Cluster Ensemble Plays Glass
In his recent memoir, Words Without Music (Faber, 7/15), Philip Glass was keen to put paid to the rumour that his music is all about repetition: ‘My music is about variation’, he insisted. These five early works might leave those agnostic about the whole minimalist cause begging to differ – but the Cluster Ensemble place this music into its proper historical context, a return to the atmosphere and puritan sound of Glass’s first recordings: an antidote to the well-oiled, manufactured orchestration of his recent work. The austere mood music and shrill tessitura of the earliest piece, Two Pages (1968), might leave those schooled only in latter-day Glass in shock; but this is a welcome reminder that, long before the catch-all label ‘minimalism’ existed, this was modernist music too – as determined as Milton Babbitt to sweep away old-school expressive habits.
As Glass was writing these pieces, experiments with reconfiguring keyboard sounds in the recording studio were gathering pace. A journey that began with Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations would arrive, by the late 1960s, at Miles Davis experimenting with multiple electronic keyboards and Walter Carlos wiring Bach through a Moog synthesiser. And it’s no coincidence that Glass moulded these exploratory pieces around electric keyboards, which were easily accessible and also portable around loft spaces, and felt like the relevant hardware on which to create a new music in New York City.
Glass and Michael Riesman’s original 1975 Two Pages clocked in at 18 minutes, and the Cluster Ensemble’s Ivan Šiller and Fero Király set a moderately speedier pace than Glass’s own, the extra 10 minute duration explained by the musicians rotating longer around each module before jumping to the next repeat. The clarity of that original recording was at best so-so; but here the graphically close-up recording means harmonic points of arrival and jabbing bass notes are not merely heard – the physical throb of the instruments shakes you bodily.
Moving through Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion and Music in Similar Motion (all 1969) towards Music With Changing Parts (1970), you realise that, in the space of a year, Glass underwent a process of evolution – adding the fifth, then inner parts – that took harmony a few hundred years. By the time you reach Similar Motion there’s a knowing sexiness to the harmony that had no place in Two Pages, and Šiller and Király move by stealth from the clean-cut opening arpeggios towards Glass’s coquettish chromatics, letting the music tell its own story. The Glass Ensemble’s own 1971 recording of Changing Parts, with its rough-hewn temperament and scuffed ensemble, is forever the period piece. The Cluster Ensemble’s neat, carefully prepared performance – the two keyboard players now joined by a mixed ensemble of reeds, brass and mallet percussion – highlights incongruous leaps in the harmony supporting Glass’s notion that his music is about deviation, not repetition. This set obviously outguns Glass’s own recordings – in terms of notes if not of historical aura – and, given that it’s been released on his own label, the composer clearly agrees.