On the 30th October, Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble performed Music with Changing Parts. Due to illness, Glass himself was unable to perform. Instead Ensemble member, conductor and director Michael Riesman took the helm. Never having heard Philip Glass other than via Spotify, I am not able to comment on any negative impact his absence may have had. Reassuringly however, Music with Changing Parts – one of Glass’ earliest works which premiered in 1970 – had all the trademarks of his music. I consider myself incredibly privileged to have been there – and all the more so because I had tried to get tickets at the general release and not succeeded. (Oh, those sweet, sweet press seats.)
Music with Changing Parts underwent a rejuvenating makeover in 2018 with the addition of brass and voices. The voices on this occasion were those of the Tiffin Chorus whose buoyant youth kept up with 90 minutes of tireless keyboard (five keyboards to be precise). Their cyclical melodies, syncopated among themselves, were subject to minor changes throughout the course of each movement. I found myself swaddled, encircled, in the mesmeric repetition of harpsichord and organ-esque keyboard, multi-layered sound enriched further by the haunting flute, resounding bass of the trombone and the occasional staccato, almost kazoo-like, of the trumpet and saxophone.
The choir, so seamlessly a part of the whole, despite being such a recent addition to the 49-year-old work, embellished the contributions of all sections at different points during the performance. For several bars at a time, the harmonies would meld with the spritely flute, before switching to reinforce the Baroque-influenced keyboard parts.
Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe was dressed as if for a Halloween ball in ruffles of black, floor-length gauze and as my ears were enraptured, so were my eyes by her intricate gesticulations that successfully kept the polyphonic chaos in an oxymoronic state of calm. Sensorially immersive, with barely a moment for audience members and musicians alike to pause for breathe, the Barbican became a perfectly contained microcosm for the duration of the performance. I felt my brain adjust to the consistencies in the keyboard so well that I was able block them out in order to tune in to the eponymous ‘changes’ that led the work’s evolution over that hour and a half.
Structurally and rhythmically challenge, Glass’ music did not fail to enchant and surprise; the climax at the end of Music with Changing Parts just as deliciously refreshing as the opening bars.
This 2018 re-rendering is, in Glass’ eyes, “a richer version of the music and a more satisfying completion of the original idea”. The engulfing polyphony of voices, woodwind, keys and brass was, indeed, richly satisfying to experience live.
On Wednesday, 30 October, Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts returned to the UK for the first time in 48 years. London’s Barbican Hall hosted the Philip Glass ensemble and the Tiffin School Choirs to perform this new rendition of Glass’s 1970 piece. The hall was packed for the transcendental 90 minute performance which even Glass once judged “a little too spacey for my tastes.” Due to sudden illness, Glass himself was not present, replaced by Michael Riesman, director of the Phillip Glass Ensemble.
Music with Changing Parts is largely seen as a transitional piece for Glass. It was first performed in New York in November 1970 on the heels of his 1969 pieces Music in Similar Motion, Music in Fifths, and Music in Contrary Motion. While rehearsing Music in Similar Motion, Glass discovered long overtones that seemed to stem naturally from the performance. He explored this more intentionally with Music in Changing Parts by creating extended drones in the wind, brass, and choral parts. Changing Parts prompted Glass to write even more extended pieces, including operas such as his famous 1975 opera Einstein on the Beach.
Music in Changing Parts was performed across the United States and Europe in the 70’s and 80’s, including a performance attended by David Bowie and Brian Eno which later led to a series of Bowie-Glass collaborations. In the proceeding decades, the Philip Glass Ensemble focused their performances on his other works until recently when Glass heard several younger ensembles revisit Music with Changing Parts. “I was so impressed,” he says, “that I went back to the work myself.”
The revised work, with enlarged brass and vocal ensembles, premiered in 2018 at Carnegie Hall in New York and David Hall in San Francisco. Last week’s Barbican performance was attended by a full house. The piece itself, as with much of Glass’s work, defies normal concert expectations. The uninterrupted hour and a half performance starts with a steady pulse echoed and elaborated across the several keyboards. Gradually the other parts fade in: a saxophone gently wails, a flute blends in. With Glass, texture, not melody, is the key. The ensemble performs more like a single, multi-faceted instrument rather than a coordinated body of musicians. Each part is nearly inseparable from the woven whole. Periodically, cued by the raised hands of conductor Valérie Saint-Agathe, the ensemble would suddenly drop away from the constant keyboarders’ rhythm and a new texture would develop again.
The titular changes were not always so clear. Contrary to the piece’s title, the overwhelming sense of Changing Parts was its constancy which veiled a slow, imperceptible development. It took nearly an hour to notice the gradually increasing pace of the underlying beat. Parts flowed into each other river-like so that the harmony was continuously, yet passively, engaging. The exception to this rule was the occasional shout of either the children’s choir or the brass. These outburst seemed to serve as mile markers against the stream of decadent consonance that was the rest of the piece. Changing Parts is unusually improvisational for Glass but the musicians are specifically discouraged from ‘soloing’ improvised melodies.
At its core, Changing Parts is natural. One could describe the piece in the words of French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose. Changes, whether we see them happen or only notice in hindsight, are the one constant in life. Glass’s piece reflects this succinctly.