Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Music in Similar Motion (1969) [18:14]
How Now (1968)* [26:31]
Music in Fifths (1969) [22:07]
Steffen Schleiermacher (organ and piano*)
rec. 2 October 2008, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster.
Impressed as I have been by Steffen Schleiermacher’s series of recordings of composers such as Morton Feldman and John Cage, I was intrigued to hear what he would make of some of Philip Glass’s more ‘hard core’ early minimal compositions, more usually played by ensembles emulating groundbreaking performances by Glass’ own musicians back when minimalism was new and confrontational.
Schleiermacher plays Music in Similar Motion and Music in Fifths on electric organs. These instruments were apparently recorded separately and subsequently mixed together, though the timing is so exact that this is not apparent in the final result. What we to get is quite a good approximation of the ‘Farfisa sound’ which is very much part of the character of these pieces, immediately recognisable and distinctive. MDG’s recording provides just enough acoustic to make the organ sound very listenable.
If you can imagine the musical equivalent to minimalist sculpture by artists of the 1960s such as Ellsworth Kelly or Donald Judd then you might be able to get an idea of what to expect here. The music is based on repetition, but also on variation within a strict framework, and an organic sense of slow development in terms of sonority and colour. Such uniform fields of sound might easily induce a meditative state, but if you take Steve Reich’s attitude of ‘the mind which is wide awake’ then one can also appreciate the monumental nature of these pieces, and if you can inhabit the way in which they bring the air to life then you can also gain a sense of heightened rather than dulled perception. Schleiermacher’s point in the booklet notes is well made, that “Philip Glass’ music seems to be neutral yet interdependent - since it depends on the actual state of the listener’s mind: He may be fascinated by the music, but the very same person may be incredibly annoyed by it on a different and unsuitable occasion.” With this CD, you will know if the occasion is suitable - and when it is, it can be a kind of sonic embodiment of perfection.
The perfection in these performances and the nature of the music almost makes one forget the player as a factor in their creation, though such precision never seems to sound mechanical in Schleiermacher’s hands and somehow always retains an element of expressivity. Such technical excellence is very much to Steffen Schleiermacher’s credit, and never more so in the title work for the disc. How Now works very well on the piano. The Alter Ego ensemble has recorded this and other works effectively on the Stradivarius label, but the impression here is markedly different. Schleiermacher makes extensive use of the pedal to allow sonorities to mix and tonalities to mingle, and the initial effect is something like a fragment of Debussy stretched into infinity through repetition. Filled with fifths and quasi-pentatonic colours, the musical semantics of the recording have to deal with associations from Eastern musical scales, though this is by no means a bad thing. Imagine timeless and ancient bells or gamelan, and considerations of modernist difficulty easily slip away. This by the way is also a quality which takes hold in Music in Fifths if you allow your imagination to take you to some strange medieval place where the monks have just discovered LSD.
With the gentler sound of the piano providing a substantial filling and contrast to this organ sandwich, this is a well considered and attractive programme. You may be the kind of person who has no patience for this kind of thing, and I would be the first to admit this is not a CD for all people and all occasions. Of its kind however, this is one of the best Philip Glass discs I’ve come across in many a year, and that’s after quite a few attempts at climbing Orange Mountain, the Glass specialist record label.  

Dominy Clements
One of the best of its kind.