Saved events

From the Archive: Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts

Nothing Concrete text
9 Dec 2020
25 min listen

This week we revisit a series of interviews with musicians James McVinnie, Eliza McCarthy and Timo Andres, about the rare performance of composer Philip Glass's ‘Music In Twelve Parts’ in May 2017. A milestone in minimalist music, slowly revealing itself through hypnotic patterns of change over four hours. 

 

Premiered in 1974, ‘Music In Twelve Parts’ has only ever been performed by the composer’s group, ‘The Philip Glass Ensemble’, but on May the 1st 2017 that changed. In his 80th birthday year, the composer gave his blessings to a new generation of artists, led by Bedroom Community’s pianist and organist James McVinnie, to perform the piece.

I always find with playing Philip Glass, certainly on the organ in a live context, you have to have tremendous control. I always think a bit about playing Glass’s music a little bit like playing Bach’s music, in a sense. Your job as a performer is really just to bring the music into the world. The music is so unique and so special, that if you just play the notes in the right order, then your job is done. - James McVinnie

 

Transcript

Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we revisit a series of interviews with musicians James McVinnie, Eliza McCarthy and Timo Andres, about the rare performance of composer Philip Glass's ‘Music In Twelve Parts’ in May 2017. A milestone in minimalist music, slowly revealing itself through hypnotic patterns of change over four hours.

James McVinnie: The music sounds a little bit like it comes from outer space. Eliza McCarthy Maybe you start making connections between each part and each player and it kind of turns into this cloud of sensation.

Timo Andres: I think there's this popular conception that Philip’s music is all about repetition, when it's actually really all about change.

BE: Premiered in 1974, ‘Music In Twelve Parts’ has only ever been performed by the composer’s group, ‘The Philip Glass Ensemble’, but on May the 1st 2017 that changed. In his 80th birthday year, the composer gave his blessings to a new generation of artists, led by Bedroom Community’s pianist and organist James McVinnie, to perform the piece. Philip Glass: I'm not at all a purist, with anybody's work let alone my own. Music, the currency of music to me, it can travel easily from place to place and from musical perspectives from one to another. We've seen that the music of Bach is all around us in every form that you can imagine: it's not hurt his reputation.

BE: Philip Glass there, another extract from our archives; speaking about the idea of performance and interpretation. You can hear that full interview on another archive edition. In this podcast we speak to three of the ten performers. We begin with James McVinnie, followed by pianist Eliza McCarthy, both of those recorded in London, and then the composer pianist Timo Andres, who joined us from New York on Skype. James started with what we could expect from this music marathon.

BE: I was gonna ask a layman's question the title of the piece, ‘Music In Twelve Parts’, what does it actually mean?

JM: It means that there are twelve different sections to it, each of which lasts for around twenty minutes. I mean, give or take a few minutes depending on how fast you play. The two recordings that I know, interestingly take different speeds. It does go quite a lick and there are some really virtuosic moments to it, individual moments of virtuosity in each of the lines, but also just as an ensemble piece. It's going to be a real task of stamina for all of us. So the whole thing lasts for around four hours. And the music sounds a little bit like it comes from outer space, I mean, it's this kind of, really, ‘other’ music.

BE: Why did you want to attempt something that's, you know, it's not just a piece of music, it's kind of everything is an experience, it's a marathon?

JM: Well, I mean, it's certainly going to be hard work. I mean, I have been completely obsessed with this piece for an awfully long time and I've been playing more and more of Philip’s music on the organ and I've been experimenting with music production software and layering organ textures in the same way that the Philip Glass Ensemble play. So this kind of, this challenge seemed like an inevitable one, really and in Philip’s 80th year, it seemed like a really good moment to try.

BE: Who did you choose? I mean, that must have been a well thought out process because you need musicians that are like-minded, perhaps.

JM: Definitely musicians with a sense of adventure and musicians who are all willing to take risks. I've really been wanting to work with Timo Andres, the pianist, in a performing capacity for ages and ages, and also just coming across like-minded musicians here in London: Eliza McCarthy, this is the first time that I'll be playing with her, and also David Kaplan, the American pianist as well, who's Timo’s duo partner. And then there are some other very close friends that I do make music with regularly: Liam Byrne, viola da gamba player, he's going to be lending his talents as well, and then two wonderful members of the European ensemble s t a r g a z e – Maaike van der Linde and Marlies van Gangelen. Maaike plays the flute and Marlies plays the oboe, and Josephine Stephenson is going to be singing here from London and she's also based in Paris, and then we have Yuki Numata who's playing the violin.
 

BE: As you mentioned at the beginning, you've obviously been playing Philip Glass's music in various forms for quite a while now. Some of the musicians here will have a lesser experience of his music. What kind of advice will you give them, if they ask?

