by Rick McKinney
Want a sure fire way to separate the men from the boys, the Wellesley women from the mass of girls smitten with Britney or Celine Dion? Take them to a four-hour live performance of Music In Twelve Parts by Philip Glass and see who among them are still at their seats when the conductor takes his final bow.
The recent performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble at Symphony Hall in San Francisco was an endurance test for performers and audience alike. It was also a transcendent masterpiece. Those who left early missed out. Everyone but me, that is. Weeks later, I still hear the music in my sleep, still see the evening unfolding like a richly recollected dream. It isn’t every day one crosses paths with a women of legend, however. That was my bit of luck, my secret. That’s how I endured, transcended, and will always remember.
My first awareness of Philip Glass, of the very style of trance-inducing time lapse sound that seems uniquely his, was in the relentlessly vivid and forward-soaring soundscape with which he enveloped the visual feast of film Koyaanisqatsi in the mid-1980s. His hypnotic music has been there in the back of my mind ever since with occasional explosions into my current reality, abrupt and spine-tingling as are his signature changes in the music.
It was in January, at an organ recital at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral that organist Carol Williams surprised me, slipping a piece by Glass in between the usual suspects, Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. The moment she announced it, I knew I was in for a treat. I was not disappointed.
I’ll try and express this as eloquently as possible from one not educated in music theory. Glass gets your brain humming on some frequency and keeps you there until you’re so comfortable you don’t know where your arms are. Your mind is in a trance. It could be a minute or two of the same looping soundscape, or, as in the case of Music In Twelve Parts, it could be twenty minutes. Just when you’re either half asleep or half mad with the repetition, snap! The train jumps tracks. The change is often quite abrupt.
On the Aeolian-Skinner Organ at Grace Cathedral, an abrupt change from a few minutes of quietly prancing high notes to a thunderous stomping on the low note end and all the pedals to boot is enough to knock you right out of the nave on a shock wave of sound and emotion. Because Glass is nothing if not a genius at manipulating emotion with sound. Your brain may be idly off pondering work hassles or what’s for dinner. But when every cell in your body suddenly cries out in response to an invigorating sonic boom-like shift in the music, there’s no ignoring it. Your chest is heaving, your eyes are leaking, and suddenly you remember you have skin as you can feel every inch of it tingling.
Then there’s the other possible effect of Glass’ hypnotic compositions. Annoyance. If the music is driving you mad, it’s likely you’re not breathing. You’re impatient. You have somewhere else to be. You’re hearing but you’re not listening, and in the hearing-scape it’s naught but repetitive madness, fingernails on a chalk board. In the listening, however, you catch the nuances, the grace. You can fly.
For me, listening to Philip Glass is all about flying. In my mind, I’m either buzzing the treetops or whizzing past landscapes on an imaginary train. In parts 1, 2 & 3 of Glass’ San Francisco performance of Music In Twelve Parts, I no sooner sat down in my seat at Symphony Hall than the music began and I left the building. Spiritually, that is.
I closed my eyes (there was little point in keeping them open at the extreme far back of the hall) and I returned almost at once to Appalachia. I walked the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to far northern Maine in one six-month hike in 2004. I think of it all the time. But the mind has a hard time not blurring 2,000 miles of forest. So it generalizes. It fixates on peak moments, forgets the details. The nuances. Enter: Philip Glass.
Like a special key only he knew how to cut, the first hour of his music opened doors in my mind unopened in five years. I saw with vivid detail the little things of the forest heretofore blurred by time, buried by sheer force of repetition, of putting one foot in front of the other, minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day for 180 days straight. Eyes closed, body relaxed, consciously breathing through nose over diaphragm, I listened to Philip Glass, caught the loop train, flew in my mind and remembered.
I remembered the little bright orange eft, the delicate white Indian pipe, the texture of trees against my forehead as I leaned in to rest. I remembered magnolia groves and river sand and water from seeps and the smell of dirt and leaves and snow. I flew from place to place at a pace any hiker would envy, revisiting shelters of wood and stone I’d slept in, fire towers I’d climbed, balds I’d crossed whipped by wind, thunderheads I’d run from, and vistas! Vistas! Mostly flying, I sometimes touched down and ran but with an unearthly grace that inevitably gave way again to flight. My pace shifted with the music, my eyelids lifting a moment at the shifts, acknowledging the musicians far below in the great hall, then closing again, returning to bathe in memory some more.
At the pause after the first hour, I asked friend JoAnne beside me what it felt like for her. It was JoAnne who had keyed in to my interest in Glass during a conversation about the Grace organ recital, confirmed her own interest in the composer and snapped up symphony tickets for herself, her husband Philo and me. “It was like a bath,” she said, then added, “Then at some point I felt anxious.”
