washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Arts

Nothing Less

Philip Glass's New Symphony Is Anything but Minimal

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page N01

"I've been called a minimalist composer for more than 30 years, and while I've never really agreed with the description, I've gotten used to it," Philip Glass was saying last week. "But what I really am -- and increasingly so -- is a universalist composer. I'm interested in all kinds of music, and sooner or later most of those musics find their way into my own compositions."

Glass was calling from Australia, where he was on tour with the Philip Glass Ensemble, a group he gathered together in the late 1960s to play his radical, reiterative music for a handful of sophisticates in art galleries and tumbledown Manhattan lofts. Much has changed since then (are there any tumbledown lofts left in New York?). On this particular tour, Glass and the ensemble were booked into the celebrated Sydney Opera House to play live performances before sold-out audiences of the scores for three epochal films he created with Godfrey Reggio entitled in the Hopi Indian language -- "Koyaanisqatsi" (1983), "Powaqqatsi" (1988) and "Naqoyqatsi" (2002).

Philip Glass at the ACLU Freedom Concert at Lincoln Center last fall. The National Symphony Orchestra, left, will premiere Glass's Symphony No. 7 at the Kennedy Center this week under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. (Henny Ray Abrams -- Reuters)

And now, after a quick stop for a concert in Hong Kong, Glass will come back to the other side of the world -- to Washington, where the National Symphony Orchestra will play the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7, subtitled "A Toltec Symphony," Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. The program, which will be repeated Friday and Saturday, also includes Mahler's "Das Knaben Wunderhorn," with the baritone Matthias Goerne as soloist. (Information: 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org/nso.) The Symphony No. 7 was commissioned by the NSO, with support from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, in honor of Slatkin's 60th birthday. It is the first time that either Slatkin or the orchestra has programmed one of Glass's pieces.

What exactly is a "Toltec" Symphony? As usual, the fiercely articulate Glass has an instructive explanation: "The word 'Toltec' in the title of the Symphony Number 7 refers to the tradition and beliefs which were the cultural and spiritual matrix of Mesoamerica and which began many centuries before the European invasion," he wrote in his program notes. "Mesoamerica is now believed to have extended from central Mexico to the north as far as New Mexico and Texas in the United States, and to the south to include Guatemala and Nicaragua."

Glass prepared the 35-minute, three-movement symphony with the mixture of adventure and practicality that has characterized his work from the beginning. "I knew that the Kennedy Center had a wonderful pipe organ, so I included that in the piece," he said. "And I know about all the choruses in your area" -- the Master Chorale of Washington will sing the premiere -- "so I thought it would be nice to have voices in there, too. But I want the piece to have a life of its own after these first performances are through, so I wrote the symphony in a way that it could be played with or without organ and chorus, depending on the orchestra's circumstances.

"I took the text for the second movement from a field recording of a very old Mexican Indian man beating a drum and singing a song," Glass said. "And I wanted to make sure that I had copied down the words correctly, and so I met with an anthropologist friend of mine in Mexico and asked him if I had it right. And he laughed and said whatever I wrote was necessarily right -- that the chant had no literal meaning whatsoever, that it was onomatopoeic, a ritual chant that comes directly from the spirit. So that was a liberating experience!"

It is hardly the first time Glass has asked his singers to work with a largely unfamiliar language. His opera "Satyagraha" (1980) -- arguably his masterpiece -- was written in Sanskrit, with a text extracted from the Bhagavad Gita. His Symphony No. 5 included African chant and passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. "Itaipu" (1989), a work for chorus and orchestra commissioned and first performed by Robert Shaw, is based on a Brazilian legend and incorporates a Guarani Indian text.

And now a chanted melody from northern Mexico. "It's strange," Glass said. "I've spent so much of my life exploring far-off regions of the globe -- I've been to India more than 20 times, and working with Ravi Shankar had a profound influence on my early music. And now I feel a little like I've found a wonderful new element, one I never knew existed, right in what passes for my own back yard!"

Glass, who will turn 68 on Jan. 31, was born in Baltimore and grew up in the neighborhood now known as Reservoir Hill. His father, Benjamin Glass, ran a radio repair shop that also sold recordings; as such, Glass -- who has founded three recording labels over the course of his career -- grew up with the essential understanding that music was both a business and an art. He began music lessons at 6 and became a proficient flutist; still, when he was accepted into the University of Chicago at the early age of 16, he chose to major in mathematics and philosophy.

