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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Gradually, word about the new movement spread outside New York City. In 1971, minimalism reached the rock world when the Who’s Pete Townshend used repeated synthesizer riffs on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” By the time Glass assembled 1974’s “Music in Twelve Parts”—the piece he played at the KennedyCenter—his name had become synonymous with the movement.

Glass’ status seemed confirmed in 1976, when he and Robert Wilson staged Einstein on the Beach at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House before standing-room-only audiences. The four-and-a-half-hour work (sans intermission) was an amalgam of performance art, opera and multimedia spectacle. Dramatist Wilson’s jump-cut staging featured trains, a bed, a spaceship and the scientist playing a fiddle. Each recurring image had corresponding music, often a chorus singing numbers or solfège syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) over a foundation of rapid arpeggios—the notes of a chord played one at a time. “Alistener . . . reaches a point, quite early on, of rebellion at the needle-stuck-in-the-groove quality, but a minute or two later he realizes that the needle has not stuck, something has happened,” critic Andrew Porter wrote in the New Yorker. Wrote Page: “Some listeners were transfixed . . . while others were bored silly.” The event made Wilson and Glass instant stars.

“It was a radical evening,” says Michael Riesman, the music director of the ensemble, who conducted the Einstein performances. “It transformed Philip from a fringe New York art-world character into a legitimate composer in the eyes of the world.”

But like Stravinsky and the Beatles, Glass seemed compelled to move beyond the style that brought him fame just as the public caught up with him. “For me, minimalism was a platform that I pushed off from like a swimmer,” he says. “From it, I leapt as far and as deep as I could go. Writing for the theater has allowed me to address issues of the arts: science, religion, politics, the whole range of human society.”

The first result, in 1980, was the opera Satyagraha, which premièred to sold-out audiences in Rotterdam. In this exploration of Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance (a loose translation of satyagraha), many of the composer’s interests converged—India, history, social justice. The libretto was in Sanskrit from the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. The stage action depicted scenes from Gandhi’s years in South Africa, “witnessed” by figures that evoked his past, present and future—his friend Leo Tolstoy, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King Jr. Glass scored the work for conventional orchestral instruments. And the music changed too: he created stirring Romantic-era, nearly melodic theme lines that soared above repeated figures. “In harmony with his subject,” wrote critic McLellan, “Glass has adopted a new, nonviolent style in his music.”

Glass expanded on this mesh of history, social consciousness and music in other “portrait operas,” such as 1984’s Akhnaten, about the Egyptian Pharaoh who rebelled against the religion of his time and espoused a monotheistic god, and in 2002’s Galileo Galilei, which examined the personal and intellectual trials of the astronomer who took on the religious establishment and laid bare the universe to Renaissance minds. As in Einstein and Satyagraha, Glass chose as subjects, he once wrote, “men who revolutionized the thoughts and events of their times through the power of inner vision.”

He has always welcomed collaborators. With choreographer Twyla Tharp, Glass created In the Upper Room. He wrote 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof with playwright David Henry Hwang. On 1986’s Songs from Liquid Days, Glass flirted with the pop world, composing for words provided by songsmith Paul Simon, among others. In 1990, he closed a circle of sorts with Passages, a collection that mixes Indian and Western themes, which he composed with Shankar. In 2000, he worked with his first wife, theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, on a treatment of Franz Kafka’s book In the Penal Colony.

Perhaps his most accessible works are his soundtracks to films. He recently completed a 20-year-long collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio on the “Qatsi” trilogy of art-house movies (the films are titled in Hopi: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi). In these, Glass’ frenetic music blends with images of the impact of urbanization and technology on humans and the earth. Errol Morris called Glass’ score for Morris’ 1988 murder documentary, The Thin Blue Line, “the single most important element” of the film. (Glass also provided the music for Morris’ new film, The Fog of War, on former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.)

While the Oscar eluded Glass again for his recent soundtrack for The Hours—with at least one critic disparaging the score as “browbeating [and] melodramatic”— many noted the crucial role the music played in the film. In fact, Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, wrote, “Glass can find in three repeated notes something of the strange rapture of sameness that Woolf discovered in a woman named Clarissa Dalloway doing errands on an ordinary summer morning.” And there’s another similarity, says Cunningham: “The last 30 years have served to move Glass in from the margins, just as time has moved Woolf from aberration to mainstay.”

“That is the great thing about getting older,” says the composer. “It gives you a sense of perspective that is the doorway to wisdom. When you think—or you are told— that you are the ‘future of music,’ you’re probably not.”

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