We stood and stretched. The bell rang. The lights dimmed. The ensemble returned. And out of a carefully cultivated silence the churning, whirling cyclone of sound leaped to life again.
In live performance, there’s not a lot going on visually in Music In Twelve Parts, so leave it to the mind to create form from sound. When I closed my eyes and “looked” at Philip Glass and his musicians, I began to see not the individual people but a cylindrical field of energy rising up from the stage in a funnel of fiery light. Call me crazy. Call me overly imaginative. I was nonetheless stone sober.
Perhaps owing to my sobriety, I got a little antsy with the repetitiveness in the second hour. I got a little anxious. And I heard what I thought was a word in the two-syllable sound being uttered ad infinitum by the vocalist.
To my mind, the vocalist stole the show, so to speak. It would have been hard to pick out an off-key note from the wall of sound created by the three keyboards, flute, sax and clarinet. But the vocalist was all by herself and holding notes for repeated eternities. Using her voice as an instrument, she seemed to vocalize consistently for the entire first hour without ever coming up for air.
In the beginning of the second hour, or part four, I heard “naughty, naughty, naughty.” Parts five and six stuck in my brain as “posy” and “crazy,” respectively. As Philo later noted, “That’s all it takes. Once it’s in your head as a certain word, it’s there to stay.” Playing on my interpretation of the word naughty, Philo called Philip Glass’ music ”an aural Rorschach test.”
(Click the Glass sample below. What do you hear?)
The night’s performance was scheduled to run from 5:00 to 10:00, with a one-hour intermission for dinner. With the precision of German rail, Glass’ aural bullet train stopped abruptly at 7:00 p.m.
Calling it Music In Twelve Parts seems a trick on Glass’ part, as if to say you’ll have eleven opportunities to exhale, to relax a moment, to whisper conspiratorial commentary in your neighbor’s ear. No such luck. The second stop was the end of the second hour. I am reminded of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka on his riverboat going from full-tilt mania dangerously out of control to full stop without so much as a misplaced hair. No lurch. No massive wake roaring up from behind to swamp the too-quickly stopped boat (speedboats sink this way all the time). The music just ends.
For intermission, JoAnne out-smarted the expensive symphony boxed dinners with a picnic basket of panini, rich chocolates, wine and beer. We retreated to JoAnne’s Mini where Philo took up service in the backseat and doled out the goodies. I treated myself to half a coffee mug of white wine. We toasted and talked of the music.
Wondering just what was being fed to us subliminally by Glass, Philo surmised “Everyone in the audience will probably go out and buy a new car tomorrow.” I laughed at the thought, not in disagreement but as if to say “I wish.” Having never owned a new car, I wouldn’t mind at all if Philip Glass were somehow able to subliminally reprogram my priorities and poor credit to make buying a new car possible.
Looking back on it now, I recall a great thirst among my companions, perhaps the first hint that Glass was getting to them. There was a deep sense of woe when the wine was gone and the question of how to smuggle in beers. And perhaps another telling clue. JoAnne turned on the stereo and blasted through one full track of The Detroit Cobras, a garage rock band with a female vocalist ala Chrissie Hynde. She expressed great joy at hearing it, almost relief. Perhaps my brain needed a break, too, I thought. But it didn’t fit. Ingesting a rock tune at full volume during the intermission of a Philip Glass concert felt like stepping outside a meditation retreat for a line of cocaine.
Back in the hall, the seating arrangements abruptly changed. Entering the row first, Philo took the seat I’d been sitting in, and I by default took his. A minor detail? Not at all. I suddenly found myself not only in the seat that matched my numbered ticket stub but seated beside the lovely bespectacled blond woman alone in the last seat before the aisle.
In her first words to me she noted with a wry smile and a nod toward the audience something to the effect that Glass had really cleared the house. I looked down. She was right! It appeared every other person had abandoned ship during the break. It really was an endurance test. I looked at her with surprise. She smiled knowingly, and in that smile I felt a connection, a commonality. We were survivors.
Before the lights dimmed, I learned only her first name, that she played the piano and that this was her first exposure to the work of Philip Glass. As the silence solidified, I uttered a subsonic curse at the thought that, given Glass’ interminable movements, I would have but one, at most two more short chances to speak to this woman again before the performance ended and she vanished into the big city night forever.
With guns blazing, the Philip Glass ensemble vaulted into the sound wall of its third hour.