JM: Well, I'm sure they'll have all done lots of practice. I mean, you know, these are some of the greatest musicians working today in contemporary music. So I'm sure they won't ask me for any advice at all. I always find with playing Philip Glass, certainly on the organ in a live context, you have to have tremendous control. I always think a bit about playing Glass’s music a little bit like playing Bach’s music, in a sense. Your job as a performer is really just to bring the music into the world. The music is so unique and so special, that if you just play the notes in the right order, then your job is done.

BE: One thing that struck me from speaking to you is the sense that this is very carefully planned.

JM: Yeah, I mean, really, it's going to be a voyage of discovery for us putting it all together. There's nothing quite like that first moment in rehearsal when you when you bring together all of the weeks of individual rehearsal.

JM: I mean, I remember when I first heard ‘Einstein On The Beach’ here at the Barbican in 2012, I mean, that totally, totally changed my life. I could have never imagined that I would be feeling that way about anything. Yeah, it's very exciting for me to be doing this personally, from a personal perspective.

BE: Eliza McCarthy.

Eliza McCarthy: Well, Glass’s music has kind of been running through my life since a really, really early age. I think the first record I listened to was his ‘Dancepieces’, when I think I must have been like seven or eight, and my dad introduced me to him and I kind of keep dipping in and out of a lot of his music throughout my life. ‘Music In Twelve Parts’ sort of encapsulates all of that incredible early ensemble music he wrote, sort of all of it in one. Yeah, it's a very meaningful piece to be playing at this stage, I think.

BE: I mean, this is maybe more abstract. I was listening to some of it on the way in and it's interesting when you start not listening to the notes but listening to it as a whole experience. You start sort of hallucinating.

EM: Yeah, it's sort of a crazy experience, isn't it? So the sound has a different relationship to you. And maybe you start making connections between each part and each player and it kind of turns into this cloud of sensation almost. So it's going to be interesting to experience that from a performance perspective as well.

EM: Last time, I played some Glass’s, ensemble music, the thing you can't really rehearse for is the experience of the adrenaline and feeding into the stamina. I remember getting halfway through an hour-long performance going, ‘Oh wow. I'm in this, I'm in the middle of this, I can't stop and I can't go back, I've just got to push through. I wish I had more bananas.’ So there's a lot of kind of chat that goes on in the head. Yeah, a kind of different relationship you have with your body performing and how you listen and how you concentrate, it's almost like… it's a meditation in that sense. You're very, very aware of everything that's going on within and without.

BE: You often come across music written in unusual ways. I think this is written kind of more in a traditional form but even so, I mean, is it is it a little bit like mathematics?

EM: Oh, god, yes, it really is. It can be. And I was terrible at math so I don't know why I've chosen this job. But it's, some of the music that I approach, it's sort of like, kind of putting a puzzle together and also dissecting something to figure out what it means and you know, it's that kind of stereotype of music being a language. But really getting under the skin of it and figuring out okay, well why does a composer write something that at face value is so complicated, but most of the time, there is a reason for it and that's when you know, it's really, really worth working on. I recently played an ensemble piece by Thomas Adès and on the face of it, you know, he writes in crazy time signatures, but you really learn that it makes complete sense and it feeds you as a musician and really informs the way you would interpret that piece of music and informs your sound. So you say yes to it, and you say, ‘Okay, I'm gonna spend the hours figuring this out and what he means by this and really do it justice’.

EM: Because we can approach it with a really fresh perspective, with really new ears and new players that, you know, adding to the life of it and bringing it to more of an audience. I think I read somewhere that in the first performance of it in England, or one of the first in England there were maybe eleven people in the audience and I think it's nearly sold out, which is exciting. Yeah, I mean, it's still very, it feels very new. It feels, I mean, Glass has such an incredible following and he's so prolific.

BE: It's obviously a different experience for you as a performer and the audience, I mean, the audience don't have quite as much responsibility.

EM: Yeah. They can, I think, probably walk in and out. But I'm excited. I really love getting involved in music which involves such physicality. It's really visceral and also you have to be so attuned to the other people around you that, who are, who you're playing with. I guess, maybe the fear is being really attuned to an audience as well and maybe feeling the ebb and flow of concentration and listening, but I'm really excited about that.

EM: Everyone speaks for themselves really, but to create one voice. And there's no conductor so it's really, there's a lot of counting and also looking out for cues and that kind of, on the practical side of things. But, but yeah, everything's very, very open, quite vulnerable I think. Everyone's a bit vulnerable because everyone speaks for themselves. Each of the voices of the instruments are very unique, I guess, and also we're using keyboards, so there's, I always feel like playing electronic keyboard is very exposing.

BE: Finally, in New York, Timo Andres.

Timo Andres: My first time playing his music was at the Barbican, which was 2013 and I sort of got a gig filling in for a pianist who was ill, and so I ended up playing some of Philip’s ‘Etudes’. That was sort of my introduction to performing his music and since that time, I would say, I've gone on to play much more of his music and kind of immerse myself in it in a way. And I find that that's often how I, I come to sort of understand and process the influence of something, is actually by getting my hands on it through performance and through practice, and study. I think sort of the shapes and processes of his music have made their way into my own work in a way over the past three or four years.

