Philip Glass and the Difficulty of Simplicity

Forty-nine years after its premiere in New York, a newly arranged version of ‘Music With Changing Parts’ came to the Barbican Centre on October 30th. It’s a reminder that sometimes the hardest things are the most simple, and of the uncanny relationship between musicians and machines.

If you’ve never read up on the instrumentation of Philip Glass’ 1970 ensemble work, Music With Changing Parts (there’s no judgement here, we’re all busy people), you would totally be forgiven in thinking that it was not an ensemble piece at all, but instead relied on automation.

Holding the piece together is a keyboard motif, supported by repeating patterns from two other keyboards. This central motif keeps time for all other ensemble parts, by means of seemingly endless rhythmic and melodic repetition, the tempo unchanging. Though piano is a percussive instrument, it still feels unusual – 49 years after the piece originally premiered – to hear it used emphatically as the sole means of percussion in an ensemble performance. 

This lead keyboard motif is so intensely precise in its time-keeping and so mind-bogglingly repetitive in its rhythm that when recorded, it hardly sounds like it is performed by a human at all. Surely only loops provide this level of focussed repetition? 

If you’ve ever said your name a hundred times, you’ll have noticed that initially, it starts sounding strange, then, quite quickly, your mind starts to choke. It’s not possible for it to process such prolonged repetition of a familiar noise, and so you can no longer say it accurately. It is, oddly, harder for you to say your own name one hundred times than it is for you to read out loud one hundred words of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ because there is a weird difficulty in simplicity.

So, to my dumb millennial ears, it’s bizarre to hear a human perform so accurately what I’ve become so used to hearing from machines. 

On top of this central motif, Glass builds two choral sections, alongside brass and woodwind (accompanied by live mixing from an engineer off to one side of the stage). Harmonies build gradually and then decline, often appearing as long drones, in a strange reminder of early church music. This huge layering of what are in themselves relatively basic elements is overwhelming. I’ve never understood people who cry in front of Rothko paintings as visual art is all Greek to me, but I imagine this is the musical equivalent.

Glass himself, who was originally scheduled to perform at the Barbican Centre but unfortunately had to pull out due to illness, says this of the re-working of his original piece: “For me, this presentation of Music With Changing Parts is a richer version of the music and more satisfying completion of the original idea.”

We agree.

See the Barbican Centre’s full schedule of classical music here, and contemporary music – including the upcoming EFG London Jazz Festival here.

Photo by Mark Allan/Barbican

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