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Eighty years of Philip Glass

Eighty years of Philip Glass

…plus, South Africa’s beat generation and a life captured in song

…plus, South Africa’s beat generation and a life captured in song

April/May 2017

His beginnings may have been inauspicious and much of his work divisive, but there’s no denying that the composer Philip Glass (above) is a seminal figure in the history of music. The former plumber and cab driver recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and the milestone has prompted celebratory concerts around the globe, from Chicago to Stockholm.

Glass is no ordinary composer. Ever since 1974, when his distinctive “Music in 12 Parts” was performed for the first time, his signature style of additive rhythms and repetitive musical structures has been the most significant contribution to any post-war musical language. He has collaborated with David Bowie, Ravi Shankar and Allen Ginsberg, and he is almost farcically prolific: alongside symphonies, string quartets and instrumental works sit more than 15 operas and 50 scores for films including “The Truman Show” and “The Hours”.

The epicentre of these birthday celebrations is Carnegie Hall in New York, which hosted the world premiere of his 11th symphony in January and which will be exploring Glass’s artistry and influence throughout the season. On March 16th Glass, a Buddhist, hosts a birthday concert there in aid of Tibet House us. His guest list – Alabama Shakes, Laurie Anderson, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Sufjan Stevens – promises a night of spectacular sonic adventure.

Glass is also Carnegie Hall’s composer in residence for 2017-18. “I have a lot more to write,” he revealed on the eve of his birthday in January. “I don’t know how many more years I get to write it, but I have a lot to do.” ~ CLEMENCY BURTON-HILL
Australian premiere of Symphony No.11 Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Brisbane, April 21st. The Perfect American Chicago Opera Theatre, April 22nd, 30th

South Africa’s beat generation
Nine official ethnic groups, 11 languages and myriad forms of electronic music flourish in recording studios and clubs all over South Africa. To navigate this vast sonic landscape, many will require a guide. Two years ago, in “Future Sound of Mzansi”, a documentary, Spoek Mathambo offered his services. A South African producer and rapper, he took viewers on a tour of his country’s cities and townships, and introduced them to the musicians, singers, DJs and producers behind each regional style, from Nelspruit house and Pretoria bacardi to Durban qgom and Shangaan electro.

Now our guide has returned with a record that captures those sounds he championed on film. “Mzansi Beat Code” (Mzansi is slang for South Africa) showcases his versatility as a beat-maker. It pairs the harsh, syncopated rhythms of qgom – a raw and hypnotic genre of electronica – with the sleek melodies of Afro house and brassy bursts of township tech. Mathambo is a good student but, thankfully, not overly dutiful: tracks like “Black Rose”, a homage to old-school house which ends with a frenzied guitar solo, reveal a daring, inventive mind, which nonetheless knows the value of a helping hand or two. On every track, Mathambo has worked with stalwarts of the South African music scene, from DJ Mujava to Loui Lvndn and Jumping Back Slash. “Mzansi Beat Code” takes the pulse of electronic music in South Africa: judging by Mathambo’s beat, it’s in rude health. ~ CHARLIE McCANN
Mzansi Beat Code out on Apr 15th

A confessional box-set
Love, grief and death: since the flowering of rock’n’roll, major life events have been mined almost to exhaustion by songwriters. But with the exception of hip hop, it’s still rare to hear an artist putting their entire life on record. That is what Stephin Merritt has done on his 11th album with cult indie band the Magnetic Fields. Starting on February 9th 2016 – his 50th birthday – Merritt began recording one song for each year of his life.

He is methodical. “50 Song Memoir” begins in 1966, with Merritt singing about his conception and childhood (think Vietnam, Serge Gainsbourg and the family cat), moving on to an adolescence full of synthesisers, songwriting and video games, and then the satisfactions and complexities of adult life, love and loss. The last song is set in 2015. With almost monomaniacal commitment, Merritt has captured a late-20th-century American life in just five discs. 

If that sounds like a chore, it isn’t. The eclectic musicality that has made the Magnetic Fields a touchstone for the indie cognoscenti is on full display here. Merritt plays more than 100 instruments on “50 Song Memoir”, from the cello to the Swarmatron, an analogue synth. And it is fascinating to listen to this elusive songwriter as he turns his hand to his own life. Dip in for a decade or stay for the full life (which runs to two-and-a-half hours). Either way, you’ll hear the world through someone else’s ears. ~ JAMES MANNING
50 Song Memoir out now

Readers' comment

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Michael Brandow - April 28th 2017

The problem with minimalism is there's often too much of it. My companion Christopher Keene collaborated with Glass a lot, and conducted film music for him. Once he said: "Phil, you've got to cut a few measures. The audience wants to go home."