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alternatively Crotchet

Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Music in the Shape of a Square

Music in Similar Motion (1969) [12:38]
Strung Out (1967) [14:28]
Piece in the Shape of a Square (1968) [11:27]
Gradus (1968) [10:19]
Music in Contrary Motion (1969) [28:35]
600 Lines (1968) [40:13]
How Now (1968) [20:14]
Alter Ego: (Manuel Zurria (flute); Paolo Ravaglia (clarinet); Francesco Peverini (violin); Francesco Dillon (cello); Oscar Pizzo (electric keyboard); Gianluca Ruggeri (marimba); Giuseppe Pistone (electric guitar); Fulvia Ricevuto (vibraphone, marimba)
rec. Motevarchi, 16-17 December 1999; Piccolo Regio, 16 September 2002. DDD
ORANGE MOUNTAIN MUSIC OMM0034 [77:27 + 60:27]

Even though he is still alive, and has had a profound effect on a generation of composers, many of Philip Glassís early works have been lost. They were not regularly performed and, in many cases, were never recorded. Thus it is a great pleasure to see Alter Ego helping to rectify this situation with a dual disc set of material written between 1967 and 1969. These often unfamiliar pieces were written for Glassís New York-based ensemble. Even where they are not totally unfamiliar the instrumentation is different here than in more commonly encountered recordings. This would seem to beg the questions: are these works poorly regarded and thus intentionally ignored as substandard and in what manner does the altered instrumentation change the music?
The music on the first disc epitomizes early minimalism. Each work is designed to evolve slowly, allowing the mind to relax and the sound to wash over the listenerís consciousness. The music was intended to be performed with an indefinite number of repetitions allowing the music to grow organically. This approach has always met with mixed success. For instance, Strung Out for solo amplified violin seems to drag on endlessly. On the other hand Piece in the Shape of a Square for two flutes is among Glassís best early works. The two flutes interact in such a variety of ways with the multi-meters moving in and out of phase with each other that there seems to be a nearly infinite number of variations.
Music in Similar Motion is among the better works here. In performance it can range between 6 and 25 minutes in length and was designed for any combination of instruments so long as they play in appropriate ranges. There are four basic lines, the first entering on a single instrument followed by a second pitched a fourth above. The third and fourth lines then enter, each time building the sense of drama and intensity.
Gradus is here performed by bass clarinet, which is in many ways an improvement over the original instrumentation of solo soprano-saxophone. The clarinet seems more expressive and has a broader variety of timbre than the originally intended instrument. The piece still feels a bit too long, but not painfully so. It has interesting melodic lines and implied harmonies. If the performer had chosen to explore them over 8 minutes rather than 10 the result would have been truly outstanding.
Music in Contrary Motion for ensemble is an interesting work. It is more familiar in its keyboard or organ format. This format is definitely more expressive and impressive. Glass wrote it in so called ďopen formĒ, meaning that it could theoretically continue forever. It does not build at the beginning. Rather it begins all at once, barrelling through the soundscape for nearly half an hour before suddenly ending. The music does a fine job of taking the listener on a journey and is probably the best and most mature work on the first disc.
The second CD contains two long works that happen to be the first compositions written for the Philip Glass Ensemble. They are both interesting from the musicological perspective, as they show how a young Glass approached the problems of playing these epic repetitive pieces without definite meter. Both are listenable, though immature. 600 Lines is largely performed with the ensemble in unison or octaves, creating a somewhat jarring juxtaposition between modern, almost Afro-Cuban, rhythms and a nearly plainchant character. Clearly this was a work composed to explore the new musical vocabulary that Glass wanted to call his own. Its downside is that it lacks the assuredness that it would work when contrasting parts were introduced.
How Now is the better piece. It is here performed with an emphasis on tonal percussion instruments like the vibraphone and marimba. Its multiple musical thoughts and sensibility provide sustenance over a twenty minute span. It seems at times to be music suited to a film score. While it is definitely early Glass it has a mature sensibility.
Overall then, this collection is solid but not spectacular. For the collector it offers many works that are not otherwise available, and some of those are among the best early Glass. Additionally both Music in Similar Motion and Music in Contrary Motion are excellent and worth exploration even if you already have other recordings. On the other hand 600 Lines and Strung Out could easily have been omitted to the benefit of the entire collection.
This set is worthy of exploration, though probably not the best entry point for someone unfamiliar with either Glassís work or minimalism generally.
Patrick Gary


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