Philip Glass: How Now, Strung Out

Debut performance captures minimalism on the brink

It is a historical irony that Philip Glass will forever be labeled a master of minimalism. After all, the Baltimore-born, New York-based composer and pianist has spent the better part of his career fleshing out a body of work that's defined by extended and reductive musical techniques and procedures that, in the big picture, are anything but minimal. Yet his style seems indefinable by any other easy terms in pop culture's musical lexicon — so the shoe fits.

Recorded on May 19, 1968, at the Filmmaker's Cinematheque at 80 Wooster St. in Manhattan, How Now, Strung Out (released March 4 via Orange Mountain Music) marks the beginning of Glass's musical quandary. The disc documents what he considers to be his debut performance for a live audience, and nearly 50 years after he sat down at the electric piano in that SoHo loft, the blueprint for his unique musical aesthetic remains steadfast.

"How Now" opens the set with a 31-minute journey into sustained rhythms that demand Zen-like concentration from both the performer and the audience. This is enlightenment through intense, even discomforting focus, and it is the process that compels "How Now." The act is both the medium and the message as Glass gives the stage to his skills and stamina in a maelstrom of tones and repetition that alternates between sting and bliss.

In the grand scheme of Glass's works, "How Now" is a primitive and challenging listen that predates the hypnotic beauty of North Star or the complex sonic grandeur of Einstein on the Beach (1979). Still, there is elegance in the monotony, even though taking it all in at once can be both mentally and physically taxing.

Releasing this live recording now underscores Glass's place on the frontlines of Manhattan's art/music scene of the late 1960s, alongside such early contemporaries as Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, and the like. It was a time when a young generation of American composers were rediscovering the spirit of the avant-garde after a generation of European and academic zealots (e.g., Karlheinz Stockhausen) had set a standard for 20th century composition that left no room for human emotion or imperfection.

"How Now" embodies both passion and defiance in a primal form that would play out in Glass's later works. Here, it's an endurance test, but it's also a palete cleanser. As the gears shift, Dorothy Pixley-Rothschild's violin takes the lead for "Strung Out." The sound and flowing repetition of her amplified violin lasts for a solid 18 minutes, zeroing in on the synapses with an unlikely sense of ease. This is the payoff for powering through the ecstatic grind of "How Now," and it is glorious.

For Pixley-Rothschild's performance, pages from Glass's score were strewn about, and she had to move around the room — strung along to keep up with the music. The performance is beautiful in and of itself, and it offers a look inside the process as Glass plants the seeds for his more definitive musical statements that follow throughout the coming decades. Still, there's a palpable sense of excitement that comes across here, as the naivety of youthful experimentation and the beginnings of a distinctly personal take on modern composition come together for the first time. This is a monumental release. It's not one of Glass's easiest listening experiences, but it's certainly a vital entry from his vast body of work.