Meet Phillip Glass- page 1 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Born on January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, Phillip Glass began studying music at age 6. (isifa / Getty Images)

Meet Phillip Glass

From opera halls to neighborhood movie theaters, Philip Glass attracts an enormous audience many of whom have never listened to classical music

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We had come to hear the future.

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It was a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1974, and my band and I, all jazz players, had ventured to the KennedyCenter in Washington, D.C. to hear what was being touted by critics and writers as the future of classical music. The style was called minimalism, and its guru was a guy named Philip Glass.

As we sat down on the floor of an upper lobby in the vast performing arts complex, along with about 200 other seekers of a new musical faith, the future did not look particularly auspicious. For starters, there was the floor itself: no seats, not even carpeting to sit on. Then there was the stage—or, rather, there wasn’t one. Apparently, the Philip Glass Ensemble was going to perform on the floor. Their equipment didn’t inspire much confidence either: a couple of small amplifiers, a sax, a microphone and a pair of gray vinyl Farfisa electric organs, the kind used by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs on their rock classic, “Wooly Bully.”

Something didn’t seem right, here.

The future of classical music arrived in a wrinkled shirt, faded dungarees and worn sneakers, his hair akimbo and his mood nonchalant. The ensemble followed with the same tattered look and manner, as if they’d all just tumbled out of a Manhattan loft and were headed to the nearest garage to practice a set of Velvet Underground covers. They looked less like the future of music than they looked like . . . us.

Now seated at the Farfisa, Glass nodded to the ensemble and the music began. But instead of stating a theme and moving through variations on it, as would a piece by Bach or Beethoven, the sounds seemed frozen in time and space. What sticks in my memory is a series of repeating phrases: dee-doo, dee-doo, dee-doo beeped from Glass’ Farfisa, slowly giving way to something like doo-dee, doo-dee, doo-dee from a soprano sax. Then a voice joined in, singing syllables: doo-doodee- dee-doo, doo-doo-dee-dee-doo, doo-doo-dee-dee-doo. The music went on and on, like a Mondrian painting come to life in sound, lines of notes closing and intersecting in incessant rhythm, punctuated by primary-colored blocks of harmony.

And as it went on, glacially changing its beats and chords, so, too, did the range of reactions shift in the listeners. At first, we felt shock at the sheer simplicity, which immediately snared the ear. Slowly, shock gave way to resistance against the newness of it all, then acceptance, and, finally, the rapture of trance, the music forcing thoughts out and feeling in.

“I remember that day at the KennedyCenter,” Glass tells me almost 30 years later. “I remember it because, afterward, we told everyone that we’d played the KennedyCenter.” He laughs. “We didn’t mention that it was in the lobby! It just sounded so prestigious to say we’d played there. At the time, we were playing in lofts and clubs and parks, anywhere we could. Everything mattered then.” Apause. “It still matters.”

The composer is holding court on a black leather couch in a digital recording studio amid a warren of offices, collectively dubbed Looking Glass Studio, on lower Broadway in Manhattan. He’s just turned 66, and his fourth wife, Holly, has recently given birth to the latest twig on the Glass family tree—a son, Cameron. (He has two adult children, Zachary and Juliet, from his first marriage.) Later in the week, he says, he will complete his 20th opera, The Sound of a Voice (which premièred in June in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and earlier in the day, he learned he had received his second Oscar nomination, this time for the score of the Nicole Kidman-Meryl Streep-Julianne Moore tour de force, The Hours. (The first was for the score of the 1997 Martin Scorsese film Kundun.)

He doesn’t look the part of the enfant terrible anymore; the hair, still akimbo, is graying. His eyes are framed by delicate rimless glasses. His face hasn’t changed much, although it is clearly yielding to gravity. The rumpled clothes remain: a brown polo sweater, casual pants and sensible leather walking shoes. Only now his appearance reinforces the carelessly confident demeanor of what he has become: arguably America’s most prominent contemporary classical composer.

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