Review: Music in Twelve Parts (Philip Glass)

Posted: January 9, 2007 in Classical Music

I checked out Music in Twelve Parts by Philip Glass from the library and have been listening (sorta) over a period of days. While not to everyone’s taste, it’s interesting to me as a good example of early 1970s minimalism and quintessential Philip Glass before he became famous.

This is the cover art:


The work is a veritable marathon — over three hours in duration — and although the composer recommends sitting through the whole thing without distraction, that may not be as worthwhile an option today as 30 years ago. The performance exhibits the trademarked virtuosity of the Philip Glass Ensemble, which had been performing this music for over 20 years when this recording was made in 1993.

It’s sometimes said that listening to minimalist music is like watching water flow or contemplating the shifting image within a kaleidoscope — both essentially free of meaningful content yet visually tantalizing. (This visual style is used incessantly by news programs in their modulating graphics, which is a practice I deplore.) Push that same sort of experience to substantial duration (or sometimes find it in miniatures) and it can become hypnotic, even mystical. By stripping away narrative, action, and purposefulness, the listener must attend to other musical aspects to draw meaning out of the experience.

Another theory having more to do with perceptual psychology is that by submitting to ceaseless repetition of minutely changing detail, the listener’s resistance is broken down until he/she eventually identifies with the experience — much the same way that consumers identify with familiar brands such as Coke and McDonalds.

I’m not sure whether it’s important to subscribe to one theory or another, but I admit I find them both plausible. More simply, if the point of listening to music is to stimulate one’s aural sensibility, then this music works for me. It’s substantially different from a Beethoven symphony and doesn’t leave me with the sense of triumph typical of much Classical music. Rather, it leaves me with a strange elation and a raised sensitivity to color, detail, and shimmering rhythm, which isn’t usually true of a lot of Classical music.

  1. greywhitie says:

    i wonder how many steinways philip glass has ruined.

  2. Brutus says:

    Far fewer than John Cage.

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