Philip Glass – Music in Twelve Parts

Last night, Lisa and I went to the performance of Philip Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts” performed by Philip Glass and his Ensemble at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. I was very excited to be going to this performance as I had missed an opportunity to hear a full live performance in New York when I lived there.  Overall, I enjoyed the performance very much and had a wonderful time, though it also brought up many questions I have been asking myself lately.

On the performance itself, the concert was broken in 4 sections: Parts 1-3, a 10 minute pause, Parts 4-6, an hour dinner break, Parts 7-9, a 10 minute pause, then Parts 10-12. The first half sounded out of balance with the volume of the synthesizers dominating the hall, making it hard to hear the flutes, saxophones, and soprano.  (This was a bit of a shame as parts 1 and 4 are favorites of mine…)  The balance of the sound in the second half was much better adjusted and really did just sound fantastic.  Beyond the balance, there were a few places where things got off but the performers would recover on the next iteration of the pattern, and overall I was very impressed.  Having listened to recordings of the piece many times, I often forget how athletic a piece it is, and throughout the piece there was energy and attention in the performance.

Regarding the piece itself, I had not listened to it in a long while but I found it pleasantly familiar last night.  Sitting and really paying attention to the piece, beyond the familiar I also enjoyed hearing aspects of the piece I had not noticed before.  I was surprised at how quickly the time went by, the concert starting at 5:00pm and ending around 10:15pm.  I think the pauses and long break were great for absorbing the piece as my ears did not ever feel fatigued and physically I did no feel uncomfortable from sitting long periods of time. (Listening to the music also brought back a number of fond memories of being in college and visiting New York, shopping for CD’s in used CD stores and places like Kim’s and Other Music…)

During and after the performance, I found myself comparing the experience of the piece with the performance of Feldman’s String Quartet II we had heard in New York some years ago.  Music in Twelve Parts has such a physicality to it; certainly the volume of sound had a large presence, as well as did the rush of the constant rhythm in a singular time. In a piece like this I found myself feeling sometimes mesmerized by the rhythms.  In contrast, I think back to String Quartet II, how almost loosely time flowed on, how much the thickness of the silence was felt, and how present the sounds were too, though not from their volume so much as being framed so well to allow observation of their details in the midst of the space around them.  In a music like this I often find my attention very focused, though I never felt a sense of a loss of self in the moment as I did with Glass’s music, but rather a stronger presence of self as well as everything else, and deep sense of observation and contemplation.

I left the performance last night thinking of these two pieces and how both are of value and have very unique experiences. I think these days though I find my own tastes drifting towards more of the quieter, contemplative music than the more physical experiences of sound. Last night was very enjoyable though, and not having gone to see a live performance in quite some time, I was very glad we went and was inspired for music by it all.

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