The Brooklyn Academy of Music is having a three-week festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records.  Steve Reich and Philip Glass, two of Nonesuch’s and BAM’s most revered composers, assembled three concerts, featuring them (and their ensembles) playing their music.  Jere and Dale and I are Glass fans from way back - - Dale is a major Glassian, and has found many Glass performances for us to see over the years.  A lot of people would see this program and say, “Thanks, I’d prefer a root canal” - - but we were totally on board.  We saw the middle of the three performances, on September 10th.

 

The first half was Reich, the second half was Glass.  Here’s the program:

 

Reich

“Four Organs” (1970)

“Drumming” (1971)

 

Glass

“Music in a Similar Motion” (1969)

“Dance IX” from *In the Upper Room* (1986)

Act 4, Scene 1: “Building” from *Einstein on the Beach* (1976)

“Mosque and Temple” from *Powaqqatsi* (1988)

“The Grid” from *Koyaanisqatsi* (1982)

Act III from *The Photographer* (1983)

 

I went in a Glass fan, and came out frothing at the mouth over Steve Reich!  The first half was so much more satisfying than the second half.

 

*Four Organs” is a famous piece - - I’ve known about it for years but had never heard it before.  It sparked a riot at its first New York performance, at Carnegie Hall in 1973.  It’s fifteen minutes long, is scored for four people playing four organs, also a percussionist playing a constant pulse on the maracas.  The organists play one chord, in a repeating and slowly mutating pattern.  I find this kind of music very witty, because it sets up expectations and then delivers something else.  Watching the performance was part of the fun - - the four organists were Reich, Glass, Glass disciple Nico Muhly (I heard his yawn-inducing opera *Two Boys* at the Met last year), and a fourth guy I didn’t know, Timo Andres.  Nico was conducting with his shoulders and head, and I loved his snappy coiffure.  The maracas player was the adorable David Cossin, who was seemingly tireless.

 

*Drumming* was a revelation, the highlight of the program by far.  It’s scored for nine percussionists, two female singers (one of whom also whistles), and one piccolo player.  It’s an hour long, with no break.  You’d think that would be a total bore, no?  It was so fascinating, a total tour de force for the musicians.  Here’s how the stage was set: there’s a row of eight bongos on stands along the center of the stage, a row of three marimbas on the left, and three glockenspiels on the right.  Also chairs in the back for musicians waiting their turn.  The piece opened with two players (Reich and some other guy) making a loud solitary FWACK on the bongos, adding notes one by one:

 

FWACK

FWACK

FWACK

FWACK

DOCK-ah

DOCK-ah

DOCK-ah

DOCK-ah

buh- DOCK-ah

buh- DOCK-ah

buh- DOCK-ah

buh- DOCK-ah

 

I’m paraphrasing.  This gradually builds into a steady pattern - - the moment when it really took hold was so exciting.  Eventually there were four guys playing the bongos, facing each other, sticks flying wildly but somehow never hitting each other.  At one moment it sounded like the whole thing was falling apart.  I’m sure the music is written that way, this wasn’t a derailment on the part of the performers.  Or, rather, it was a carefully controlled derailment, which went back on the rails right on schedule.  That was one of the high points of the piece.

 

Then a couple of guys went over to the marimbas and played the same rhythmic pattern on those instruments.  The piece took on a warmer tone because the marimbas have a warmer sound - - also the pitch was clearly defined (the bongos have a sort of abstract pitch).  I missed one of the high points of the piece, there’s a moment where all nine guys are playing the three marimbas.  I missed this section because I was asleep!  It’s not because I was bored, I can assure you of that: it’s because I was tired, and there’s something hypnotic about this music.  I’m sure my dreams were very colorful.  The singers came in for the first time during the marimba section.  Their contribution is nearly inaudible, they’re part of the texture, they give a different color to the sound.  Ditto the whistling and the piccolo, when they happen later in the piece.

 

A couple guys moved over to the glockenspiels.  These have a precise pitch, like the marimbas, but a completely different sound: the marimba is warm and mellow, the glockenspiel is bright and piercing.  Thankfully the guys (and the nine percussionists were all men, by the way) didn’t play with too much force, that would have been mind-addling on the glockenspiel.  The glockenspiel section ended with one player playing a single solitary note: ding ding ding ding.  This was the only time since the beginning that the texture had thinned out so much.  This was a signal that they were moving into the final movement.

 

The performers repositioned themselves so there were three at the marimbas, three at the bongos, and three at the glockenspiels.  The singers were singing, the piccolo player was piping.  It built up and built up - - finally one of the singers stepped forward, raised her right arm, bent at the elbow, hand up - - waved up, right, and down.  And the piece was over.  It was met by an ovation the likes of which I hear only every few years.

