It is one of the most beautiful records ever made, constructed from some of the most unlikely materials. Nick Lowe may have loved the sound of breaking glass on the 1978 single of that same name, and David Bowie may have heard it on the previous year’s Low. But it was almost ten years before that when ex-pat New Zealander Annea Lockwood introduced London to the true splendor of shattered windows… and much more besides.
A legendary album was born from a series of even more legendary concerts, staged in London in late January 1968, as ex-pat New Zealander Lockwood held great swathes of the city underground in her thrall when she staged The Glass Concert.
Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright was there, and years later recalled, “there was always something interesting, weird and wonderful going on [at Middle Earth]—I remember a girl onstage with all of these glass sculptures, lights and films, and whenever the lights went out, she’d break something and make everybody jump.”
Lockwood (performing in those days as Anna, not Annea) describes The Glass Concert as “a fully staged two-hour live performance which started in total darkness and off-stage, with my exploring the sounds which could come from shaking a sheet of micro glass (very thin glass used for electromicroscopy slides) in front of the mic, for instance. Just that. Then I would move on to another form of glass and explore it, glass rods rolling down a sloped pane of glass, etc.
“After thirty minutes, we [Lockwood performed the concert with her then-husband Harvey Matusow] would move onstage and work with large structures, such as a huge mobile of which the largest pane was six foot by six foot, or trees made from bottles, or ‘curtains’ made from very thin four ft long glass tubing.
“Every sound source was kept discreet.” Indeed, recalling the concert almost forty years later for The Wire, she explained, the event was “a turning away from sounds as components in the unfolding of a structure or an idea or narrative, to sounds as having their own structures, complete, inherent.”
The Glass Concert stunned International Times journalist Bob Lord. “The creation of the sounds are not explained—they appear often from total darkness giving another dimension in which they could be measured. Not all of them are beautiful, some grated and jarred.”
The implosion of a TV tube, the shattering of a car windscreen, and the supremely teeth-grinding sound of glass scraping on glass were each hung in stark isolation amid the silences that, as It pointed out, “become an integral part of the concert… for the silence allows and heightens the quality of the [individual sounds].”
A light show danced among the glass, creating prisms in the sculptures, reflecting back into the audience. Films shot by Matusow were projected onto a backdrop, each one somehow correlating to the sounds when such was required. Or not. Sometimes darkness was as vital as light, and Middle Earth would be plunged into an eerie silent blackness—to be suddenly shattered by a fresh tinkle, chime or clatter.
This vivid work would finally make it onto vinyl in 1970 (as The Glass World—Tangent), but only after Lockwood had spent two years recording it late into the night in a London church.
Michael Nyman, reviewing the record for The New Statesman, was prescient indeed when he applauded Lockwood for proving that “a studio full of elaborate equipment is not necessary”; with the simplest of percussives, she had created “a sound world more astonishing, rare and enchanting than all the Electric Panorama [a recently released box set of current electronic sounds] composers put together.”
“I remember hearing the Glass World, and I may have seen one of the performances,” Kevin Ayers recalled, “and it was definitely one of those moments where you question not what music is, but what you want to do with it.
“Soft Machine had some very esoteric musical tastes as you know, but the Glass World was one of those things that made me look beyond experimenting with melody and rhythm and into the realm of pure sonics. Which was one of the big attractions when I first started talking with David [Bedford] and Lol [Coxhill]. Very much so.”