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Philip Glass to play five-hour concert in Ostrava

Legendary minimalist composer kicks of Ostrava Days Festival with a work from the '70s


Posted: August 7, 2013

By Tony Ozuna - For the Post | Comments (0) | Post comment

Philip Glass to play five-hour concert in Ostrava

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Philip Glass will make his only appearance in the Czech Republic in Ostrava to play a five-hour piece.

The modernist composer Philip Glass appears next week in Ostrava with his nine-member ensemble for a rare performance of a seminal piece for the opening concert of the Ostrava Days Festival 2013. The Philip Glass Ensemble's performance of Music in Twelve Parts promises to be a five-hour affair, though this includes an hour break for dinner midway. It will be the only performance of this work in Central Europe this year, and it will also be the first and most likely only performance of this exceptional composition with Glass - who is now in his mid-70s - in the Czech Republic.

Michael Riesman, keyboardist and music director of the ensemble, tells The Prague Post the sound has also evolved. "A performance today doesn't sound exactly the way it sounded back in 1974, when I started playing this music," he says. "At that time, the keyboards were Farfisa mini-compact organs for all of us, and they did not provide much of a kick in the bass, and they had essentially just a single color. Now we are using sophisticated electronics including samples of the original Farfisas plus analog and FM synthesizers. It's a more interesting and powerful sound. Also nowadays we are using state-of-the-art microphones and sound systems and that also has enhanced the sonic experience."

The piece is among Glass's most hypnotic, as well, which can be hard for musicians performing it, though Riesman points out, "No one can fall into a trance and get away with it, because you have to count all the time. But it's easy to drift in that direction, especially when we are playing really well, everything is in a groove and you are enjoying it."

As the title of the work points out, there are 12 distinct sections to the piece, and just as Riesman and the other musicians (including singers) enjoy playing it, a special joy or appreciation by the audience can be found in the segues between this otherwise seemingly perpetual composition.

Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble
When: Friday, Aug. 16, 6-11 p.m.
Where: Multifunctional Auditorium Gong, Ostrava, north Moravia
Tickets: 1,300 Kč

"Music in Twelve Parts is about continuous development, not just repetition," Riesman emphasizes. "But in Glass, repetition is used only in order to get to the point where a phrase or cell is 'learned' by the listener so that it will be apparent when it changes to something else. I remember one performance in Porto, Portugal, where we were playing Music in Twelve Parts for a hugely enthusiastic audience. In Part Eight, one of the most energetic and thrilling sections, there were cheers, whistling and applause from the crowd as we changed from one cell to the next, as if we had just done a solo at a jazz event. It was wonderful to see that the audience was able to grasp what was happening and appreciate it so much."

Of course, these are not the usual reactions from audiences at modern music performances, but this is also where Glass confronts and transcends the expectations for his genre, as sometimes his music snubs the belief that so-called high-brow art music should be the most difficult to listen to.

"It was always accessible, because it is easy to understand and enjoy, provided you accept it for what it is and are not put off by the repetitions and the time scale. You have to succumb to it to appreciate it, and that has not changed over time," Riesman says about Music in Twelve Parts.

"Although the musical language of Glass has seeped into the broader culture, attending your first performance of Music in 12 Parts is still a unique and possibly startling experience," Riesman promises.

Philip Glass has been a polarizing figure in the world of contemporary music, but primarily because of this he has also been the most successful. Glass is best known for his 1982 musical soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi, a documentary juxtaposition of sound and image that contrasted elements of contemporary society such as technology, fashion, success, war and famine with environmental beauty and devastation.

Since then, his other major film scores include Martin Scorsese's Kundun and Peter Weir's The Truman Show. In contrast, his epic opera Einstein on the Beach, created in collaboration with composer Robert Wilson in 1976, has been far less in tune with popular audiences, though the work is his artistic landmark. His adaptations of two classic David Bowie and Brian Eno albums Low and Heroes for symphony orchestras are also noteworthy fusions of art (serious music) and more commercial music.

Glass's combined oeuvre of art music and pop or film scores has pushed him into the popular culture sphere unlike his minimal music contemporaries Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young, who along with Glass, formed their ideas in the New York Downtown art and music scene of the 1960s.

Hypnotic, repetitive, rhythmic and tonal are the standard terms to best describe the music of each of these composers/musicians, but Glass, as a pianist and organist, had his own path to this approach.

In the early '60s, Glass studied in Paris with the eminent teacher Nadia Boulanger, but perhaps more importantly, he met Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), who was at that time a young sitarist traveling around Europe. To earn money in Paris, Glass took on the project of transcribing Shankar's Indian music to Western notation, and Shankar's ragas ultimately had a profound influence on Glass' own music.

Glass has described his music as the fusion of two great traditions: the long tradition of Indian Classical Music and the great tradition of Central European art music. "Once I got the idea to do that, I spent 10 years on my own with my own ensemble. My early pieces were all exercises in strategies to combine these two streams, and eventually I think I did," Glass told BBC's Hardtalk in an interview last year.

Music in Twelve Parts was created from 1971 to '74, so more or less at the culmination of Glass' experimentation with this idea, and it is considered among his major artistic achievements.


Tony Ozuna can be reached at
features@praguepost.com

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