Breaking Glass

Written by Dan Schwartz

To pick up the story:

Shortly after I first heard Steve Reich, I heard Philip Glass, maybe the same week — again, on Diaspar, the brilliant show on WXPN. What I heard was a side of the 4-sided “Music With Changing Parts”. It was available on Chatham Square Records, Glass’s own label. And, difficult as it was to find, I found it in Philadelphia, across the river.

Glass’s minimalism is quite different from Reich’s. Reich[1] uses compact musical expressions in overlapping layers, in the early days mostly through phasing techniques; he builds up his polyphonic technique that way. Glass uses those same kind of musical expressions, but he tended to build the idea in a linear way, repeating and augmenting an idea. On Music With Changing Parts he begins with an idea and evolves it over 4 sides. Subtle, right? You might be surprised, but it’s very effective[2].

Horns and woodwinds fade themselves in and out, but the largest part of the sound, the pulsing melody, is done with Farfisa Compact organs. These were the pre-digital and barely-polyphonic days of synthesis[3]. The piece, when properly performed, is over an hour in length. Glass himself is somewhat dismissive of the piece now: “It was a little too spacey for my tastes. We don’t play it much anymore. But it was very important to my development. I proved to myself that the music I was making could sustain attention over a prolonged period of time — an hour or more. And that led directly to Music In Twelve Parts and then on to the operas.”

Now, about that: I’m not sure exactly what happened when, but I think the second album I got, in 76, was on Virgin: Music in Twelve Parts (Pts. 1 & 2). Part 1 is lovely, gentle, gradually cycling and evolving: arranged for the familiar pulsing organs and woodwinds, with women’s voices added to the blend[4]. Whether you hear the live version (a bit shorter) or the studio recording, it serves as a terrific and beautiful introduction to those who aren’t that sure if they’ll like this music.

In 1977 Glass put out North Star, a set of short pieces intended for the soundtrack to a film about sculptor Mark di Suvero. And then he came to town, town being the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. I recall about 25 people there; I recall that I felt stunned, as it was truly great; I recall that it was LOUD.

The first half consisted of “short” pieces (at least relatively). And then Glass announced that the ensemble was going to play Einstein on the Beach. We were flabbergasted, the few of us there; except for Jonathan Something-or-other, the “classical critic” of the San Diego Reader, who the following week savaged the ensemble’s modernity — thereby proving his irrelevancy. There were so few people there that mingling with the group afterwards was very easy.

A couple years later, Glass and group played at the Roxy, a small club in West Hollywood. I spoke to him again, reminding him of our earlier meeting. He said, “Right… you were one of the dozen people there that night.”

After Koyaanisqatsi, he became a very big deal. Deservedly, and at last. The next time they came to town, the ensemble had graduated to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and life would never be the same.

For me, although he would go on to much recognition and acclaim, it’s those Koyaanisqatsi-and-earlier works that sound the most focused. Maybe there’s something better in them, maybe it’s just something like his-earlier-funnier-works-are-the-best. As with Reich’s work, his compositions became more complex over time, but the relative simplicity of the works up to the mid-80s has a potency that works for my ears.

At my wedding, on January 1st of 1994, the procession, such as it was, happened to Glass’s “Closing”. I stood at the “altar” (a spot in Bill Bottrell’s yard), and watched my almost-wife glide down the steps looking like… a vision, a movie star, I don’t know what, on her brother’s arm, as the music spun steadily out.

I’ll remember that until I’m gone.

[1] On whose early works Glass is a performer


[3] Farfisa Compact organs were the preferred keyboard of the minimalists back then. They were reasonably light and distinctive sounding.


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