TA: You can really choose to listen to this piece in, at any number of sort of micro to macro levels, I think, and get a lot out of it. You can sort of, you know, almost just sit back and bathe in it: these large sort of canvases of one harmony or one colour, but then you can also really focus in and listen to how the patterns are changing and sort of follow the moment to moment process. So that, yeah, there's a lot of really remarkable detail in there.
 

BE: Is it possibly, with ‘Music In Twelve Parts’, one idea stretched to four hours length?

TA: Well, I would say, you know, that yes, there are some overarching ideas that you could say like, oh, this is an idea that goes through the entire piece, but actually I mean, one of the things I've always loved about it is that there is an incredible variety within that. He says, okay, this is going to be the sort of parameters for this piece like, this is how the piece works, but then within those very tight strictures, he gets the sort of incredible kaleidoscope of sounds and harmonies and you know, it's the old trick of imposing limitations on yourself as an artist, that that can actually lead to greater variety and greater, a sort of more fertile starting place.

BE: Do you do much sort of reading to understand the context of where he was at and maybe other music was around at that time?

TA: Well, that is something that I've immersed myself in for a while. I've been fascinated with music from that period and sort of coming out of that sort of downtown New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I've come to play a lot of that music and even to know some of the people who were making it, which I feel incredibly lucky that that's a part of my life. So yeah, it's sort of a combination of, you know, reading about it, reading about the sort of scene, and also talking to Philip and talking to people in Philip’s ensemble who've been playing the piece over the past few decades. There's a real sense of like, inherited tradition, because there's this very specific performance tradition associated with it, that the group has developed over the years, it’s as much an oral tradition as like anything in the quote unquote “classical music world”, because the score… there is a score, but it only communicates like certain aspects of the way the piece works. There has been a lot of back and forth, and I anticipate there will be much more before the process is over.

TA: I think the more you really think about the way we interpret music and the way we hear music: it's either, it's all about repetition, or non-repetition. Like there's only two options. It's like either you repeat something, or you very pointedly don't. When I'm playing and I'm trying to sort of shape something, to give expression to a musical phrase or gesture or, you know, larger chunk of music, I'm looking for that internal logic. I'm looking for these sort of dichotomies. I'm looking for, you know, change versus stasis. You know, if I'm playing a piece by Philip Glass or a piece by Schumann, or a piece by anyone. So I think I think they're, you know, there certainly are qualities to the way that Philip uses repetition and the way that Steve [Reich] uses it, which are very different from each other, I would add. It gets, I think there's this popular conception that Philip’s music is all about repetition, when it's actually really all about change., like it's all about focusing on the way, the starkness of it allows you to focus on that change even more clearly.

TA: I guess I would almost compare it to, you know, the abstraction of like, a Rothko painting or something. You can look at it from – different things will pop out to different people and at different times. You know, it's incredibly abstract music is really what it is and I love that. I mean I, I say, you know, most of my favourite music is, what I love about it is a degree of pure abstraction and for me, you know, it's music about sound and harmony and counterpoint and the way that all these things can build a very, very large structure. The confidence with which it does that and sort of the inevitability is what I get emotionally from the piece. I mean, it's a very, on a certain level, it's a very unemotional piece, it's very unemotional music, it's very sort of, it's very methodical and precise, and you know, there's no room for the sort of romantic quote unquote, “interpretation” that you would find in a lot of classical chamber music.

But when you experience all of that planning, all of that sort of careful craft piled on top of each other, I don't know it's almost like the feeling I get looking at a massive, beautiful Cathedral or something, or like, you get a sense of this kind of massive human achievement. It’s almost greater than, like, oh, listen to my emotional journey of an artist, you know, it's not really about that.

TA: It's not possible to be tuned in for three and a half or four hours of music, it's, you know, your brain just can't handle it. I'm looking forward to figuring out how my brain will handle it.

Eliza McCarthy: You'll be able to, you know, as an audience member, you'll be able to really see how a performer deals with playing something for such a long time, which can be quite interesting. So that's another part of the performance. So it's not just the sound of it, otherwise, you know, you go and stick it on your record player, but being part of a live performance, can be really interesting.

James McVinnie: I mean, I remember when I first heard ‘Einstein On The Beach’ here at the Barbican in 2012. I mean, that totally, totally changed my life. I never imagined that I would be feeling that way about anything. Yeah, it's very exciting for me to be doing this from a personal perspective.

BE: Thanks to James McVinnie, Eliza McCarthy and Timo Andres. The Guardian praised this performance for its ‘dexterity, stamina, and when all twelve parts came together, it created a sense of jubilation and euphoria’.

BE: I’m Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the Nothing Concrete podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds, such as this, and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

While you're here

We rely on the money we raise through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising to deliver our arts and learning programme. It forms more than 60% of our income. Show your support by making a donation and help inspire more people to discover and love the arts.