Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts occupies a special place in his enormous catalog; Glass himself has variously stated that it was a breakthrough for him, and, for him, "the end of minimalism." It is a four-hour-long work divided in 12 movements and rendered in a twelve-part texture, here performed by three woodwinds, three keyboards, and the singing voice of Lisa Bielawa. Although recorded for Nonesuch in 1993 with a configuration of the Philip Glass Ensemble quite similar to this one, the Orange Mountain Music release of Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts stems from a live concert given in Rovereto, Italy, in 2006; the performance is so tight and disciplined that it almost sounds synthesized and even edited; the starts of movements are abrupt and exactly together. Performing the piece is kind of like running a marathon, and for a musician to be considered a part of the Philip Glass Ensemble one is expected to take part in a performance of Music in Twelve Parts. This is somewhat analogous to the Norwegian fisherman's ritual of biting the head off a herring, except that instead of the short discomfort this is a long haul of counting and making one's way through a dense texture; instead of the bitter taste of the raw fish this an elegant and endlessly beautiful traversal through layer upon layer of gorgeous sonic dimensions.
The work itself is a kind of Gradus ad Parnassum of minimalist concepts that moves through a variety of textures; some breathlessly racing in the manner of "Spacecraft" from Einstein on the Beach, others serene and slowly changing. Music in Twelve Parts is likely still the ultimate act of picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Erik Satie in Musique d'ameublement. One might wonder if a studio recording of a work like this might not be considered definitive by its very nature, given the level of control over the output of a piece that the studio affords, thereby rendering a live recording -- particularly by the same ensemble -- kind of redundant. Nevertheless, there is a measure of enthusiastic spontaneity in this performance and a very generous sense of spirit to this interpretation; despite that heretofore only one complete recording has been made of Music in Twelve Parts, this is a very popular work for the Philip Glass Ensemble and it plays it -- though not always all of it -- with frequency. A concert performance of Parts 1 and 2 already appears on OMM's earlier disc Philip Glass Ensemble Live in Monterrey Mexico. Listeners will find that they gravitate to different parts of the piece and there is certainly no need to take it all in at once. A final observation is that one generally does not look to the music of the avant-garde -- which in 1974, this certainly was -- to deliver the aura of a given era, provided that the avant-garde is inherently designed to provide a glimpse into the future, which, again, Music in Twelve Parts certainly did. Nevertheless, this work imparts the flavor of the 1970s in a way that even those who were too impatient and nervous to take it all in back then may find it comfortable, and even nostalgic, three decades and more hence. That's all the more reason to revisit Music in Twelve Parts in this splendid live recording.