Philip Glass

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245

Philip Glass, the most successful composer of avant-garde music at the end of the twentieth century, created an innovative, accessible style based on repetitive melodies and rhythms that he used to revolutionize such genres as opera, film scores, and orchestral ensembles. He was the son of immigrant Jewish parents. His father’s radio repair shop sold phonograph records, and Glass has said that the first thing he learned about music is that you sell it. When certain classical music records failed to sell, his father brought them home to play, and so at an early age Philip was exposed to such esoteric music as Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and the symphonies of the Russian modernist Dmitri Shostakovich. At age six he began studying the violin, then quickly switched to the flute, and in 1946 he became the youngest student ever admitted to the Peabody Conservatory. By the time he was twelve, he was composing his own pieces.

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Frustrated by Baltimore’s limited musical opportunities, he gained admission to the University of Chicago, even though he had completed only two years of high school. Although he majored in philosophy and mathematics, he continued to develop musically by composing and studying the piano. After graduating from Chicago in 1956, Glass, determined to become a composer, started taking courses at the Juilliard School in New York City. While a graduate student, he composed music in the style of his teachers in such genres as concertos and choral works. He was also influenced by the French composer Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied during a summer in Aspen, Colorado. His excellent music education also included a course in film scoring. After receiving his master’s degree from Juilliard, he accepted a Ford Foundation composer-in-residence grant to work in the Pittsburgh public school system.

Seeking to discover his own musical vision, he accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory. This became a turning point in Glass’s career. Boulanger’s methods made him reevaluate his previous musical education. Furthermore, his marriage to JoAnne Akalaitis, an actress and director, influenced his developing interest in modern theater.

As important as Boulanger and Akalaitis were to him, what really crystallized his new direction in musical composition was an accidental exposure to non-Western music. Unhappy with the “ugly and didactic” modern music of America and Europe, he became entranced with the music of the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar when he accepted the job of transcribing Shankar’s raga improvisations into Western notation for Conrad Rooks’s 1966 “psychedelic” film Chappaqua.

Through Shankar and others, Glass came to understand that Indian music involves cyclic musical events created through the tension between melody and rhythm, unlike the linear, narrative structures of Western music created through the tension between melody and harmony. Glass used these Eastern musical ideas in creating his unique personal style, and he wrote his first “minimalist” music for a theater company in Paris that later became the avant-garde ensemble Mabou Mines.

Upon his return to New York in 1967, he tried to interest others in his new music. He quickly realized that if this music was to be performed, he would have to perform it himself. He formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, whose core instruments were usually amplified keyboards and woodwinds. The group played in unconventional venues, including nightclubs, lofts, restaurants, and public parks, and their kaleidoscopic sounds began to attract a following, as his ensemble played a series of his groundbreaking compositions, culminating in the mammoth Music in Twelve Parts.

Though the Philip Glass Ensemble was indispensable in disseminating his new music, he still had to support himself by working as a cab driver, plumber, and furniture mover. His breakthrough to a full-time musical career came with his opera Einstein on the Beach. This four-and-a-half hour landmark of twentieth century musical theater originated in the early 1970’s when Glass met the director Robert M. Wilson. Glass and Wilson chose Albert Einstein as the subject of their opera because he could be used to symbolize, through music and spectacle, the themes of creativity, space, and time. This theater piece, unconventional in its libretto, singing, music, and acting, had its premiere at the Avignon Summer Festival in France on July 25, 1976. Though some critics found the lack of a plot disturbing and the repetitive music boring, the audience, many of them students, was enthusiastic, a reaction that was repeated as Glass’s company gave other performances throughout Europe. The American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 21, 1976, repeated the divided reaction in Europe, but the young and curious helped to make it a great success. Glass became famous, and this opera determined the direction of his subsequent career.

Glass and Wilson’s next two large-scale dramatic works, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, constituted, with Einstein on the Beach, a trilogy of “character” operas. Satyagraha’s character was Mahatma Ghandi, and Akhnaten’s was the pharaoh who introduced monotheism into Egypt. Glass also collaborated with Wilson on the CIVIL warS, an epic work peopled by an eclectic array of historical characters. Working with collaborators other than Wilson, Glass was able to adapt his minimalist style to such small-scale operatic productions as The Juniper Tree, The Fall of the House of Usher, and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. His growing fame led to such significant commissions as The Voyage, which commemorated the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America (it premiered at the Metropolitan), and The White Raven, an opera composed for Portugal to celebrate its history of discoveries at a world’s fair in Lisbon.

Glass’s innovative style also appealed to a variety of filmmakers. The success of his collaboration with Godfrey Reggio on “the cinematic poem” Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 led to the later nonnarrative films Powagqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). He composed highly praised scores for the documentaries The Thin Blue Line (1988) and A Brief History of Time (1991), both directed by Errol Morris. His work on more conventional Hollywood films also earned him recognition. For example, his score for Kundun (1997) merited him an Academy Award nomination and the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and his score for The Truman Show (1998) won a Golden Globe. Some critics believe that one of his finest achievements is the music he reconceived in a new form for a trilogy of films by the French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau—Orphée in 1993, La Belle et la Bête in 1994, and Les Infants Terribles in 1996.

From his student days, Glass was a highly efficient composer, but many commissions, combined with his production-line system of composition, meant that his output became even more formidable in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The variety of his productivity was particularly notable, including six symphonies, several concertos and string quartets, and various operas, including two based on science-fiction novels by Doris Lessing. More than any other composer, Glass has cultivated the territory between classical and popular music. This and his talent for self-promotion have given him the largest audience of any contemporary composer of serious music. His critics, though not as ardent in their praise as his fans, have come to recognize the proficiency of his craftsmanship and the service he has rendered to music in revolutionizing and revitalizing its traditional forms.

Glass feels that his distinctive musical vision could entrap him in a compositional prison, something to become liberated from, just as he succeeded in liberating himself and his listeners from the music of a previous generation.

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