The story behind Philip Glass‘s Music in Eight Parts is almost as interesting as the music itself. Indeed, some might say the backstory is more interesting than the work. It goes like this: Glass wrote Music in Eight Parts in 1969-70, around the same time as Music in Similar Motion, Music in Fifths, and Music with Changing Parts, all of which led up to Music in Twelve Parts. It was performed a few times when new. But for whatever reason, sometime in the mid ’70s, possibly to pay off debts incurred during the creation of the opera Einstein on the Beach, Glass sold several scores, and Music in Eight Parts seems to have been one of them.
In late 2017, the score was rediscovered at Christie’s Auction House in New York, and obtained by Glass’s publishers. The Philip Glass Ensemble, which has been performing his music (much of it composed expressly for them) since 1969, decided to perform it in Europe. Those shows were scheduled for the spring of 2020, but had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. So they’ve recorded it, each player tracking their part from their home studio and sending it all to PGE keyboardist Michael Riesman to be mixed and mastered. And now here it is, a nearly 22-minute slab of prime early Glass music, heard for the first time in 50 years.
The ensemble consists of vocalist Lisa Bielawa, keyboardists Riesman and Mick Rossi, soprano saxophonist Andrew Sterman, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Peter Hess. The music is dominated by the keyboardists, who play simple sequences that repeat for just long enough to become hypnotic (or maddening) before shifting. Some of these shifts are dramatic enough to be almost abrupt, the equivalent of a jump cut in film, but others are subtle and gradual. As an example of the former, the first seven minutes of the piece feature keyboard sounds somewhere between an organ and a harpsichord, but at 7:50, a new line that sounds like a low, modulated buzzing begins without warning, and takes the music in an entirely new direction. It’s so agitating, by comparison with what came before, that the piece seems to have sped up, though that’s obviously not the case. At 12:30, there’s another shift, and a new keyboard melody begins, one which sounds uncannily like a line from Goblin‘s score to Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Throughout all of this, Bielawa sings simple phonemes of the “do, re, mi” sort, but as the piece goes on her delivery becomes more passionate and she rises into an upper register that’s almost operatic in its intensity, as the synths pulse below her in an almost Perturbator-esque style. (I would love to hear a Perturbator remix of this piece.)
Early Philip Glass music has a cold-blooded quality absent in his later work. Where Koyaanisqatsi and many of his movie scores feel alive and human, this piece is like being stared at for 20 minutes by an iguana that’s trying to control your mind. It’s enjoyable, but it’s also unsettling, and there’s a slight but unmistakable sense of relief when it ends.