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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Another Look at Harmony, part 4 [1975/77] (60.29)
Christopher Bowers Broadbent (organ)
The Choir of the 21st Century/Howard Williams
rec. 3-5 June 2007, Grayís Inn Chapel, London
SOMM SOMMCD 072 [60.29]
Experience Classicsonline

Philip Glass started work on Another Look at Harmony in 1975. He wrote much of it whilst working on his opera Einstein on the Beach. The work represents Glassís attempts to come to grips with the use of chromatic harmony in the context of his existing style which essentially conformed to the tenets of Californian minimalism. In Another Look at Harmony Glass started to go beyond his existing style, where harmony was the product of the accidental impact of interacting melodic lines.

Glassís style had evolved as a reaction to the complexity of post-war music. The basic style involves the repetition and reiteration of small units, with a strong emphasis on rhythm and melody. From Another Look at Harmony Glass would also start including cyclic harmonic sequences as well. But, whereas in traditional classical music harmony was at the fundament of any piece, Glass would use his cycles of re-iterated harmony to support and point out the rhythmical structures.

A term which was often associated with early Minimalism was Process Music; this is music which arises from a process or attempts to make a process audible. In early minimal pieces this is reflected in the slow harmonic progressions; Another Look at Harmony is an interesting attempt to take this further and make changing harmonic sequences a part of the Glass style.

Another Look at Harmony parts 1 and 2 found their way directly into Einstein on the Beach. Another Look at Harmony part 3 is for voice, clarinet and piano. Another Look at Harmony part 4 was commissioned by the Holland Festival of 1977.

As with much of the repertoire associated with Californian minimalism, Another Look at Harmony was written for a small ensemble, an electronic organ and an intimate, rather dry acoustic. Much of this repertoire is indelibly associated with amplification and close-miking. The resulting sounds are deliberately non-natural. We are used to hearing works performed by vocal ensembles, usually one to a part, where necessary amplified to suit the piece in mind. The result gives a uniformity of attack and control which create a very specific performance style.

Another Look at Harmony part 3 has been recorded by the Western Wind Ensemble. The ensemble number just eight singers and the recording rather conforms to the style described above.

But if you visit Philip Glassís web site, the work is described as being for chorus and organ. Howard Williams and the Choir of the 21st century have taken this literally and performed Another Look at Harmony part 3 in a style which can only be described as English Cathedral. The work was recorded in June 2007 following live performances. In order to make the performance viable, the choir was split into two and performed in relays with Christopher Bowers-Broadbent taking the organ part.

This is what we hear on this recording, rather than any sort of recording trickery. In his programme note Williams says that he wanted to re-create the effect of his live performances.

The results are, in many ways, a triumph. The choir and organist have taken a piece which owes its existence to the idea of structured, almost computer-controlled repetition and given it a whole new life in a live acoustic. What we lose is the clarity and control which a small group of closely recorded singers can deliver. With multiple voices on each line we lose the cleanness and clarity of attack and unanimity of purpose. What we gain is a feeling of live acoustic, of a real living performance. The choir give the piece vitality and vividness, but we have to accept that the singers sound as if they were tiring at times and the sopranosí tone gets a little hard.

I have nothing but praise for Bowers-Broadbentís reading. It is not virtuoso or bravura in a showy way, but displays a remarkable feat of endurance as he plays the extensive organ part in a neat, controlled and understated way.

This is not necessarily the definitive recording. It is a fascinating and brave attempt to make one of Glassís early pieces available in a new format. The results give a striking new sound to Glassís familiar world.

Robert Hugill


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