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.
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...
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