When the minimalist movement emerged in the mid-'60s, it was, for some, a refreshing alternative to the atonal arrhythmic music dominating contemporary classical music. With the emergence of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass came a form that relied on comprehensibility and an almost hypnotic engagement, one that seemed custom-fitted for the experimental, but retrospectively musically conservative culture of the day.
Sure, it was a time for musical experimentation as rock & roll and folk music merged along with genres farther afield. But the music was clearly music for the masses, and while Riley, Reich, Glass and other minimalists were clearly breaking new ground, they did so in a way that ensured a certain degree of approachability. Glass, who would ultimately attain the largest degree of personal success, was arguably the most influential, and possibly the most controversial, with supporters considering him one of the greatest living composers, and naysayers dismissing his work as trance-inducing claptrap. The truth, in fact, lies somewhere in between.
With the release of Phillip Glass: 5ths the New York-based Bang on a Can revisits two of Glass' early works for keyboards, "Music in Fifths" and "Two Pages." On one hand the group demonstrates how mathematical and contrived Glass' early conception was, while on the other hand, by reworking them for bass, marimba, piano, guitar, cello and clarinets, shows just how compelling and engrossing they can be.
While both pieces share a similar conceitsimple, rippling phrases repeated seemingly endlessly with gradual shifts as the lines are deconstructed and reconstructed"Music in Fifths" is clearly the more unrelenting. Taken at a faster tempo, the piece begins frantically and doesn't let up for nearly 25 minutes. Captivating, yet at the same time somehow disturbing and unsettling as the simple phrase is broken down into subsets and gradually rebuilt with longer patterns periodically emerging, the piece keeps the listener off balance because just as one feels oneself settling into the rhythm of the piece, the centre shifts. When the piece ends there is a palpable sense of relief as the release shows just how much tension was constructed, seemingly invisibly.
"Two Pages," an earlier work, derives from Glass' exposure to Ravi Shankar and, while similarly based on the buildup and breakdown of a single musical phrase, is even simpler though, while less insistent, no less hypnotic.
As this group has done before with other works including Brian Eno's landmark Music For Airports , Bang on a Can has reinterpreted Glass with a broader musical palette. By using a more diverse set of instruments, the compositions take on a broader complexion which is more interesting to the ear. And these impeccable performances illustrate how deceptive Glass' pieces are. To work in an environment of seemingly endless repetition of specific lengths with periodic shifts in phrasing would seem easy, but clearly it is not. Still, Bang on a Can performs these early works of Glass with an ease that belies the inherent challenge.
Robert Black (bass), David Cossin (marimba), Lisa Moore (piano), Mark Stewart (guitar), Wendy Sutter (cello), Evan Ziporyn (clarinets)