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Philip Glass

Philip Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and in Aspen with the legendary French composer Darius Milhaud. Finding himself dissatisfied with much of what then passed for modern music, he moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (who also taught Aaron Copland , Virgil Thomson and Quincy Jones) and has worked with artists such as sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Wilson, Martin Scorsese, David Bowie, and Paul Simon.

The new musical style that Glass was evolving was eventually dubbed “minimalism.” Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry. Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, and develops.

In 1976, Glass was an unknown composer — almost pushing 40, and driving a taxi to make ends meet — when he got his break: a new work performed at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera. “Einstein on the Beach” was directed by Robert Wilson, a key figure in the avant-garde; it was 4 ½ hours long, had no plot anybody could follow and drove a lot of listeners crazy. But almost overnight, it turned Glass into a household name. Even after Glass achieved fame and notoriety, he still continued to ply his blue-collar trades. Called upon to install a dishwasher, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.” Glass understood that he had finally arrived as a composer when a woman tapped on the side of his cab and told him “you have the same name as a very famous composer.”

Glass is a polarizing composer, with some critics dismissing his work outright. Writer Justin Davidson, in a New York Magazine article celebrating Glass's 75th birthday in 2012 wrote:

" I decided to celebrate ahead of time and in private, by trying to overcome years of distaste for his music. Perhaps, I thought, I had never listened hard enough to get beneath the churning surface, and impression had hardened into prejudice. A friend of mine speaks of the “ecstasy” of listening to Glass; I wanted some of that, too. I felt that I could have walked away in the middle of an arpeggio, had a four-course dinner, and returned to find those soothing chords still burbling away. Glass may well have done the same when he was composing the stuff. Surely there’s an app for that."

Justin Davidson of New York magazine has criticized Glass, saying, "Glass never had a good idea he didn't flog to death: He repeats the haunting scale 30 mind-numbing times, until it's long past time to go home." Michael White of The Daily Telegraph described Glass' Violin Concerto No. 2 as being “as rewarding as chewing gum that's lost its flavor, and they're not dissimilar activities."

Admittedly, Glass is not for everyone. His music is more textural in nature. His compositions can be stubbornly repetitive, staying at one volume with barely a change in phrasing or voicing, yet there's something hypnotizing in the music if you allow it to wash over you without any preconceived ideas.

Many people that don't care for Glass's compositions simply refuse to listen to the music in a way that makes it effective. As you listen to his piano music, allow the repetitions to happen and sink into the soundscape without judgement. If you're actually listening and not pushing the music away thinking it's boring, you'll hear the way those repetitions and subtle chord changes slowly have a very distinct and interesting effect on you. This music is not dissimilar to African drumming that goes on for hours, or Gamelan music. The music is working in a different way and putting yourself the proper setting is important in order to not miss its beauty.

Glass holds an honorary doctorate in music from his alma mater, the Juilliard School, and has won a National Medal of Arts, the Society of Composers and Lyricists’ Lifetime Achievement Award, and multiple Golden Globe and Academy Awards. He was written more than 30,000 manuscript pages of music: 27 operas, 11 symphonies, 8 string quartets, 20 piano etudes and 50-odd films, among many other works.

Glass is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century.

Personal Notes

The very first time I ever heard Philip Glass was on the David Letterman Show on NBC. The date was September, 1986. I remember feeling mesmerized by the performance. The undulating waves of the right and left hands were hypnotic. I immediately became a fan of his music. His performance on Letterman was very uneven. He seemed nervous and played very fast, but still, it was very apparent that he was a composer to be reckoned with - someone who wouldn't allow the critics to dictate his compositional style. I admit that I can sometimes be impatient with his music, but when I allow myself to simply be with it, it washes over me like a zen koan.

Selected Performances

Etude #5 (1994) - This is probably the most accessible piece out of the entire etude collection, although it still requires a lot of concentration to play at a constant steady tempo. I love the haunting melodies of this piece.

Locating The Music

Philip Glass's music is easily found online at Amazon and Sheet Music Plus.

List of Piano Compositions

How Now (1968)

Two Pages (1968)

Knee Play 4 - from Einstein on the Beach (1975)

Modern Love Waltz for piano (1977)

Mad Rush (1979)

Opening (1981)

The Olympian (1984)

Cadenza for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (1987)

Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988)

Metamorphosis (1988)

The French Lieutenant Sleeps (1989)

Night on the Balcony (1989)

Tesra (1993)

12 Pieces for Ballet (1993)

Etudes for Piano, Volume 1 (1994–1995)

The Joyful Moment (1998)

Truman Sleeps (1998)

Dreaming Awake (2003)

A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close (2005)

Etudes for Piano, Volume 2 (2012)


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