“With minimalism, Philip Glass invented a new kind of music that attracted an enormous group of people who had never listened to classical music before and, in some cases, who still only listen to his form of it,” says Joseph McLellan, classical music critic emeritus of theWashington Post.
Glass and minimalism appeared at a curious moment in music history, when listeners of various persuasions suddenly seemed to have been cast adrift. After taking us on a magical tour, the Beatles had broken up. The bluesman from Mars, guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and the sax man from a jazz universe of total expressive freedom, John Coltrane, had died. And when we turned to the world of contemporary classical music, we found it still stuck in a decades-old malaise of abstract, dissonant, atonal music made by composers like the didactic Pierre Boulez and the slightly loopy Karlheinz Stockhausen, who once instructed his musicians to “play only when one has achieved the state of nonthinking.” Enter Philip Glass.
“What is minimalist music?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s a term invented by journalists. I never liked the word, but I liked the attention!” More seriously, he goes on, “I would say that the term became a kind of shorthand for people who were making music that was a radical return to tonality, harmonic simplicity and steady rhythms.”
Minimalism bridged seemingly conflicting musical categories. To younger pop types, it was cool and calculated and it had a great beat—even if you couldn’t dance to it. To more serious jazz and classical types, its intellectual gravitas stimulated the mind as well as the ears. And to all involved—from scruffy proles, like my bandmates and me, to cultivated swells—it was actually listenable.
“We changed the course of music in the latter half of the 20th century,” says Kurt Munkacsi, who played that day at the KennedyCenter and who has continued to work with Glass as a producer over the years. “Part of that had to do with the fact that Philip spoke to a new generation in its own language. When the ensemble was formed, it was completely modeled on a rock ’n’ roll band, with the high volume, the steady beats and bass lines.”
Two years after the KennedyCenter gig, Glass and directorRobert Wilson astounded the world with their revolutionary concoction, Einstein on the Beach, which combined the former’s minimalist score with the latter’s avant-garde theatrical staging. Four years later, Glass added Romantic-era flourishes to his music in the 1980 opera Satyagraha, which transformed him into a fully acknowledged Modernist master. Over the next two decades, that status enabled him to pursue musical, theatrical and film projects from the world’s preeminent concert and opera halls to the red carpet of the movie world, where, in addition to his Oscar nominations, he also earned a Golden Globe in 1999 for his score for The Truman Show.
“The thing is, I’ve never had a high art-low art set of standards,” Glass explains. “I’ve spent my life in the avant-garde. But I think that every art form is honorable, and I never look down on anyone who enjoys what they’re doing. Musically, I love everyone from [R.E.M. vocalist Michael] Stipe to [opera singer] Jessye Norman. I got that from my father. He owned a record store, and he loved everything in there.”
In fact, it was from the castoff stock in his father Ben’s store that Glass first encountered much of the music that has formed the basis of his work. When certain records did not sell, Ben Glass took them home and asked his children to listen to them in an effort to figure out why. In this way, Glass was introduced to such works as Beethoven quartets and Schubert sonatas.
“It was a great way to become familiar with music,” Glass says. “Listening to all these different pieces allowed me to see that music is about quality, not categories.”
Born on January 31, 1937, in Baltimore, Glass began studying music at age 6. He took up the flute but abandoned it after a few years, frustrated by the lack of pieces written for it in the classical repertoire. He was also growing bored with the staid musical atmosphere of his hometown. So, at 15, after passing an entrance exam, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he majored in mathematics and philosophy.