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

Phillip Glass
Born on January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, Phillip Glass began studying music at age 6. isifa / Getty Images

We had come to hear the future.

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.

“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.

“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.”

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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