Influential People: Philip Glass

A living composer!

I had deliberated on whether to write this article and how to go about it. The works of Glass’s we’re going to be discussing aren’t necessarily the best place to start for this  composer to get to know him and his work like maybe we should.

Glass’s trajectory is an interesting one, not just because he’s a living composer or because he’s a wildly recognized, famous living composer. There are some things about his career, his work, his timeline that fascinate me and I thought that before we get into his works (spoiler alert) this coming weekend, we could spend some time thinking out loud about him and some things you may not know about him.

From what I’ve read (and heard him say) Glass’s first experience with music was at his father’s record store, and this provided an interesting lens through which to view music. He made the comment somewhere (in an interview on YouTube) that his father would take home a copy of the records that didn’t sell well, and listen to them at home, time and time again, to try to figure out what it was about them that was ‘bad’. So he says he didn’t have Chopin and Beethoven and all that lying around at home because that stuff sold. I believe popular music was also included along with that, but he said by default, his exposure to music was as a result not the mainstream. That’s kind of cool.

His musical training was received from some really important names in music. He studied flute for a while at a prep school associated with the Peabody (he lived in Maryland), but ultimately went to the University of Chicago to study math and philosophy. An encounter with Webern’s serialist music was a first discovery for him, leading him to compose some early twelve-tone works, none of which I think survive….? After a trip to Paris he returned to America to study at Juilliard, “where the keyboard was his main instrument. His composition teachers included Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. Fellow students included Steve Reich and Peter Schickele.” Persichetti might not be a name that everyone  recognizes, but it’s a big one.

After that he studied with Darius Milhaud (another important name!) in Aspen, and then became “a school-based composer-in-residence in the public school system” in Pittsburgh. Persichetti, Milhaud, studies in math and philosophy (which he apparently hated). But 1964 was a big year for the composer, at this time in his late twenties.

It seems maybe, looking back on a huge career like his, that the stuff he’d done up to that point was…. insignificant, but it still earned him a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Paris to study with possibly the greatest music teacher in history, Nadia Boulanger. Wikipedia says:

Glass’s years in Paris as a student made a lasting impression and influenced his work ever since, as the composer admitted in 1979: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart.”

I read recently about Milton Babbitt’s comments studying with Roger Sessions, and Glass’s echo very much the same sentiment in a few areas regarding his studies with Boulanger. For one, both students told their teachers they wanted basically to start from scratch, get the entire musical foundation, so they did counterpoint and harmony and all the real nitty gritty stuff, even though they’d already been composing for some time. Secondly, they both said their teachers really looked very little at their compositions, and focused more on technical music stuff. “Teach a man to fish,” I guess.

So Glass describes exercises Boulanger would put her students through where they’d have to play a four part harmony with the piano, singing one of the parts and playing the other three, four times, until they’d sung each of the four parts. He describes it in a way that sounds perhaps extremely dry, traditional and boring, but it also seems like a fascinating way to develop a keen ear and a mind for music. Glass has that.

Toward the end of his studies, though, he had another, very different run-in with someone else in Paris. He began working on some project or other (a film score, one of his first, I guess) with one (late) Ravi Shankar:

which added another important influence on Glass’s musical thinking. His distinctive style arose from his work with Shankar and Rakha and their perception of rhythm in Indian music as being entirely additive. He renounced all his compositions in a moderately modern style resembling Milhaud’s, Aaron Copland‘s, and Samuel Barber‘s, and began writing pieces based on repetitive structures of Indian music…

And bam… First there was Mihaud and Webern, then there was Boulanger, and then there was Shankar. The renouncing of all his earlier work came at a time when Darmstadt had been doing their thing for a while, and Glass had moved away from serialism, stating that what Boulez and others were doing there didn’t interest him much, so it was after this amalgam of influences and experiences that he found

We started by saying he’s considered ‘minimalist’ but that’s a label he doesn’t care for, as many have heard. Instead, he prefers, as mentioned above, to refer to his work as “music with repetitive structures,” and that it has. We also said he’s quite a famous composer, and even people who don’t know a ton of classical music might be able to listen to a piece they’ve never heard, even just a passage, and say ‘That sounds like Philip Glass.’

Well, aside from the interesting collection of experiences and influences he has had, what he’s known for now isn’t what got his career going, although there are similarities. There’s a question that came to mind recently that I’ll have to address in another article: “Why is electronic music (or music with electronic parts) not considered by many to be ‘classical music’?” Which then also demands an answer to another question: “What is classical music (besides a terrible label for hundreds of years of musical history)?” We’ll have to get to that later.

In my experience listening to Glass’s works, from a half a century ago up until now, there are a few that stand out in my mind as landmarks, only one of which we’ll be discussing next week. The first, after all his above assimilation of influences, was finding a way to get his own stuff performed, after another large influence from a former classmate:

Shortly after arriving in New York City in March 1967, Glass attended a performance of works by Steve Reich (including the ground-breaking minimalist piece Piano Phase), which left a deep impression on him; he simplified his style and turned to a radical “consonant vocabulary”.[18]

Steve Reich, maybe king of so-called Minimalism (I’m not sure how he feels about the label). In any case, the Philip Glass Ensemble was created, and many different works were written with that specific ensemble in mind, and Glass found himself as a composer who was having his works performed. He also found himself running a moving company, as a plumber, and a cab driver. The heights of glamour, no? This era culminated with the writing and completion of an enormous four-hour  piece, Music in Twelve Parts, that I would say embodies the work he’d done up to that point:


That is to say, he’s not just a composer of shimmering, ethereal, atmospheric, powerfully straightforward gripping film scores (The Hours, for example), but was for some time a radical.

The next thing that comes to mind is his first opera, the fascinatingly ‘plotless‘ Einstein on the Beach. I don’t want to talk too much about these works now because I’ll get around to them eventually, but this is the kind of early (or earlier) stuff that Glass was famous for. It came a decade or so later after Twelve Parts, and takes around five hours in performance. Below are two of my favorite scenes:


and part two of the above here, and then this:

I say they’re favorites, but only from listening… I haven’t seen this production, but would love to. I guess my point is that much of his early music is stuff that his more recent fans may have neither patience for nor interest in, but it was with controversial works like the above that he gained more steady recognition and became a more full-time composer.

The last two milestones I’ll brush over quickly are his GlassWorks, a project of which he said:

Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then.

— Philip Glass[3]

That was in the early eighties, and in the above-linked video, things sound much more like modern Glass until around the seven-minute mark. Anyway, after that was his move to symphonic music, which came after a few of the earliest string quartets, and that’s one of the little areas we’ll touch on next week.

So he’s done electronic stuff, chamber stuff, opera stuff, movie stuff, and while people might only know him for his contributions to some famous Hollywood projects (wonderful though they are), there is much more to the man than what many people think. His career is surely anything but minimal(ist).

Glass’s eleventh symphony will premiere in January 2017 to mark his own 80th birthday, conducted by Dennis Russel Davies. See here or elsewhere for more information. That’s right folks, Philip Glass is nearly 80 years old, and has written eleven symphonies, and a lot else you’ve never heard. Stay tuned, though, because he’s making his Fugue for Thought debut tomorrow.

(cover image by this Flickr user, found here)

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