Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


GLASS, Philip

(b 31 January 1937, Baltimore MD) Composer and multi-media artist. Studied violin at six, then flute; entered Juilliard '58 and by the mid-'60s had composed many pieces in various contemporary idioms, won BMI and other awards, but wasn't satisfied: 'I just didn't believe in my music anymore.' He met Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in Paris '65, was hired to notate Eastern music for Western musicians, adopted the modular style and repetitive structures of Eastern music, slowly adding simplified harmony and modulation, inventing a style sometimes called solid-state music, or minimalism. He later said, 'In Western music, we take time and divide it -- whole notes into half notes into quarter notes -- but in Eastern music they take very small units and add them together ... Then you join cycles of different beats, like wheels within wheels, everything going at the same time and always changing.' He formed seven-piece Philip Glass Ensemble '68 (three saxes doubling on flutes, three electric organists and a sound engineer). He formed Chatham Records '71, first release: Music With Changing Parts; the first two parts of Music In Twelve Parts '71-4 were on Virgin '74 (twelve parts complete on three-CD Nonesuch set '96). He formed Tomato Records '78; then became the first living composer since Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky signed to an exclusive contract by CBS Masterworks. His Glassworks '82 on CBS is a suite of six pieces averaging about six minutes each, played by the septet incl. two French horns, plus a viola section; four pieces are lyrical, soothing, repetitious mood music, saved from being typical new age music by the others, which are rhythmically and cyclically busy with the help of a bass synthesizer, similar to his score for the film montage Koyaanisqatsi '83 (on Island): they achieve their effect of relief by stopping suddenly. (Koyaanisqatsi was 86 minutes of USA panorama using time-lapse photography; four writers were listed yet it had no script or narrative, just the music. Powaqqatsi '88 did the same thing for the Third World in 97 minutes, also with a Glass score.)

By early '79 his work had been played in art colleges, the Metropolitan Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line, an NYC rock club: he had become world-famous as a result of Einstein On The Beach '76 (four-disc set on CBS was no. 33 on Billboard's classical chart '84), a four-and- a-half-hour multi-media pageant devised with avant-garde designer Robert Wilson, who said 'Listen to the pictures.' Einstein had no real libretto and was sung/chanted by a chorus, with no soloists; the somewhat more conventional Satyagraha '80 was mythic ritual based on the life of Gandhi, with text in Sanskrit from the Bhagavad Gita. Other operas include Akhnaten '84, The Juniper Tree '85 (for children, a collaboration with composer Robert Moran), The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8 '86 (his first full-length opera in English, based on a novel by Doris Lessing, the result described by David Cairns as 'a sustained act of creative non-responsibility, an artistic void'). The opera as 'scenes from a life' was better done by Virgil Thomson in Four Saints In Three Acts '34; Glass's characters (Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten) are reduced to immensely slow- moving comic strips, telling us nothing. Other works on records included The Photographer '83 on CBS (no. 10 '83), about Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904: b Edward Muggeridge in England; in California he became a photographic pioneer and killed his wife's lover). Other film scores were for documentary North Star '75 (about sculptor Mark de Suvero, on Virgin) and Paul Schrader's Mishima '86 (Nonesuch). Songs From Liquid Days '86 (CBS) had lyrics by David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and Suzanne Vega sung by Linda Ronstadt and others, played by the Glass Ensemble and the Kronos String Quartet. Hydrogen Jukebox '93 on Nonesuch sets 18 poems by Allen Ginsberg; the 'Low' Symphony '93 on Point Music orchestrates themes from David Bowie's '77 album and the 'Heroes' Symphony '97 did the same for the following Bowie album. (The name of Glass's new label was an irony, his treatments missing the point of the originals; the best-seller on the label was Symphonic Pink Floyd.) A set of shorter pieces on Nonesuch was Two Pages/Contrary Motion/Music In Fifths/Music In Similar Motion '94.

A trilogy of works on film-maker Cocteau included Orphée, and the screenplay became the libretto; La Belle et la Bête '94 exhibits the film itself, music written to fit and singers synchronized to lips on screen; Les Enfants Terribles was to become a ballet. Other projects described were The Fall Of The House Of Usher (sung) and 1000 Airplanes On The Roof (spoken), the latter written by David Hwang, designed by Jerome Sirlin using holographic projections. Glass could not get a concert in France, nor could he get a commission in England for the successor to Planet 8, so Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 And 5 was launched in Germany May '97. He was writing operas on The Canterbury Tales and Kafka's The Penal Colony, and writing a theme for a film called Bent, to be sung by Mick Jagger. Another film score was for Martin Scorsese's Kundun '98.

More of Glass's music is listed in classical catalogues; his style and his use of electronics and crisp production have been an influence on high-tech pop, but classical critics wanted to hear some music rather than be hypnotized. Reviews of Glass's book Opera On The Beach: On His New World Of Music Theatre '88 (ed. by Robert T. Jones) were dismissive; Wilfrid Mellers wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, 'We relish his mindlessness because we are, or are in the process of becoming, a society of lemmings whose disaffection with post-Renaissance consciousness has reached a point of no return.' Glass decided not to follow Pierre Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen because he didn't think they were going anywhere, but Glass's music is successful because it doesn't have much content, so you don't actually have to listen very closely; the true minimalist artists (such as Anton Webern, 'a rather minor composer', according to Glass) could pack more art into 90 seconds than Glass can in five hours. Helen Wallace in The Times wrote that instead of calling it minimalism we should call it maximalism: making the most of minimal material. 'Systems music is surely better played by machines ... all Glass's experience of Indian and African music and his rich intellectual life seem to have left no trace.'