Music & Nightlife
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items
American Composers: Philip Glass
Getting the Maximum From the Minimalism

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 1998


    Philip Glass Composer Philip Glass. (By Tom Caraviglia)
The American premiere of "Einstein on the Beach," a collaboration between the composer Philip Glass and the theatrical director and designer Robert Wilson, took place at the Metropolitan Opera House in November 1976. In the audience was the conductor and flutist Ransom Wilson, who has a vivid recollection of his response:

"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. I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. 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."

Glass's Recommended Work
For those interested in exploring Philip Glass' work, here is a starting point.
Philip Glass has written an awful lot of music, in many different genres, and listeners who enjoy some of his works may not respond to others. If you liked the soundtracks to "Koyaanisqatsi," "Mishima" or "Kundun," by all means pick them up. But here are some less familiar pieces by the composer.

Music in 12 Parts. An encyclopedic compendium of the techniques the composer was evolving in the early 1970s, played raptly by the Philip Glass Ensemble. I find the purely musical rewards in "12 Parts" superior to that in the roughly contemporaneous opera "Einstein on the Beach," which really should be seen for its full effect (Nonesuch Records).

"Akhnaten." Although the earlier "Satyagraha" is probably the better opera, the patchy performance and inept, gimmicky recorded sound on the one available set removes it from consideration. "Akhnaten," sumptuously recorded, as if a Wagner opera, contains much beautiful music, particularly a radiant aria for countertenor and several fine choruses (CBS Masterworks).

"Glassworks." This is fundamentally an easy-listening instrumental album (yes, you read right) and many Glass aficionados found it a terrific disappointment when it came out in 1983. Today, it still seems fairly slight but also quite lovely and a perfect introduction for those who usually find the composer's work abrasive.

by Tim Page

I, too, was present at the Met premiere, and Glass shortly thereafter became a friend and occasional collaborator. For that reason, this article cannot be entirely objective. Still, because our association grew out of my appreciation for Glass's work, perhaps some reflections on his progression over the course of two decades will be instructive. For Glass has come a long way indeed in the past 22 years.

It is difficult to convey just how bracing and alien "Einstein" sounded to people in the mid-1970s -- before the word "minimalism" had become part of the lexicon, before the spectacular sounds and speedy visions of the 1983 film about life out of balance, "Koyaanisqatsi," before the exploration of the dense, churning inner life of chords was recognized as a legitimate musical activity. Not long before the triumph of "Einstein," Glass had been playing in the downtown Manhattan lofts of his friends and neighbors. There, the atmosphere was welcoming and informal (in contrast to the fierce concentration of the players), and those who'd made the subway trek to those sessions had the sense that we had tapped into a new manner of listening, a new world of sound.

Glass was born on Jan. 31, 1937. He grew up in Baltimore, where his father owned a record store. The precocious boy began formal violin studies at 6, but soon turned his attention to the flute and later to composition. At 15, Glass passed an early-entrance examination and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He then moved to New York to study composition at the Juilliard School with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti and later with Darius Milhaud at the Apsen Music Center.

By the early 1960s, Glass had begun to establish his germinal style, which, as he later acknowledged, owed a great deal to the influence of Milhaud. Glass published several early pieces, but in the mid-'60s he did an about-face, disowning everything he'd written so far.

Glass found himself increasingly dissatisfied with the music he was writing and, indeed, with the prevailing musical milieu of the time, which was a sort of cross between the scrappy, anarchic chance music of John Cage and the densely complicated work of the dissonant modernists.

And so he went to Europe, where he eventually settled in Paris to study harmony and counterpoint with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who had also taught Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston and many others who have been mentioned in this series. During his second year with Boulanger, Glass was commissioned to transcribe a film score by sitar player Ravi Shankar into Western notation for 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."

Upon his return to the United States in 1966, Glass worked again with Shankar, who was then a visiting professor at the City College of New York, and with Alla Rakha, a virtuoso on the tabla, a drum from central India. He grew close to several other young composers, particularly Steve Reich and Terry Riley, who were pursuing similar interests in lower Manhattan. In 1968 he put together the first Philip Glass Ensemble, an aggregate consisting of amplified keyboards, voices, saxophones and flutes (also, on occasion, trumpets and violin) that would remain his principal means of musical expression for more than a decade and is still a key element of his creative life.

Glass's early music was aggressively simple in its form, melodic content and harmonic language. Names such as "Music in Fifths," "Music in Contrary Motion," "Two Pages for Piano and Organ" and "Music in Similar Motion," all dating from the late 1960s, are not only titles but apt summations of what actually happens in the compositions that they describe. "Music With Changing Parts" (1970) and "Music in Twelve Parts" (1971-74) were more ambitious in their scope and provided the first indication that the composer was at least as interested in the epic as he was in the reductive. (Early performances of "Music in Twelve Parts" lasted more than four hours.)

