A month ago, I went to see Music in Twelve Parts, a four-hour piece featuring the Philip Glass ensemble as part of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival in London.
I was in the company of two thousand. When the piece was first performed 40 years ago in the UK, there were as many audience members as the number of movements in the music.
I’ve bought the tickets more than half a year in advance; so long that I’ve almost forgotten what to expect, and as it turns out, there could be no better way to approach this mammoth work.
It is quite fair to say that music like Music in Twelve Parts command a space in the listener’s consciousness, capable of altering our perception and realisation. Forget those psychoactive drugs that deliver a quick hit. This kind of musical high has a very long half-life… and multiple flashbacks to boot. Throughout the five hours (which included 3 intervals), I found myself drifting in and out of contemplation, slumber, dream-like states, and trepidation.
The piece started off introducing us to a concept; a simple idea that quickly gathers pace and spins into passages alternating between frantic collisions and more measured, strongly-pinned rhythms.
At some point, one could have imagined building using lego blocks, the pieces deconstructed and reconstructed into a familiar corridor, and other times into a shining piece of otherworldly architecture held together by a single pylon. Whether familiar or foreign, always, determined to be modern.
There is also something mathematical in its formula. The performance was divided into four equal parts, and visually, neatly laid out as three electric keyboards, three woodwinds, a sound mixer and a soprano in a crescent. And it was just that. Throughout the performance, there was nothing more or less to behold.
In my head, it conjured a scene very familiar to us city dwellers. Standing on the platform every morning, you watch a regular train arriving. The same commute to work or school. Some days, you see same people, doing the same thing. But if you look closer, say, the day you forget your headphones (or kindle), you bring your attention to some small detail that normally goes unnoticed. Those shoes are interesting. I wonder what he’s reading. Why is that person not being offered a seat? And so the mood of the morning changes. Hence, very similarly, changes in the passages are abrupt, like being jolted from slumber by the train coming to a sudden halt during the morning commute (or the awkward realisation when you find the side of your head tapping the shoulder of a neighbouring commuter).
Listening to Glass’s music (and so can be said regarding music lumped into what used to be called minimalism, which in these days have become a slightly irrelevant label), one is inadvertently drawn to an approach that is free of anticipation and of free associations. They also require a different mode of listening and engaging. On the surface, the audience looked placid, just like the dynamic of a traditional concert. But to keep an audience awake for over three hours of relentless sound (granted, the occasionally dropping off is allowed) was not a coincidental byproduct. The music itself, however, is not indulgent in any sense of the word. Even a traditional opera is undeniably fuelled largely by champagne, strawberries, and keeping up appearances, which surely is more consistent with indulgence.
In the world we live in today, we find our mental faculties facing demands from a swathe of stimuli; mobile notifications, e-mails, advertising, and demands from people; all of which invade our sense of space. What Music in Twelve Parts had achieved was to allow the audience to step into a musical landscape so rarely afforded.
Some people have described the experience as spiritual. Spiritualism, minimalism, ambient, etc. However, maybe those were just means of describing a meditative state, like that of being a blank canvas, simply allowing the music to wash over. Or to take it to another level, I found myself as a canvas, but not exactly blank. Parts of the music highlighted different parts of my thoughts, my memories, and my experiences. It also made me feel like a cog in a much bigger system of machinery. But as quickly as these feelings arrived, they disappeared with fugue-like rapidity. A seismic change in chords or rhythm forced the mind to move along, otherwise one risked being left behind by the flux.
It is also music to be appreciated in its totality. As a whole, the piece is symbolic, especially coupled with the backdrop of 1970’s new york, which I can’t say I have experienced, but it certainly can be imagined. There is also a very democratic usage of all its constituent parts that resonates clearly with the core struggles of the 20th century (which continue to this day). An example would be the use of voice, the unmistakable soprano singing to solfège with such sustained sound and clarity, echoing repetitive lines of the melody passed on by the other parts and itself melting into woodwind refrains.
It was really not unlike my experience as a member of a choir. I was an SYCES member about 8 years ago, on-and-off over a period of 2 years, a period of my life which was ultimately curtailed by higher education (and having left Singapore for that purpose).
Listening to Music in Twelve Parts, I was reminded of a largely failed attempt to grasp the rhythm to Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. We were in the Waterloo Street studio one Saturday afternoon, and Jenn had divided the choir into two halves. We were asked to clap to what looked like a very simple looking score. What resulted was an odd cacophony of mis-claps and expletives generated by a group of musicians navigating the terrain of frameshifts. (Two years ago, I attended a Steve Reich marathon at the Barbican Centre where the man himself opened the event clapping to this very piece. It is one of the moments when a master of the art single- (or double-) handedly exposed all my inadequacies in one fell swoop.)
Despite the fiasco, the musical vocabulary has never left me.
I also remembered a time when we were criticised for the impenetrability of the music we used to perform. The repertoire that SYC has taken on, coupled with its mission of supporting new music and living composers, did not always sit easily with the society of that time. The mere filling of the Esplanade Concert Hall was a product of years of convincing people that the music meant more than an evening of entertainment one slots in their annual social calendar.
And again, whether it is navigating the morning passages of Glass or scaling the peaks and troughs of Schafer, whether we are performers or listeners, there is a wider context to the music. Great music speak of a larger world we live in, an age where are forced to connect with others at an unprecedented scale. Personally and perhaps for many, being a member of a performing arts group that was actively engaged in the avant garde was a form of risk-taking that was sorely needed amidst the typically risk-averse climate of our society.
The other quality of music like Music in Twelve Parts is their universality. Listening closely, the keyboards was reminiscent of the higher tones of an indian sitar, or that of church organs, and maybe a marriage of both. The process of walking out of the concert hall was like walking out of a state of suspension, and it also left a sentiment where one wished the world was that much simpler and that much flatter. We can choose to use music as a key to open doors and break down walls, such as with international collaborations (e.g. the well-established Three or the recent choral atelier which I am truly gutted I couldn’t be part of), or it can be used to reflect hate and ignorance, not unlike what the internet can be used as a tool for. The music industry today reeks of sexism and cultural misappropriation.
And to finally illustrate my point, it’s about one in the afternoon and the sun is due to set in a couple of hours. We are approaching the depths of winter as I sit here in my London flat in front of my laptop. In a few minutes I will commence to trawl through a local bookstore recommended by an old SYC friend. Despite the true deciduous nature of the climate and the cold, warmth can be found in the fact that 8 years on, this simple activity represents a friendship that really started from the appreciation and engagement of music which as formed a bond between individuals. Surely, something has to be said about having dedicated parts of (and for a few, the majority) our lives to creating and expanding the musical landscape.
I believe that for many ensemble singers, singing is more of a necessity than an option. When questioned as to what music is, Glass offered that music is a place, and I cannot find a better definition. By creating music, you are creating a place for you and the audience to inhabit. What or who is present in this place is, however, subjective. Our future musical paths are shaped by our earlier experiences. I remember fondly that no matter how tedious it could be, preparations for each new piece, for each rehearsal and each new concert were like breaking down existing boundaries and constructing new worlds to live in.
There are music which demand a different way of listening, music that requires listeners to make up their own stories. You have read, without me having pointed out explicitly, my very own narrative set to the backdrop of this musical work littered throughout parts of this letter – the daily commute, the nostalgia, the characters and the music. It’s a narrative that changes each time, which is why writing it down now is so precious.