Revisiting A Watershed: Glass’ ‘12 Parts’ Given 50-Year Concert Revival

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The 50th anniversary of Philip Glass’ ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ was celebrated May 25 at New York’s Town Hall. (Photo by Perry Bindleglass)

NEW YORK — Philip Glass’ epic Music in Twelve Parts marked his transition from his earlier, more austere (if hypnotically compelling for us devotees) minimalism into a far wider range of musical expression. That expression blossomed in his subsequent theater works, beginning with Einstein on the Beach, and film scores and operas and symphonies and chamber music, including the much-admired and recorded 20 Piano Etudes.

On May 25, Town Hall celebrated the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Music in Twelve Parts. Glass had previously played in downtown Manhattan galleries and a few uptown museums. For Twelve Parts in 1974, he personally rented Town Hall, planting his flag uptown as a composer, and breathed easier when its 1,400 seats were filled, or nearly filled.

There was some initial confusion as to the date of the premiere. Andrew Sterman, a longtime wind player in the Philip Glass Ensemble and now its manager, told Town Hall that the premiere date was May 25, so the hall dutifully scheduled the anniversary performance then.

But Sterman got it wrong. I covered that premiere for The New York Times. My review appeared on June 3 with a long preview piece dated May 26. The actual premiere was June 1. When I told the hall about Sterman’s error, they first tried to fudge the date, but by the time the May 25 program was printed, they had the premiere as June 1.

Glass, at keyboard at right, performing with his ensemble in 1973 (Courtesy of the Philip Glass Archives)

Curiously, Michael Riesman, the ensemble’s longtime music director, didn’t get the memo. He boldly told the audience that the May 25 performance marked the “exact date” of the premiere.

Oh, well. It doesn’t make much difference in the end. It was an extraordinary celebratory occasion, the sold-out audience loved it, and Glass and his ground-breaking music got their proper recognition.

Sterman did correctly recount the work’s amusing genesis. In 1971, Glass had composed a score on 12 staves, which he considered the “12 parts.” But a friend, the composer Éliane Radigue, misunderstood and asked him when he was going to compose the remaining 11 parts. So he did, premiering them piecemeal until the final sections received their first performance with the entire cycle. On June 1, 1974.

Glass no longer plays keyboard in his ensemble, but he was there in the front of the balcony to receive the cheers at the end. The ensemble, as ever, consists of six musicians: three wind players (of which Sterman is one, adding soprano saxophone), two keyboardists (Riesman at one), cuing each section, setting the tempo, conjuring some thunderous bass lines with his left hand. The others consist now of Lisa Bielawa, singer and keyboard; Michael Rossi, the other principal keyboard player; Peter Hess, alto and tenor sax; Sam Sadigursky, soprano sax and flute; and Sterman. There are two sound engineers, considered full members of the ensemble: one for what the audience hears (Dan Bora) and one for the musicians (Ryan Kelly).

The first page of the manuscript of ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ (Glass Archives)

The format of the evening replicated that of the premiere: the first three parts, played continuously, followed by a 15-minute pause, then the second three, then an hour-long intermission, then parts 7-9, another pause, and finally parts 10-12. Each part lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The music began just after 6 p.m. and ended at 11 on the nose.

In the course of the Twelve Parts, Glass pushed to expand his vocabulary — first by stretching what he had been developing since before the ensemble’s founding in 1968, then by exploring new and ever more complex territory. The result, followed by Another Look at Harmony parts 1 and 2, led directly to the music for Einstein on the Beach (1976), on which he and Robert Wilson were working from 1974 on.

Apart from his academic and Juilliard training, Glass’ major influences were his two years of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and his introduction to Indian music there via Ravi Shankar and his tabla player Alla Rakha.

In his books, Glass has described Music in Twelve Parts part by part. Part 1 is a slow, lulling meditation. Part 2 introduces the idea of cyclic music, which he learned from Shankar and Rakha — short phrases with added or subtracted notes. Part 3 has pulsating rhythms, which he calls ”a kind of musical Morse code.” Part 4 offers “psychoacoustical phenomena,” notes the audience thinks it hears amid the density of the actual music. Part 5 has more added and subtracted notes to the cycles, a process that continues in Part 6. Part 7 expands on Part 4.

“Halfway through Part 8,” Glass explains in his book Words Without Music, “the whole edifice of ‘minimalism’ gives way.” Part 9 combines diatonic and chromatic scales, another Indian influence. Part 10 explores ornamentation — trills and other Baroque practices. Things move radically away from minimalism in Part 11, which offers harmonic movement, or what Glass adds appears as such. And he sums it all up in Part 12, with increasingly complex cadential figurations, throwing everything into the pot, including a 12-tone row.

All this dry description masks the visceral, cumulative impact of the cycle, with its mournful winds, burbling keyboards, and chirping vocals (although the singer drops out in Parts 9 and 10). The amplification is LOUD, adding to the impact.

The final part is what Glass calls a “wild ride,” an exhilarating demonstration of thrilling virtuosity. It’s like a roller coaster, the musicians playing lickety-split with hair-trigger exactitude. It’s not the audience that needs the pauses and intermission; it’s the players. Their stamina and dazzling accuracy are unforgettable.

Glass, seated second from right, acknowledges the applause during the 2024 Town Hall concert. (Photo by Perry Bindleglass)

Nearly all the conventional classical critics ignored the 1974 performance or disparaged Glass or offered only grudging recognition. I got to preview and review the premiere because, while I was the chief rock critic, I was merely the fifth-string classical critic. None of the other classical critics cared — they probably thought of Glass as pop — but I had been a Glass enthusiast for years. Some leading critics never got around to appreciating Glass; Donal Henahan was unable to write about him without invoking Czerny exercises.

Of course, all that’s changed now, as it already had in Europe before 1974. There have been some dry, repetitive spells in his endless output, some wheel-spinning. But Glass is now a (the) leading American composer of the last half-century. The 1974 premiere was the beginning of all that, which made its celebration such a moving occasion.