When Philip Glass staged his opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976, it ended up costing him a fortune. To balance the books, the American composer sold a number of major manuscripts, including Music in Eight Parts, a piece he’d written between 1969 and 1970. And then the piece simply disappeared, our knowledge of it limited to a few documented performances, including one at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1970. “This is a legitimate rediscovery of a major piece from the early part of Glass’ career, which hasn’t been heard in 50 years,” Richard Guérin, of record label Orange Mountain Music, tells Apple Music. Guérin came across the work by chance while browsing the New York archive of Glass’ music. With the piece scored in a series of letters and numbers, Guérin’s first impression was that he’d simply unearthed a few sketches. However, the letters and numbers seemed to tally with a clearer score that, by an incredible stroke of luck, had recently come up for auction in New York. The excitement built—after all, says Guérin, “this was going to be the piece’s first performance in 50 years.”
Philip Glass Ensemble vocalist Lisa Bielawa describes the piece to Apple Music: “What you’re hearing is a thickening of the harmony as each part joins in. It starts with one unison line that undergoes rhythmic transformations, and as those transformations take place, there’s a gradual opening out of the texture of the line.” Put simply, the result is something that sounds like an accordion, opening and closing as if the ensemble were breathing to the shape of the music. It’s a playful idea and one, says Guérin, that stems from the time when Glass was experimenting with Indian sounds and rhythms. The race by the Philip Glass Ensemble to record Music in Eight Parts was intensified by the sudden appearance of an archival recording of the piece from 1970, which gave crucial clues as to how it should be performed, including what instrumentation could be used. But then the COVID-19 outbreak changed everything. Planned performances in the spring of 2020 had to be canceled and the new recording made in lockdown. “The piece’s eight parts are taken up by keyboardists Michael Riesman and Mick Rossi alongside three saxophone parts played between two people, Andrew Sterman and Peter Hess,” says Bielawa. “And I’m singing soprano.” Performing the piece in a normal concert environment has its challenges, each changing musical cycle prompted by one of the musicians nodding their head. In lockdown, this was impossible, so Michael Riesman laid down a drum-roll track as a cue that only the players could hear. The result, despite the many obstacles, is an astonishing document, a performance of real skill and fizzing energy. Hear this hypnotic masterpiece safe in the knowledge that Music in Eight Parts has been revived—and saved for posterity.