Philip Glass “may well be the Rossini of his century,” the critic, composer and scholar Kyle Gann wrote—back in a previous century. That analogy, he went on, was a useful way of thinking about the prolific minimalist, who “had an electric impact on the masses but only a portion of whose music seemed worthy of study by intellectuals.” This was the case, Gann added, despite the fact that “much of Glass’s best music has been underrated by disappointed former fans who have ceased to listen closely.”
Intellectuals that can’t bother to listen closely: so problematic! If any among their number wandered into the Park Avenue Armory last Saturday to hear a rare full performance of the three-hour plus Music in Twelve Parts, an early Glass milestone, they kept their incautious objections to themselves during the three intermissions.
Or else the haters just left quietly; there was some noticeable crowd attrition by the time Part 7 began, right after the one-hour dinner break.
But the performance was formidable, even revelatory. The piece, you may not be surprised to learn, employs slowly developing melodic materials and some insistent rhythmic devices. Superficially “repetitive,” these attributes are actually in a near-constant state of evolution and change: a note is added to this instrument’s riff, then just as quickly taken away, before being assigned over to the tenor sax, and then the vocalist. The meditative quality of the entire piece collides with (and, yes, sexes up) the cerebral specificity of the second-to-second goings on in a way that remains uncommon in any sort of music. Appropriately, the floor seats at the Armory were cushions positioned atop a criss-crossing pattern of rugs, evoking the old-school 70s loft culture where Glass’s music developed.
Strict perfection, score-wise, isn’t really possible in a marathon live setting, even though this current incarnation of the Philip Glass Ensemble—which includes two members who’ve been active in the group since the 70s, as well as Glass himself—gave a fully committed performance over the five-hour-plus evening. The sound mix wasn’t quite on in the first hour, for Parts 1-3. Though, after the first break, the problem had been sorted, and the woodwinds were fully present in Part 4. And though the group sounded a little exhausted in Part 6, after a dinner break, they returned for a spree of in-the-cut insanity, during Parts 7-9. Transition after transition was handled like no thing at all. I had a big dumb smile on my face for the whole hour.
Was that intellectual of me? Dunno, and don’t care. Philip Glass’s year-long 75th birthday party won’t be over, in New York, until we see Einstein On the Beach at BAM this September. And while only a disaster could turn that into anything other than a big deal, I’m guessing that spectacle won’t eclipse the Armory rendition of Twelve Parts in my memory, either.
I’ve also recently been enjoying the forthcoming record by composer and jazz saxophonist Steve Lehman. Titled Dialect Fluorescent, it comes out from Pi Recordings on March 27th. Though unlike several of Lehman’s past records—including work in octet and duo settings that reveals a flair for modern-classical forms—this new recording leans heavily on some older jazz covers. One in particular, John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” is particularly cool. With the permission of Lehman and his label, we’re streaming it below. I conducted a quick Q&A with Lehman over email about the performance, as well—and about how groove and intellectualism can naturally co-exist.
SCW: Can you talk a bit about John Coltrane's original version of "Moment's Notice"? Did you always love it, or come to love it in some new way by playing it? What about this tune — aside from its being so classic as a piece — made you want to explore it as part of your own practice?
STEVE LEHMAN: Yeah, I always loved this tune and the whole record (Blue Train) like the rest of the world. It's a great piece. It's really clear what's going on structurally but it also has the potential to surprise you over and over again. Since I know the piece so well, I'll often use it as a template when I try out new compositional ideas, and this was one of those instances. I remember one duo rehearsal with Damion Reid where we ended up playing through the recorded arrangement of "Moment's Notice" for about 90 minutes straight, just to get inside of it a little better—and because it ended up being really fun to explore the piece in that way.
Talk a little about this version of yours. A really informed listener would probably recognize part of the tune in the first few seconds. But there's some indirection, too, right? What liberties are you taking here, and how do they relate to the rest of your playing?
Well, it's actually a Coltrane-type arrangement in that we don't play the melody of the tune until the very end of the piece—something he did, to pretty amazing effect, when he recorded "Countdown" for example. The other thing that's going on is that the piece is arranged in a kind of groove-oriented 9/4 feel. So, that helps transform the piece a bunch and sort of frees us up to find some new things in the basic framework of the composition.
Call out some good work by your band on this cut, with specific timings if you want! It's an intense performance: concise and focused, but with a feeling of room in there, too (sort of like the new record on the whole, I'd say).
Well, let me see. I really love the way Matt [Brewer, bass] and Damion [Reid, drum set] play on this entire track and throughout the album for that matter! Calling out specific time markings seems perilously close to the nerd tip, but I guess I can offer up a couple of favorite moments.
