Philip Glass

The American composer Philip Glass (born 1937) had a tremendous impact on all contemporary music. His brand of music, called minimalism, merged Eastern concepts of time with Western musical elements, altering the perception of music. He has been one of the most provocative, visible, and controversial composers of his generation.

Philip Glass was the leading composer/performer of the musical movement called minimalism, which emphasized musical process rather than complex musical structures. He simplified the traditional organizing factors of Western music—such as harmony, melody, modulation, and rhythm—and concentrated on creating complex layers of sound through a minimum of musical manipulation. His pieces utilized repetitive cycles of rhythm, similar to Hindu ragas, which change slowly over long periods of time and are said to produce a trance-like state in some listeners. In fact, Glass's works can be described as the grafting of Eastern concepts of space, time, and change on Western musical elements such as diatonic harmony. Divisive rhythm (that is, rhythm organized according to one unit of duration and its divisions) is replaced by the addition of rhythmic cycles that, when joined, move like wheels within wheels—everything precisely organized but constantly changing.

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 31, 1937. His youth was characterized by a number of remarkable successes. A precocious child, he advanced quickly as a scholar and student of the flute and entered the University of Chicago at the age of 14. After receiving a bachelor of arts in 1956, he entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1958 and pursued composition studies with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti. By 1965 Glass had composed over 100 works, 40 of which had been published. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including a Broadcast Music Industry Award (1960), the Lado Prize (1961), two Benjamin Awards (1961, 1962), a Ford Foundation grant (1962), and a Young Composers' Award (1964).

Despite these achievements, Glass increasingly felt that his compositional style, based on the 12-tone and advanced rhythmic and harmonic forms popular at Juilliard, was no longer a meaningful outlet for his creativity. In hopes of revitalizing his music, the composer left for Paris in 1964 to study composition with Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright Fellowship.


Reliance on Cyclic Rhythm

Lessons with this famous teacher had less of an impact on Glass than did his later exposure to non-Western music. He travelled extensively to India, Tibet, and Tunisia, and in 1965 he became a working assistant to the virtuoso sitar player, Ravi Shankar. Through notating Eastern music for a film and studying tabla music with the well known Indian percussionist, Alla Rakha, Glass gained an understanding of the modular-form style of Indian music. Shortly thereafter he completely rejected his earlier compositional style and began to rely solely on the Eastern principle of cyclic rhythm to organize his pieces. Harmony and modulation were added later, but these usually consisted only of a few static chords.

After returning from Europe in 1967 the composer organized the Philip Glass Ensemble, a seven-member group consisting of three electric keyboarders and three wind players with one sound engineer. They made their debut in New York on April 13, 1968, and embarked on the first of several European tours the following year. Notable works from this period include Pieces in the Shape of a Square (1968), Music in Fifths (1969), Music for Voices (1972), Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974), and Music with Changing Parts (1970), which was the first album released by Glass' recording company, Chatham Records.

Glass' reputation as a serious composer suffered during this experimental period. Support from the academic community dropped off almost completely. However, a small cult following continued to grow. The appearance of the ensemble at the Royal College of Art in London in 1970 drew support from the visual arts. And in 1974 the first parts of Music in Twelve Parts were released on Virgin Records, a progressive rock label, thereby increasing his exposure to the popular music audience. Before long Glass counted such popular performers as David Bowie and Brian Eno among his fans, and the effects of his works could be seen in the rock music of Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd. His ability to appeal to numerous musical factions caused him to be described as a "crossover" phenomenon—an artist with a small following who suddenly connects with a mass audience. Indeed, according to David Ewen, he is the only composer ever to have received standing ovations at three such varied musical venues as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the Bottom Line (a New York City rock club).


Einstein on the Beach

Glass' alliance with the visual arts prompted a collaboration with Robert Wilson, the painter, architect, and leader in the world of avant-garde theater. Einstein on the Beach, Glass' best known work, was enthusiastically received at its premier in Avignon, France, on July 25, 1976. More a series of "events" than an opera, this full-length stage work explores through dance and movement the same concepts of time and change that Glass investigated through music. Several characters appear as Einstein, one playing repetitive motives on a violin; a chorus intones repetitive series of numbers and clichés; dancers and actors perform repetitive actions such as moving back and forth across the stage in slow motion. Einstein on the Beach has less to do with meaning than concept. "Go to Einstein and enjoy the sights and sounds," advises Robert Wilson in one interview, "feel the feelings they evoke. Listen to the Pictures." The opera was successfully produced throughout Europe and in 1984 it played to sold-out houses in New York. Its artistic success, however controversial, rests with its ability to consistently engage audience attention, to alter mood and provoke thought, and to force the theater-goer to actively supply the organization, structure, and meaning of the opera.

Glass followed this work with other theater successes. Satyagraha, commissioned by the city of Rotterdam in 1980, is the ritual embodiment of pacifist spirituality. Based on the life of Gandhi, the opera unfolds as a series of tableaux tracing his early life. The libretto is derived solely from the Bhagavad Gita and is sung in Sanskrit. It is said to be one of Glass' most lyric works.

Glass' later compositions included The Photographer, a chamber opera based on the life of the early 20th-century inventor Eadweard Muybridge (Amsterdam, 1982). Akhnaton, Glass' third opera, was produced at the Stuttgart Opera in 1984. In addition, Glass scored for films: the music for Mark di Suvero, Sculptor, directed by François de Ménil, was issued by Virgin Records as North Star in 1977. And Koyaanisqatsi was successfully received at the New York Film Festival in 1982. Glass composed numerous works for the Mabou Mines theater productions and choreographers Lucinda Childs, Alvin Ailey, and Jerome Robbins have incorporated his pieces into their repertoires.

Glass also collaborated with Robert Wilson on another opera, The Civil Wars: (a tree is best measured when it is down) and worked on a piece based on the writings of Doris Lessing called The Making of the Representative of Planet 8. In 1985 Glass teamed with composer Robert Moran and director Andrei Serban to produce the opera The Juniper Tree based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale.

Glass continued his collaborative efforts into the 1990's. He composed three operas based on films by the deceased Jean Cocteau, French author and movie director. Orphee, composed by Glass in 1993, followed the sound-track of the film closely. In La Belle et la Bete (1994), Glass went one step further, stripping the film of its soundtrack and creating a live and carefully synchronized operatic accompaniment that took its place among his finest and most exciting works. In Les Enfants Terribles (1996) Glass teamed with choreographer Susan Marshall to tell the story through instrumental music and dance rather than singing.

In 1997 Glass composed and recorded a symphony based on the David Bowie album Heroes. One reviewer remarked in New Statesman (February 14, 1997) that Glass needed to be given credit for helping take a giant hammer to the wall that traditionally separated classical and rock music. In the same article Glass commented that, "Just as composers of the past have turned to music of their time to fashion new works, the work of Bowie became an inspiration for symphonies of my own."


Further Reading on Philip Glass

Most of the information on Philip Glass is available in periodicals such as TIME (June 19, 1978), High Fidelity/Musical America (April 1979), and People (October 6, 1980). Two particularly good articles appear in Contact, no. 11 (1975) and no. 13 (1976). An excellent, detailed essay on Glass can be found in David Ewen's American Composers (1982). Robert Palmer's discussion of the composer's background and development in the record insert for Einstein on the Beach (Tomato Records, 1978) is noteworthy. Most of Glass' works can be obtained on Chatham, Virgin, Tomato, or CBS records.

For periodical articles about Philip Glass see: American Record Guide, September-October 1996; Time, December 9, 1996; and New Statesman, February 14, 1997.

For on-line resources about Philip Glass see: