Maximalism on the Beach: Philip Glass February 25—March 3, 1981

I had long preferred Philip Glass’s ‘Music with Changing Parts’ and ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ to the more recent Glass works I have heard. The earlier pieces seemed more disciplined, more careful, more focused and more closely allied with the principles of minimalism, the later music seemed flabbier, and I was comfortable with that opinion for quite a while. But since I hadn’t heard Glass’s ensemble live for some time, and had never heard ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in its complete form, I decided to attend the recent performance at Town Hall. ‘Dance #3’ and ‘Dance #5’ still seemed flabby to me, but when we got to ‘Einstein on the Beach’ I had to revise my opinions quite a bit. It now seems clear that ‘Einstein’ is much stronger than any of the music he first wrote for his ensemble. The technique is more skilful, the insights are deeper, and the style is more personal. And after rehearing the earlier pieces, I am finally beginning to understand that Glass was probably never really a minimalist in the first place.

What is fascinating about ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is how much Glass’s style broadened as he approached the operatic stage. Traditional techniques that the composer scrupulously avoided in earlier works are rampant here. Many segments are wrapped up in neat A-B-A forms. The unaccompanied violin music sounds a lot like Bach’s. The piece moves in and out of its basic tonal center, D minor, very much the way a 19th-century piece might. There are even some organ figures that sound like those Alberti basses Mozart loved so much. Perhaps the most drastic difference between ‘Einstein’ and ‘Music with Changing Parts,’ however, is the pacing. Between 10 o’clock and 11:15 I counted 14 completely different sections, including an organ solo, a violin solo, a soprano solo, some a capella choral music, some accompanied choral music, an ensemble section so loud I had to put my fingers in my ears, an organ solo so soft that I almost forgot I was listening to amplified sound, a section of unison scale patterns quite different from anything I had ever heard from Glass, a wide variety of tempos and meters, and a section in which I hardly felt a beat at all. Clearly, any piece that can use up this much contrasting material in a mere hour and a quarter is not even trying to be minimalist, at least not in any very meaningful sense of the term.

But after listening again to ‘Music in Similar Motion’ and ‘Music in Changing Parts,’ I’m not convinced that Glass was terribly interested in restricting his materials even then. When these pieces were new I remember thinking of them as very simple, and I remember how a lot of people said they were simple-minded. In a way, however, it didn’t make a lot of sense to call Glass a minimalist even in 1971, and I can understand why Glass doesn’t like to be associated with the term. His music, even then, had little similarity with the unadorned rhythmic patterns of Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music,’ the electronic drones of La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier, or the meditative chants of Pauline Oliveros, not to mention Philip Corner’s ‘Elementals,’ which probably makes the most extreme statement of all, as well as providing a theoretical base for that whole way of musical thinking.

There is a surface simplicity in ‘Music with Changing Parts,’ and the piece does develop rather consistently, simply by adding and subtracting notes from little repeating figures. Yet as I listened once again to those additions and subtractions I realized that they are actually rather whimsical. Composers like Frederic Rzewski, Robert Moran, Louis Andriessen, and William Hellermann have written such sequences with much greater rigor. By comparison, Glass is not a reductionist at all but a romantic. Nor are Glass’s textures as simple as they may seem. Even ‘Music with Changing Parts’ is covered over with several layers of subjective sensuality. The organ colors change frequently. The saxophones become so mixed up in the amplified texture that it’s often difficult to separate one from another. Someone is always singing or playing a sustained high note, producing complicated acoustical interactions with the natural overtones in the music. Sometimes improvised saxophone lines weave whole knots of intricate counterpoint into the texture, while many additional complications are added electronically as the instruments are blended, separated, mixed, rebalanced, reverberated, panned, and filtered.

This may be minimalism in a kind of sociohistoric sense, but it has little to do with the purer minimalism of other composers, or with the spirit of reductivism so widely practiced in the visual arts. Of course, that leaves us with the problem of finding another label for Glass, and I really can’t figure out what to call him other than a good composer. But just as I was pondering this question, a press release arrived regarding the bass trombonist David Taylor who, we are informed, ‘has worked with such contemporary popular musicians as Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Steve Reich, Barry Manilow, Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.’ So maybe that makes Glass yet another ‘contemporary popular musician.’ But I expect that Glass might be even more unhappy to be linked with Barry Manilow than with Philip Corner.