At 1:13 after the drums come in, there's a little saxophone break and I really love the way the three of us move through the end of the break and the top of the form without marking a really strong downbeat or anything like that. I think it speaks to how comfortable we've all become with the arrangement and how, when things are going well, we're able to really play organic phrases together as a trio. I also really like the what happens at 3:00 when I start playing repeated groupings of five notes and Damion picks up on it and kind of uses it to shoot the whole group into the melody of the piece and beyond. It gives the whole track a nice sense of directionality I think.
Some of your other work, specifically the Octet, gets tagged with the brainy/cerebral reputation. Which isn't wrong, exactly—but which also has a way of suggesting that there's a deficit in the "soul" department (even when that's not the case). Is your choice of covers on this new record, like this Coltrane piece, a maybe-not-so-subtle statement in that regard?
Yeah, I think that's right. I suppose my hope is that hearing my own pieces alongside "Moment's Notice" and [Jackie McLean’s] "Mr. E" will emphasize some of the ways in which my music continues to be informed by the past, but, more importantly, I hope that it helps to highlight the legacy of John Coltrane and Jackie McLean as future-minded conceptualists.
To be honest, I continue to be a little bit confused by the idea that a term like "cerebral" should have a negative connotation. When I kind of go down the list of my musical heroes—Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Jackie McLean, Betty Carter, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw—I don't see anything but musicians and composers committed to intellectual rigor, and of course, creating incredibly powerful meaningful music. So, that's the ideal I'm shooting for.
The last time I saw you live, you were playing a bunch of new chamber compositions with the International Contemporary Ensemble. I remember thinking the gig was amazing. Any chance we'll hear a full album of your chamber music pieces in the near future?
Yes, I think so. It's a little bit of a trick to get contemporary chamber music recorded and documented at a high level, but it looks like there are going to be some nice opportunities to do exactly that in the next couple of years.
A mirror side of the jazz’s experimental-while-soulful side comes from pianist Robert Glasper, whose Black Radio album sees his working group collaborating with the likes of Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco and yasiin bey (formerly Mos Def).
I quite enjoyed what Nate Chinen had to say about this record in the Times last week. I’ll confess I’m a bit worried for this album; its lack of soloistic work from Glasper leaves it open to a (wrongheaded) charge that it’s insufficiently sophisticated. But the best tracks bump with a nimbleness that hip-hop usually needs recourse to electronics in order to achieve. In other places, there’s a quiet-storm, 90s feel to the record—but anyone who wants a more rough-sounding mix should check out Black Radio’s pre-release, official “bootleg” mixtape—built from various Glasper concerts in recent years to have featured the likes of the aforementioned artists (plus Q-Tip). In particular, check bey’s rendition of “Stakes Is High” at the 20-minute mark of the Soundcloud monster-track below. (You can download the 80-minute compilation track at here.
Lastly, I need to make mention of the 31-year-old composer Anna Clyne, whose new album, Blue Moth, drops courtesy of John Zorn’s Tzadik label today. Forgive me, for I’m still processing the thing, but it’s not to early for me to say… that it is so very gorgeous and noisy and beautiful and exactly what contemporary music needs. (The download is just shy of eight bucks.)
Clyne is currently in her second consecutive term as co-composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, because of conductor Riccardo Muti’s say-so.
Good for them, and him. And no offense to the Pulitzer-winning Christopher Rouse, incoming as the New York Philharmonic’s resident composer next season: but he is a super-known quantity, and gets lots of performances already. Given that in this current season, the NY Philharmonic isn’t featuring any women composers, it’s fair to say I’m jealous of Chicago, especially after Andrew Patner’s review of Clyne’s most recent piece for orchestra.
Before I start bothering the publicists for CSO’s in-house label about when they’re going to record the pieces Clyne has been working on for them, I have Blue Moth to enjoy. Take a listen to the first piece, “Fits + Starts,” for a solo cellist playing along with Clyne’s modified tape-related business. Plucking bits alternate with damaged harpsichord moments in the background, but the cello stuff on top is non-ironically pretty. It’s the kind of thing that could work as a film score, if it weren’t so relentlessly interesting on its own terms. And all in six minutes! Intellectuals and fun-havers, both of y’all get on board.
Previously: 100 Great (Not Best!) Songs Of 2011
Seth Colter Walls is a culture critic and reporter for Slate, the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Capital New York, and also a contributing writer to XXL Magazine. Photo of Philip Glass performance by James Ewing.