The world premiere of Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott’s latest collaboration showed Tao of Glass to be a brilliantly conceived, genre-defying evening of great beauty, comedy and intrigue. Those wanting to avoid spoilers should simply go to see it with an open mind.

Tao of Glass: Phelim McDermott, Sarah Wright, Janet Etuk and David Emmings
© Tristram Kenton

The event is, in essence, an intertwining of new music by Glass around ten loosely connected scenes which seek to explore the origins of ‘true inspiration’. These scenes tell the story of McDermott’s hero-worship of Glass and dream of collaborating, and the result is a performance of this process. Recurring themes are taken from Taoist, Japanese and ancient Hindu teaching and Arnold Mindell’s concept of ‘deep democracy’. Central to the show as equal partners are the music, played with unfailing brilliance by four musicians, and McDermott, as writer, director and actor. Three puppeteers provide abstract visual support with an array of sheet music, puppets, torches and no small amount of Sellotape.

Tao of Glass: Phelim McDermott and Sara Wright
© Tristram Kenton

Glass’ new music for the occasion is arranged into ten passages (corresponding to each scene) which seem to roll into each other effortlessly, even when there is a pause of several minutes between the actual music. Even when invoking Japanese sounds and textures, the music is unmistakably Glass. The most thrilling passage comes in the spellbindingly feverish arpeggios of Scene 3, Kintsugi, which builds to a mesmerising climax, accompanying shadow puppet effects on stage. Like the river of gold involved in the pottery technique, this theme made frequent reappearances throughout the evening, providing some sense of unity. In places the music is beguilingly simple, with a sort of Alberti bass figure accompanying on-stage events, while elsewhere (memorably Kintsugi), the music is primary.

The ensemble of musicians, stationed to one side of the stage, is led by piano (Katherine Tinker), with violin (Rakhi Singh) and clarinet (Jack McNeill) providing elegant support and an arsenal of percussion effects (Chris Vatalaro) adding colour. The final scene features a self-playing piano revolving centre-stage, playing Glass’ own recording, while the musicians join in; there were similarly high standards of dramatic timing throughout the evening. There was comedy too, in Tinker’s deadpan interaction with the on-stage action.

Tao of Glass: Phelim McDermott
© Tristram Kenton

The in-the-round staging is simple, with the three puppeteers achieving a great deal through elegantly fluid movements of vast sheets of printed music. In places these flutter from ceiling to ground like giant snowflakes, while elsewhere they are pinched into an abstract figure to represent the philosopher Lao Tsu. An elaborate structure of metal poles and reams of sticking tape makes for an intriguing temple in the second act. McDermott’s monologue is delivered with impeccable style, from the wide-eyed sadness of the young boy who missed Billy’s Wonderful Kettle to the near-obsessive storytelling of the latter scenes. There is never a sense of the show taking itself too seriously; a delicately crafted atmosphere is frequently wilfully shattered with a pithy aside, and the many local references garner plenty of giggles. One wonders how well these will fare when it goes on tour; will London audiences be anything other than perplexed by in-jokes about lesser-known Mancunian suburbs? There is frequent self-deprecation from McDermott, and even some gentle digs at Glass himself, who appears from the shadows (at least on this premiere performance) in the final minutes to play the piano.

This was a mesmerising, unique and utterly compelling premiere, and must be seen as one of the Manchester International Festival’s greatest achievements.