After graduation, he moved to New York, where, determined to become a composer, he attended the Juilliard School. His early compositions owed a great deal to the influence of the French composer Darius Milhaud, with whom he had studied at the Aspen Music School. (He published a few of these works, all of them long since disavowed.) In 1964 he went to Europe and studied with the legendary music instructor Nadia Boulanger, whose pupils also included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Walter Piston.

During his second year with Boulanger, he was engaged to transcribe a film score by Shankar into Western notation for some Parisian studio musicians. "What came to me as a revelation was the use of rhythm in developing an overall structure in music," Glass later wrote. "I would explain the difference between the use of Western and Indian music in the following way: In Western music we divide time -- as if you were to take a length of time and slice it the way you slice a loaf of bread. In Indian music (and all the non-Western music with which I'm familiar), you take small units, or 'beats,' and string them together to make up larger time values."

Following this new fascination, Glass spent the last part of 1966 and the first months of 1967 in India. Upon his return to the United States, he worked again with Shankar, who was then a visiting professor at the City College of New York, and with the tabla player Alla Rakha. He also grew close to several other young composers, particularly Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Jon Gibson, who were pursuing similar interests in Lower Manhattan.

Glass's early music was aggressively reductive in its form, melodic content and harmonic language -- far removed from the dissonant hypercomplexities that were then associated with the classical avant-garde. The names of some works from the late 1960s -- "Two Pages for Piano and Organ," "Music in Contrary Motion," "Music in Fifths" and "Music in Similar Motion" -- are not only titles but also apt summations of what actually happens in the compositions that they describe. With the business acumen he has demonstrated throughout his career, Glass formed his own record label, Chatham Square, to disseminate his music to a larger audience.

It was "Einstein on the Beach" -- created with the visionary theatrical director and designer Robert Wilson from 1974-76 -- that brought Glass world fame. At this time, the composer had been writing long concert pieces for the Philip Glass Ensemble while supporting himself by working as a plumber and driving a taxi. But when "Einstein" received its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1976, it sold out so quickly that another performance was added immediately, and it has since been revived on several occasions.

"Einstein" broke all the rules of opera: It was five hours long, with no intermissions (the audience was invited to wander in and out at liberty during performances). Its text consisted of numbers, syllables and some cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, a neurologically impaired young man with whom Wilson had worked as an instructor of disturbed children for the New York public schools. There were references to the trial of Patricia Hearst (which was underway during the creation of the opera), to the mid-'70s radio lineup on New York's WABC, to the popular song "Mr. Bojangles," to the Beatles and to the teen idol David Cassidy. "Einstein" sometimes seemed a study in sensory overload, meaning everything and nothing.

The flutist Ransom Wilson, who would later conduct and record some of Glass's music, has left a vivid impression of a New York performance of "Einstein on the Beach": "As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored -- very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. . . . Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental."

In the years since "Einstein," Glass has created more than a dozen operas and music theater works, six symphonies (including two on melodies by David Bowie and Brian Eno), soundtracks for films large and small, and a wide variety of music for chamber ensemble and solo piano. He has collaborated with figures as disparate as pop musicians David Byrne and Paul Simon, poet Allen Ginsberg, novelist Doris Lessing and his mentor and teacher Shankar. His work has had a lasting effect on musicians in all fields, from opera composer John Adams to jingle writers who have blatantly stolen his sonic trademarks. Whether one likes Glass's work or not, his influence is everywhere.

Glass, who recently remarried and is now the father of two toddlers, has changed very little over the years.

He remains a creature of habit, writing music for several hours every morning in the basement of the Manhattan townhouse he bought more than 20 years ago. He is affable, generous with his time, seemingly interested in everything. "What a time we live in!" he said. "Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere -- everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we're all living in different worlds because we're on different continents. At times it feels like we're on the verge of an apocalypse -- the war in Iraq, the tsunami, physical and social upheavals everywhere.

"And yet on a personal level, we have access to cultures that simply weren't available to us even 20 years ago. Think of the way America has changed -- of all the new traditions we know about now, from clothing to food to films to martial arts, all of these pretty much unknown when we were growing up. I travel the world, and I'm happy to say that America is still the great melting pot -- maybe a chunky stew rather than a melting pot at this point, but you know what I mean. Despite the redneck, cowboy elements we have in this country -- which are real and which we maybe don't like so much -- the fact remains that most Americans are genuinely interested in many different cultures and in learning to embrace them. I hope that this symphony -- that all my music -- is helping that process along."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company