Imagine closing your eyes and traveling in your mind down paths of pleasant memory. Imagine being guided in your travels by the brilliantly orchestrated hypnotic music of a legendary conductor. Now imagine that all these memories come to you in liquid form. To shift to the next memory you merely reach an outstretched hand over the surface of that liquid memory and with one finger draw a spiral on the surface. From the receding spiral a new memory forms. If you can begin to envision any of this, you can imagine what I saw last night when I closed my eyes to the music of Philip Glass.
What exactly I saw or heard or experienced in the music in parts 7, 8 & 9 is hard to say. That is the murkiest hour to recall. Allowed an utterly uneducated and unasked for opinion, I would wager that the murkiness owes to the conductor’s intentional campaign to drive us as far up a tree as possible before bringing us safely down. The storytelling formula in its most basic form is: Act One, chase your lead character up a tree; Act Two, keep him up there; Act Three, bring him down. This was the end of Glass’ second act.
This was the deal breaker. This was where nerves either surrendered or snapped. As evidence to support my theory, the vocalist abruptly walked off stage part way through the third hour. It was so abrupt, it was as if she’d quit the show.
“I think she said fuck this, I’m out of here,” said JoAnne at the final break.
Then suddenly, not three minutes into the final hour, JoAnne and Philo quit the show. JoAnne whispered goodbye, saying something about Philo’s work, and my friends were gone. I looked to my right: not a living soul. The whole row had emptied out. No need to look to my left. Only one seat separated me from the aisle, and the lovely pianist was definitely still in it.
I could feel her presence an inch off my left arm. The new emptiness to our right created an illusion of spatial relations: we were in this together. I felt a rush of elation. The night was taking on dreamlike qualities. I was on the train again, flying, soaring past landscapes at terrific speed, swirling, shifting.
“Shifting!” I thought. And it hit me all at once that Glass was finally taking us home. After towing us through several levels of hypnotic heaven and hell for three hours, he was finally picking up speed toward some exalted end. The dreaminess I was feeling emanated from the music, from a much more frequent shifting in the tempo.
”This is the Glass I know,” I said to myself. The Glass of Koyaanisqasti, of time lapse imagery of clouds whizzing by, of human and automotive traffic swirling and interchanging on endless belts of freeway and sidewalks, of things mass produced and moved through factory assembly lines, of turbulent river waters flowing endlessly to the sea.
I mention such imagery to further illustrate Glass’ landscape of sound. At this point in the night, however, I wasn’t visualizing anything. I was very present, caught up in the passion play of sound, bedazzled by Glass, energized by the presence of the mystery woman at my side, occasionally borrowing her binoculars to study the faces and the finger movements of the players and, when she was looking through them, to admire a moment the beauty beside me.
Life passes ever so quickly. At the end of the dinner intermission, JoAnne and I had touched briefly on the subject of time, of what a very different quantity it is to us as to the very young. We really only ever have this moment. And where we are now is what counts. Right then I was with a beautiful woman witnessing the live performance of a legendary composer playing astounding music.
At the final break, I had learned a little more about her. She was not a composer, as I’d wagered a guess. She’d been note-taking throughout the performance, little hand-written crib notes at intervals in the music indiscernible to me. A consummate scribbler myself, this impressed me. She had a degree in English, hailed from the east, lived across the bay in a communal house, and consequently enjoyed her love of the piano via a keyboard and headphones. Like me, she was taking the BART train home. On her iPhone, she looked up and located her desired train. At the time, I saw only the good in this. We could walk to the station and take the subway together.
Little did I know that I was now living in a faerie tale. Literally. Philip Glass is no fool. Those repeated wags of his head I found so mysterious? ”Those are not random!” I said to myself. He’s casting spells, man! All that spiraling in your mind’s eye brought on by the relentlessly hypnotic rhythms is changing things! Trains take you places. Winged flight flings you forward into the unknown.
So it happened that after the vocalist returned, rejoining her haunting and enduring vocals to the ensemble of instruments, and the music shifted a dozen more times, rising and falling, swimming and soaring, attaining a wider range of textures and colors, getting better and better and building to the end, the woman beside me, my partner in crime, in criminal levels of trance music endurance, my de-facto date got up and left.
Instinctively, as though she really were my betrothed or beloved or be-something-she-could-be-something, I grabbed my jacket and half stood to make chase. Then the music, oh the music! So powerful now! Ascending! So very near crescendo! So wonderful and beautiful and… I sat back down.
”Did that really happen?” I asked myself. ”Did she really just leave?” I was stunned. This is how it happens, I thought. This is the way of the world. You go out into the kingdom, you meet a princess or a prince while soaring on a cloud, you share a moment, a knowing glance, a chance glimpse of something great, a sliver of eternity, you see it all unfold before you, eternity in an hour, a lifetime in a second.