 

This piece uses what I’ll creatively refer to as audience participation.  Over and over, I’d be listening to the pattern and then another pattern would emerge.  Nothing, seemingly, had changed in the music, but I was hearing something else.  In this way, every person in the audience is hearing a different piece.  This is nothing like listening to a Brahms symphony.


Dale made the observation that this piece is only effective in performance.  He listened to a recording years ago, and it doesn’t come across at all in that form - - you have to watch the performers.  It sounds silly, but it was exciting and theatrical to see the percussionists move around.  You got a teensy rush when one of them stood up, walked over to the marimba (or whatever), picked up the mallets, and waited for his entrance.  Most interesting of all, there were many moments where a percussionist moved from one side of the drums to another.  At the beginning, with the two players at the bongos, one was on the left and the other on the right - - at one point the one on the right stopped playing for a bit and moved directly across from where he had been standing.  The other player did the same thing.  I’m sure there’s a musical reason for the move, since they’d now have different-pitched drums in front of them.

 

Jere marveled at how they’re able to learn something so long and complex - - it’s repetitive, but the patterns change slightly.  There would be so much to memorize.  Yes, the percussionists all knew the piece by heart (the singers and piccolo player had music).

 

And then we had the second half, the all-Glass half.  I’ll remind you of the pieces:

 

“Music in a Similar Motion” (1969)

“Dance IX” from *In the Upper Room* (1986)

Act 4, Scene 1: “Building” from *Einstein on the Beach* (1976)

“Mosque and Temple” from *Powaqqatsi* (1988)

“The Grid” from *Koyaanisqatsi* (1982)

Act III from *The Photographer* (1983)

 

Here’s my reaction to the six:

 

  1. Fascinating.

  2. Interesting.

  3. Delightful.

  4. Awful.

  5. Thrilling.

  6. Deadly dull.

 

“Music in a Similar Motion” has an interesting structure: all of the parts start playing in unison, then split into two parts, then in three, then in four.  The added parts play the same melody as the other parts, but in a different key.  It’s a dazzling cacophony.  Like in the Reich, you hear patterns emerge from other patterns.  The one problem with this piece: it’s scored for four keyboard players and three saxophone players, and the melodic line is constant, which might be taxing for the keyboard players, but is impossible for the saxophone players - - they have to pause to take a breath and swallow their spit now and then.  This became the most prominent thing about the piece, for me - - I was waiting for the saxophones to drop out, and then come back in.  He should have written it for six saxophones, two on a part, with the players trading off, like in a relay race.  That way the sound would be seamless.

 

“Dance IX” had a hard-driving saxophone solo.  It was nice to listen to, but the piece on the whole was not so special.  Compared to the other pieces on the program, the form was rather conventional.

 

The *Einstein on the Beach* excerpt was such a delight.  This is what Philip Glass sounds like!  The classic Glass texture, structure, and chord progressions.  It’s what they call “well-made music”, and it’s fun to listen to.  Jere and Dale (and Karen and Bruce and Mike) and I saw a performance of *Einstein* at BAM a couple years ago - - this was a nice memento of that.  It’s one of the most important musical works of the late 20th century.  Apart from the incredible music and staging, I felt like I was in the presence of a rare historical document.

 

“Mosque and Temple” - - ugh.  It sounded like music for the opening credits to a horror movie that takes place in Turkey.  Or a porn movie that takes place in Turkey.  Too long, too boring.  Dale said the problem was with the arrangement - - it was written for full orchestra, and having it boiled down to four keyboards, three saxes, a singer, and two percussionists does no favors to the music.  Of all the pieces Glass could have chosen, he chose this?

 

More classic Glass with “The Grid”.  The music for this movie might have been the first Glass I ever heard, or noticed - - in the context of the movie *Koyaanisqatsi*.  Intellectually stimulating and gorgeous sounds.  A delight for the mind and the ear.

 

Act III from *The Photographer* was so boring, it made “Mosque and Temple” sound like the most engrossing music I ever heard.  It made “Mosque and Temple” sound like Reich’s “Drumming”!  My experience listening to this piece reminded me of a horrid Broadway production of *The Seagull* a few years ago.  I kept falling asleep, and when I woke up, I’d say, “Oh please, is this still going on?”  Shut my eyes, fall back to sleep.  Wake up again in peevish disbelief.  Rinse, repeat.\

Click here to read my review of the Dawn Upshaw concert the following night, also part of the Nonesuch festival: