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

Born on January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, Phillip Glass began studying music at age 6. (isifa / Getty Images)
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“I was very fortunate that the University of Chicago was militantly liberal arts,” he says. “I didn’t specialize; I studied everything: history, biology, social studies and the arts.”

Graduating at age 19, he made his way to New York’s fabled Juilliard School of Music, where he studied composition with such illustrious teachers as Vincent Persichetti. There, his tastes evolved away from the dense and dissonant music of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, which had dominated musical thought and practice in the first half of the 20th century, and the trendy music of Boulez and Stockhausen.

Instead, he turned toward American composers, most of whom were melting-pot mavericks. The granddaddy of them all, Charles Ives, used military marches, church hymns and clashing time signatures to achieve his creative visions—at times, all in the same work. Aaron Copland borrowed folk songs like the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” and turned them into fresh, modern works like Appalachian Spring.

But Glass had yet to combine his myriad influences into a voice of his own. He set out for Paris in 1964 to study with the renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who had guided a whole generation of American composers, including the young Copland. Instead of helping Glass figure out who he was, she made him realize what he wasn’t. “One of the most important things I learned from Boulanger was that I didn’t have the temperament to be a teacher,” Glass says, laughing. “It just wasn’t in me. I looked at people like John Cage, who made his living from composing and playing, and I thought, I don’t have to teach!

At the time, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, many composers subsidized their creativity by teaching at universities and conservatories, which tended to isolate them and their music from the culture at large. That would not be a problem for Glass. “The American arts scene thrives on the marketplace,” Glass says. “When I formed the ensemble in 1967, the idea was that it would be part of that marketplace. I wanted to be independent, to put myself in a position where I could create what I wanted without having to answer to a council of elders about whether I was a serious composer.”

The retailer’s son, who had paid his way through college and music school by loading planes at the airport and operating a crane at Bethlehem Steel, went about achieving his goal with atypical—for a composer, at least—practicality. He booked enough gigs to pay each musician a salary for part of the year, which allowed them to collect unemployment when they weren’t playing. After a few years, when he had made his name, and his performance fees increased, he added health benefits. Years later, he even threw in a 401(k) retirement plan.

“I found that unemployment was an excellent way for the government to support the arts,” he says with a wink. “The fact is, I like to work. I had day jobs from the age of 15 until I turned 41. I was a member of the steelworkers’ union and the cabdrivers’ union before I became a member of the musicians’ union! I’ve always tried to be self-sufficient—and so has the ensemble. We’ve never been funded by a foundation or a charity.”

One of his jobs would profoundly influence his music. Agig in Paris converting a score by sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar into Western notation led to a fascination with Indian music and a sojourn in India. Glass was drawn to the droning, trancelike Indian ragas, which evolve over hours-long or all-night performances into seemingly simple (but, in fact, immensely complex) dialogues of themes and rhythms. He also discovered the reedy textures and vivacious beats of Middle Eastern music. These would all combine with the classical music of his past to form the music of his future: minimalism.

Returning to New York in the mid-1960s, Glass plunged into the city’s avant-garde music scene, which was already on its way to a minimalist aesthetic. In 1964, American composer Terry Riley had shocked musicians and audiences with his epochal work, “In C,” which consisted of 53 musical fragments, or cells, that any number of musicians—using any kind of instrument, including their voices—played as quickly or as slowly and for as many times as they wanted, until all musicians had played all 53 cells. The result was a kind of Middle Eastern mystical-musical blending of endlessly echoing motifs. Other composers, such as Steve Reich, reduced music to unadorned rhythms produced by drumming or clapping.

What these innovators shared was a desire to take classical music out of the conservatory and return it to the real world, to make it less a theoretical exercise than a human experience. They made music that was strongly rhythmic, hypnotic and simple to the ear. Simple, but not easy. Washington Post classical music critic Tim Page once described Glass’ music as “sonic weather that twisted, turned, surrounded, developed.”

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