I had but a few more seconds to decide. The Glass or the girl. The finale or the fleeing pianist. The crescendo or… oh, my God! The Glass!
A beautiful blond princess had turned and run at the chiming of her iPhone clock to catch the carriage to carry her home and left me with naught but the Glass!
Flying down the broad symphony steps three at a time, I shouted her name.
“Wait!” I said. I’d tripped on a metaphor and fallen for a fable. And I was running.
Unlike the storied prince, I caught my Cinderella. The calling out of her name caused her to stop in her tracks despite her righteous haste.
“I have two minutes!” she cried.
“I’ll run with you!” I said. Together we ran.
What was I to do? Sit there and let a beautiful woman run away just so I could catch the last minutes of music that had afforded me divine insight and memory for four hours? Let a lovely, likely-single woman with whom I share a love of music (if nothing else) walk off into eternal night in a city where I can count my close friends on half a hand, my regular social contacts on one? Should I have let her go because I’m so diffident and cool and confident in my 200 Facebook friends?
“I can’t believe you left before the end,” she said running. ”It was getting so moving there toward the finish.”
Indeed. But once out the doors and in sight of her, I couldn’t have cared less. Philip who? I was in the dream now. Living the faerie tale. Besides, after four hours, Glass had embedded himself in my DNA. The music played on regardless.
Isn’t that why we all run toward mad adventure given the chance and the right set of circumstance? To be part of the story? To pursue the happy ending and, failing that, to know via a brush with the unreal that we are really alive? Besides, would I have not kicked myself all the way home had I blithely let her go?
“Nothing like running in cowboy boots!” I said. In staccato speech between marathon breaths, she noted the endurance it took to hike the length of Appalachia. We were running hard now, and I was leading, setting the pace.
At the next intersection, she moved to go right. “Civic Center, no?” I asked. I course-corrected and led us straight in, six blocks in all.
Crossing a final plaza, we ran the gauntlet of homeless people standing with beseeching arms outstretched, down the escalator skipping every other step, along an interminable hallway, an abrupt stop to swipe tickets, then through the turnstiles and down another escalator flying, Philip Glass back in the hall directing it all, watching us on the big screen as he set down the soundtrack to the movie of Cinderella Running.
At last the escalator passage gave way and there like magic, like frozen time and perfect intention captured, sat a train, its doors open, sitting there as though it had always been there waiting only for us. In we ran, the doors closing at our heels.
Without me she would have missed the train. Had she been alone and turned down that one street, that one error would have cost her the train. Another train would have come along 15 minutes later. Why the haste? I never thought to ask. Morning alarm clock, I suppose. It hardly mattered. She thanked me for setting the pace. I just laughed. I was caught up in the apparent fiction (though every word of this tale is true!) and happy to be playing a part.
In the next seven minutes before the deafening roar that is the under-bay passage, I learned that she was from eastern Tennessee, educated at Wellesley, and that sailing on my boat would not do at all for a venue in which to see her again. She suffered terrible motion sickness, she said. Then came the tunnel beneath the bay and the ritual screech of tracks that inevitably triggers in me thoughts like: earthquake, imploded tunnels, watery tomb.
Out from the tunnel, my station approached. I had only seconds now to secure the glass slipper.
Who cared if we turned out to have nothing in common or she turned out to be a horrid bore or found me impossible? Who cared if it was just another dead end? If I let her go, I would never know.
Utterly stumped for a more clever idea for a future rendez-vous, I asked, “Would you care to join me for another symphony sometime?” She said perhaps she would. She pulled out pen and paper and had me write down my information. West Oakland Station was coming up fast.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the J in jigglebox. I told her the letter J. “No, what’s the story behind the word?”
I still didn’t have her phone number or her email.
“It’s the title of one of my early manuscripts,” I hastily uttered, “a book about train travel all over America. And it’s the name of my web site.”
She made no motion to write out her number for me. The train began to slow. Reaching for my phone, I said, “So shall I get your number?”
Then it happened. As abrupt and unexpected as the best of Philip Glass changes, she said the words every prince must greatly fear.
“How about I just contact you?”
The frantic ceaseless hypnotic hummingbird thrumming and strumming and sawing song of throbbing life in motion that had been with me all night suddenly ceased. Philip Glass packed up his twelve lines of magical music and left me standing on the platform watching her train slip away. I felt wooden. I felt flat. And in my flatness the receding train didn’t so much leave as shrink from coach size to pumpkin size to a tiny smudge of dim city light until, at last, it winked out altogether.
Cinderella had left me without so much as a slipper.