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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Music with Changing Parts (1970) [45:38]
Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
rec. 2017, venue not given

The last time I encountered the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble (SLEE) on recordings was with Terry Riley’s In C (review), followed by SLEE member and main mover Matt Starling’s version of Riley’s Dorian Reeds (review). The full ensemble returns here with this striking recording of Philip Glass’s Music With Changing Parts. From the promotional text, some useful background information: “SLEE views Music With Changing Parts to be the culmination of Glass’s early career. The score is comprised of a progression of 76 intricate harmonic patterns distributed across 6-8 performers who are free to repeat the patterns as many times as they wish and to play the patterns using any combination of instruments. Along with these patterns, in a number of places Glass instructs the performers to improvise a series of long held tones, to be individually selected through careful listening to the prevailing ensemble sound.”

This is the first Glass’s pieces to be recorded by SLEE, and the booklet note points out that this was also the first work to be recorded by the Philip Glass Ensemble back in 1971. The work hasn’t been performed by them much if at all since the early 1980s, and so it has a lower profile than much of his other work. Tim Page’s programme notes for the score end with a quote from Glass, who concludes, “It was a little too spacey for my tastes… but it was very important to my development. I proved to myself that the music I was making could sustain attention over a prolonged period of time - an hour or more. And that led directly to Music In Twelve Parts and then on to the operas.”

The Salt Lake Ensemble works largely in the electronic domain, so are to an extent released from the rhythmic and endurance demands of ‘live’ performing. This allows for a punchy speed and pin-sharp accuracy, though you will have to decide for yourself if the lower profile of acoustic instruments and voices is preferable or not. Cello, saxophones, keyboards, guitar, bass guitars, trumpet, flugelhorn and voices are all listed as contributing, though they are not always easily identified. With regard to the sound in this case, the driving, buzzing energy of the organs in the original recording has been kept, and there is plenty of variety in sonority and timbre in the parts that fade in and out, and as a whole in certain sections of the piece as perspectives shift.

Each version is unique in its own right of course, but the Orange Mountain label has its own competition in a Dartington recording with the Icebreaker Ensemble from 2006 (review), as well as the Cluster Ensemble from 2015 (review). This first of these has the appealing sonorities of nicely recorded instruments under the electronic organ ostinatos, the Cluster Ensemble recorded more closely and with more of a dry, studio perspective – and not necessarily the worse for that. Released in 2008 on a Nonesuch ‘Retrospective’ compilation, Philip Glass’s own recording has a similar studio perspective, with bright, forward-placed organs, behind which the instruments and voices gather like shadow cheerleaders.

SLEE has made their own interpretation according to their principle of using multiple laptop computers and electro-acoustic instruments. Faithful to the score, there are some moments in which the music’s sonority is transformed from one bar to the next, so more sharply than you encounter in the other recordings. This isn’t disturbing as an effect, but points towards a different kind of control in production or performance. I found the result as a whole quite groovy and invigorating. Unencumbered by the intonation problems occasionally heard with acoustic recordings, I felt the mesmerising effect taking hold quite completely. Philip Glass’s later music has achieved greater popularity, but Music With Changing Parts has plenty of staying power if you are prepared to leave your expectations to one side and immerse yourself in the experience. Investigating the roots of repetitive minimal music has rarely been so much fun.

Dominy Clements

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