in 1975, “these creeps making everybody play this crazy creepy music.” He noted with some incredulousness in his book Music by Philip Glass(1987), that, hanging around with devotees of serialism, he’d more than once overheard the phrase: “It’s much better than it sounds!”

Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, David Cossin, Timo Andres, Steve Reich play Four Organs at BAM. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Reich, for his part, said in an interview that it would have felt odd embracing the "dark brown angst of Vienna" while surrounded by the “tail fins and hamburgers of American popular culture.” Later he put it more succinctly: for a composer of the second half of the 20th-century “jazz and rock ‘n’ roll cannot be ignored or you're an ostrich."

Opening night kicked off with Reich’s Four Organs (1970), played by Reich, Glass, and fellow Nonesuch label-mates Nico Muhly and Timo Andres. The piece grew out of experiments with a phase shifting pulse gate, a device Reich built with Bell labs engineer Larry Owens. When Reich brought compositional principles discovered via the pulse gate to an ensemble of live musicians, he found he could not go back to the machine, whose metronomic precision sounded "stiff and unmusical.” Four Organs is built around eighth notes played on maracas (the human replacement for the gate) and two sharp articulations of a dominant 11th chord. That chord is then slowly pulled apart, turning a vertical stack of notes into something dramatically horizontal. The piece provoked a riot at Carnegie Hall in 1973—one man allegedly ran up to the stage and yelled "Ok, I'll confess!"—and even today it sounds radical. The first night's performance at BAM was shaky (there seemed to be some cueing problems), but the second night was a revelation, the structure of the phasing locking into focus. Fundamentally, it is a piece about counting, a fact made vivid by Muhly’s head dives cueing the transitions. On both nights David Cossin was heroic on the maracas.

The Philip Glass Ensemble at BAM. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The highlight of the first night was Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a luxuriant piece with none of the timbral severity of Four Organs. The lushness of texture stems from its core instrumentation of bass clarinet, violin, cello, and female voice layered over pianos, marimbas and xylophones. The group floats through great shimmering tableaux set off by cues played on a vibraphone. Many of the motivic units are asymmetric eighth-note/eighth-rest figures you might find in a Thelonious Monk solo, tracing an important whorl in Reich’s musical fingerprint—the syncopated phrasing of be-bop. Music for 18 Musicians has a special place in the Nonesuch celebration, since Hurwtiz played a key role in getting it recorded and released on ECM in 1976 (the label he left to for Nonesuch in 1984), after which it became a big hit and a watershed recording for new music.

On the second night, Reich’s ensemble performed Drumming (1970 - 71), an hour long piece for tuned bongo drums, marimba, glockenspiel, voice, and piccolo. The piece marks the end of Reich’s phasing music and the turn toward what he called “the gradual changing of timbre while pitch remains constant.” His oft-professed love of Stravinsky comes through in this sort of orchestration, the metallic, bell-like layering resembling especially the coloristic effects of Les Noces (1923). Drumming was also the piece where Reich began using the human voice as an element in orchestration, and he notes in a 1971 essay how he arrived at “tuk,” “tok,” and “duk” as sung phonemes that approximate bongo hits. The score specifies the placement of instruments on stage as a triptych, with a row of bongos in the middle and end-to-end marimbas and glockenspiels stage right and left respectively. The effect of white-shirted performers moving between these instruments, along with the drummers (one of whom was Reich) whirling mallets like lit blades, was mesmerizing to watch.


The Philip Glass Ensemble has a sound in the way that, say, The Byrds have a sound; an unmistakable blend of winds, electric organ, and female voice. The opening night a very lucky BAM crowd got to hear excerpts from Music in 12 Parts (1971 - 74), an achingly lovely piece and some of Glass’s best music. The group played the first two of the twelve parts—the whole thing goes for about six hours—and hearing it in the hall was like swimming through huge diaphanous jewels.

Also played that night was CIVIL warS #2, excerpted from a large-scale collaboration with Robert Wilson for the 1984 Olympic Games. Like much of Glass’s music, the piece builds up from a vamp which then spirals out and replicates in clockwork arabesques. That effect was more dramatic in the ensemble arrangement of funeral music from Act 1 of his opera Ahknaten (1984)—also on the first night’s program—its sepulchral march of percussion triggers and synth patches grinding out spacey fractals.

In the “Building” section of Einstein on the Beach (1976), played the second night, analto sax solos over bass octaves on the keyboards, and Lisa Bielawa’s harmonized soprano voice (Bielawa’s tone—and sheer stamina—brought to mind Dora Ohrenstein from an earlier version of the Ensemble).

Glass has a whole other existence as a film music composer, and another treat of the second night was hearing big chunks of Powaqqatsi(1988) and Koyaanisqatsi (1982) played as stand-alone pieces. Without the accompanying images these sounded like a glistening concert music of the future.

The third night featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (2009 – 10), performed by Steve Reich and Musicians. Beginning from the recorded pulse of a telephone receiver left off the hook (its an F!) it becomes a bracing sprechstimme in which voice recordings taken from interviews are doubled in scoring for quartet. The effect is nightmarish in the way a Shostokavich quartet can be nightmarish. WTC 9/11 brought unmistakably to the fore how audio engineering is crucial for all the music performed by both ensembles, and it ought to be said that on all three nights the mix in the Howard Gilman Opera House was clear and musical.


Hurwitz says he was introduced to Steve Reich when the latter burst into his office and said “I hear you hate minimalist music. So do I!” Both Glass and Reich have indicated their dislike of the “M-word” for what is, I think, an obvious reason: it lumps together two composers who make utterly different sounding music. While they’ve both managed to invent remarkably fecund—and lasting—musical languages, Glass and Reich sound nothing like one another.


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2014

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