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Long Weekend – Music in 12 Parts & Another Look at Harmony, Part IV

You know some people think Philip Glass never wrote anything good AFTER  Music in 12 Parts.  Some people believe that he only started writing good music with The Hours in 2002. 

We here at Glass Notes periodically receive snarky comments from places like New Haven.  Naturally, any place dubbed an intellectual capital means they hate Philip Glass.  In fact, New Haven was the site where in the 1980s a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble overheard a professor of the Yale music department say during a Glass performance "And the worst part is that people seem to like the music." That sort of sums it up.  Yes, that's right… The worst part is that people like the music.

It's strange because Philip Glass actually is an intellectual no matter what he says.  In fact his Western intellectual credentials are impecable. Studies from ages 8 to 28 including precociously graduating the University of Chicago at age 19, a Masters in Composition from Juilliard, two and a half years of intensive study (on a Fulbright Scholarship).  This hardly seems the CV of a fraud and yet rumors persist at these institutions that he doesn't even know how to write music.

Glass is keenly aware of musical history.  He knows his Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, the 2nd Viennese school and all its disciples. It's just that he had no interest in sitting in a basement scribbling out music that absolutely no one cares about, no matter what its virtues are.  And this was surely how he betrayed them. 

Some, in fact most, classical music lovers totally dismiss the 20th century as when "it all went wrong." They don't care about the Second Viennese School or Philip Glass and the rise of the American Minimalists because they group them together as "modern" and therefore bad.

In a way the 20th century did go wrong.  Akin to many of the current problems that our civilization continues to fac, things become so hyper-complex that nature has a way of simplifying it for us whether we like it or not.   While Serialism was perhaps a logical progression, the irrefutable fact is that not many care about 12 tone music.  By this I mean that the number of people who really invest themselves as listeners and practitioners of this music number in the thousands in a world of seven billion people. 

Not only that, we see clerly now that the picture that was painted for us of the 20th century being a battle between the old fashioned tonalists and the brave new world atonalists, was a falsehood all along.  There were dozens of musical movements going on during the early 20th c. which refute the portrait that it was simply the heroic 12-tone guys versus the backward looking tonalists. To this day I have no idea how the Second Viennese School managed to so successfully overstate its own importance, to the tune of destroying audiences for classical music over a 50 year period.

The truth is probably that classical music had lost its power to the ascent of popular music and jazz. When I say Glass knows his Mozart and Beethoven – perhaps just as importantly he knows his Beatles and Charlie Parker.  The only way Classical Music could maintain any legitimacy within the greater culture and compete was to say that they were important because they were beyond comprehension.  Of course by definition – to be beyond people's comprehension means that you have no place in their lives.  Call it snobbism if you'd like.  I call it a recipe for artistic and popular death.

So Glass didn't want that.  All those early pieces including Music in Fifths, Twelve Parts, Similar Motion were earnest intellectual attempts at figuring out how to find a different way of working within the same old tonal construct but presenting it in a fresh way as perhaps the old ideas about tonality really had been exhausted by around 1900.  By the time Glass got to Another Look at Harmony – he had been writing music for years that didn't bother with any harmony starting with Music for Play in 1965 through Music with Changing Parts in 1970. Imagine music with no harmony?!  Well, that's what he did. Two Pages doesn't have any harmony. Music in Similar Motion doesn't either. 

The fact was Glass was preoccupied with other ideas of what he could do in music, tonality and harmony were just a couple elements, among many, that were in play for him at that time.  Mostly at this time Glass was thinking about building large structures using rhythm. 

With the type of music he began to write at this time, he needed tonality for the music to work. He didn't necessarily need harmony.  Consideration of harmony came only later because of a drone phenomenon that occurred when the Philip Glass Ensemble were playing Music with Changing Parts in an auditorium with a curious accoustic. It was unintentional harmony. It prompted Glass to think about harmony and the music, style, and experimentation that he was working on. "Another Look at Harmony Parts 1-4" is exactly what it says it is:  it's another look at harmony.  After about five years, Glass was taking another look at how ideas about harmony fit into his music.  Parts 1-3 of the series were later incorporated into Einstein on the Beach.  Part 4, which I will hear this Sunday in New York, is the only surviving stand-alone piece.

So Glass figured out an individual approach to the issue of tonality which was such a big subject in the 20th century.  The Serialists insisted that it was THE big subject.  Glass was going to write tonal music because that's what human beings like and understand to be music. And this is probably also why Glass has been so dedicated to his style, or as he puts it "his certain case of technique."   Why would he reinvent a new way of dealing with the same problem when he has already solved out his own way of doing it?  And it was never the biggest problem in his mind anyway.

So now Glass is on to new battles – perhaps he is guilty of writing the same type of music for different purposes from time to time. Sometimes it's for a play, a movie, an opera. But he's just constantly seeing how his music works on different things, testing it out of curiousity, and making a living while doing it. 

Nowadays (the last 10 years) the composer's emerging interest is dealing with non-harmonic material and trying to make it work with harmonic struactures.   It's more than just essays in polytonality, pan-tonality, harmony, and counterpoint.  It's many different iterations of those ideas within his style and his own predelictions for certain harmonies and his contrapuntal abilities.  That's what makes interesting sounds to ears accustomed to classical harmony.  The possibilities border on endlessness; they provide fertile ground for exploration and sonic adventure within mixed or ambiguous harmonies along with all his rhythmic ideas for constructing pieces large and small.

Sometimes it might be a blind alley and his experiments might sound harmonically muddled out of context- but I have to say I find that rare and that's a discussion for another day about his life experience and aesthetic judgements. 

Despite being snubbed by many intellectual instituions (an example is that the Harvard Music School has never invited him to the school, though as recently as last week he was invited to come to speak to the architects at the Graduate School of Design), Glass has much respect among all sorts of different disciplines because he's always curious about the process and how his music works or doesn't in these different ways.  He's among the hardest workers I've ever known and extremely intellectual in a philosophical way about what this all means. And his enlightened position is that it's better in every way to have music matter in the moment, to people now, all the while following his own purely musical agenda which ultimately will be analyzed for its many merits. Sometimes this amounts to having audiences like the music. Sometimes it's having a film director liking the music. Sometimes it's for a TV commercial so he can get paid.  But the music always has a purpose.

That's the point – that so much of that dogmatic horrible art music of 1930-to present has absolutely no soul. No reason for being. And consequently no one cares about it.  You can't see Satyagraha and not believe that its creator doesn't care about its content and doesn't have something to say with his music. The Glass catalog is not gebrauchsmusik. Not all of it is interchangeble and despite the common criticism from certain circles, when I go to hear Music in 12 Parts this weekend, I will think of the lineage of art music in the 20th century and be thankful for what preceded it which somehow made this piece possible for though by some measure it's a reactionary work, its real value is that it's a masterpiece of form and content.  And that type of thing finds a way of enduring.

3 thoughts on “Long Weekend – Music in 12 Parts & Another Look at Harmony, Part IV”

  1. Here’s a question for you, Richard.
    How do you feel about Yanni?
    This is in no way to imply that I’m comparing him to Glass, just curious if you had an opinion and if so, how strong that opinion was.

  2. The Los Angeles Times classical music critic used to SAVAGE Glass back in the eighties. Every single review was BRUTAL, just AWFUL to read. Today, Glass is an artist known and respected around the world. And that critic’s name was…? And he’s working where…?

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