Philip Glass: Music in Eight Parts. Philip Glass Ensemble. Orange Mountain Music (download and stream only). Total Time: 21:36.
DIGITAL REVIEW – We are now at the point when a minimalist work can become a historical artifact worthy of excavation. That time has come for Philip Glass’ Music in Eight Parts, which hasn’t been heard in 50 years for the simple reason that it was thought to be permanently lost.
Music in Eight Parts was played a few times the year it first appeared (1970) and then was filed away as Glass’ experiments with early minimalism continued. Six years later, Einstein on the Beach made Glass famous, but when the expenses of its performances at the Metropolitan Opera saddled him with debt, Glass — who was back to driving a cab at the time — was forced to sell off some of his early manuscripts, among them Music In Eight Parts. The score then vanished from sight, only to turn up at Christie’s Auction House in New York in late 2017, around the time Richard Guérin of Glass’ record company, Orange Mountain Music, discovered sketches that pointed to the work’s existence.
Glass’ publisher got hold of the score, and an arrangement was made for the present-day Philip Glass Ensemble, which planned to perform the piece in Helsinki March 28 and Athens March 30 and record it. However the coronavirus had other plans, putting a stop to all touring and group recording activity.
So, scrambling like many organizations caught in the pandemic, they decided to record in a modular way, with the musicians recording their separate parts in their own homes with a drum roll track, audible only to the performers, cueing in each section. Longtime Glass musical director Michael Riesman then assembled the tracks in his home studio and — voila! — Music in Eight Parts finally came out as a download EP (I heard it streaming, through headphones).
This is truly hard-core Glass — a midway station between the austere, at times maddening earlier works and the full flowering of Glass’ early style in Einstein on the Beach. This arrangement employs synthesizers (played by Riesman and Mick Rossi) vaguely emulating the timbres of electric organs that would have been used in 1970, three saxophone parts played by Andrew Sterman and Peter Hess, and the solfège syllables of soprano Lisa Bielawa.
As suggested by Glass’ influences at the time, the structure does resemble the gradually accelerating course of an Indian raga. The patterns revolve and evolve at a slow pace at first, suddenly kicking up in tempo with the addition of a mid-range synth line, and the addition of a bass synth line pushes Bielawa into a higher range.
It takes a while to get going, but Music in Eight Parts ultimately develops a driving groove that carries through all the way to the end, when the groove, as usual in Glass, is shut off like a switch. In a remarkably unified recording, given its fractured components, it’s well worth a listen if you are a fan of early Glass.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide, the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America. He also wrote the Philip Glass entry in the book Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002).