During this period, Glass supported himself by working as a plumber and driving a taxi. "Foundation support was out of the question, of course," he said in 1981. "And most of my colleagues thought I'd gone completely off the wall." Still, the Philip Glass Ensemble gradually built a cult following in the lofts and galleries of Manhattan's nascent SoHo district. Moreover, with the business acumen he has demonstrated throughout his career, Glass produced his first recordings, which disseminated his work to audiences and venturesome radio stations.

The Other Minimalists
As has been the case with most of the people examined in this series, Philip Glass has founded no real school, but there are now many composers working along similar lines. Although there were minimalist qualities in some of the conceptual works of La Monte Young (born 1935), it was left to Terry Riley (also born in 1935) to create the first significant piece in the genre. It was called "In C" (1964) -- and that it certainly was, with its steady eighth-note pulse, obsessive reiteration of melodic fragments and kaleidoscopic jangle of sound. Although most of Riley's later work was devoted to improvisation and Indian tunings, "In C" was the flash point for musical minimalism and had something of the same effect on the burgeoning genre that "Tristan and Isolde" did on the high chromaticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, it changed music.

Steve Reich (born 1936) played in the first performance of "In C." Last year the Nonesuch label issued a 10-CD set of Reich's collected works. His most significant work may be the staggering "Four Organs" (1970), which Reich once described as "short chord made long." That's just about it: four organs, kept in time by steadily shaken maracas, repeat a single chord again and again, emphasizing different voices in the chord, held for different lengths of time, until we have examined the structure from what seems every possible vantage point.

"Four Organs" is magnificent and absorbing, but it is also rigorous and many listeners find it affronting (a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall in 1973 came close to inciting a riot). Some gentler works for the initiate include Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), an ethereally beautiful wash of sound, and the celebrated Music for 18 Musicians (1976), which has been raided by such pop groups as the Police, Tangerine Dream and the High Llamas.

Meredith Monk (born 1942) is a polymath -- she is not only a composer but also a singer, director, choreographer, filmmaker and visual artist. Much of her work might be considered minimalist, but she has also been influenced by folk music, jazz and a variety of world music. "The minimalist thing is about reduction," she once said. "Vocally, I always thought about magnification, expansion. The repetitions are just a layer for the voice to take off from and go somewhere, and also to land on again." Some of her best music may be found in her piece for multiple pianists, voices and recorder, "Tablet" (1977), and the full length opera "Atlas" (1991).

John Adams (born 1947) combines minimalist elements with traditional symphonic gestures; he sounds as much like Ralph Vaughan Williams as he does like Glass. He is probably best known for his two topical operas, "Nixon in China" (1987) and "The Death of Klinghoffer" (1991), but has written widely in other fields. Other composers occasionally associated with this movement include Paul Dresher, Ingram Marshall, Richard Munson, Phill Niblock and several people associated with the pop world, most notably Brian Eno with his hour-long, near-motionless "Thursday Afternoon" (1991).

by Tim Page

Though he disavows the term, Glass is generally classified as a "minimalist" composer. Much of his mature work is based on the extended repetition of brief, elegant melodic fragments that weave in and out of an aural tapestry. Listening to these works has been compared to watching a challenging modern painting that initially appears static but seems to metamorphose slowly as one concentrates. Particularly in his early works, Glass limited compositional material to a few elements that were then subjected to a variety of transformational processes. A listener quickly learned not to expect Western musical events -- sforzandos, sudden diminuendos. Instead, one was immersed in a sort of sonic weather that twisted, turned, surrounded, developed.

"Einstein on the Beach" broke all the rules -- and it brought the composer both fame and notoriety. It was in four interconnected acts and five hours long, with no intermissions (the audience was invited to wander in and out at liberty during performances). The acts were separated by brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes. The text consisted of numbers, solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) and some cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, a young autistic man with whom the theatrical visionary Robert Wilson had worked as an instructor of disturbed children for the New York public schools.

Then, as later, audience response was mixed. Glass's works have always played to both boos and bravos. Some listeners were transfixed by the whirl of hypnotic patterns the ensemble created, while others were bored silly, hearing only what they considered mindless repetition.

As opposed to the spartan "Einstein," which was composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble and a few soloists, "Satyagraha" (1980) was scored for more conventional forces: strings, woodwinds in threes, organ, six solo singers and chorus of 40. It was Glass's first "traditional" opera -- insofar as an opera without linear narrative, with a libretto in Sanskrit and based directly on the Bhagavad-Gita may be considered "traditional."

"Einstein" was all edge: white light, sharp images, spinning music played by a small, amplified ensemble. When the curtain rose on "Satyagraha," some additional shocks were in store, but of a much gentler sort. With its luminous, dreamlike, scrim-shielded stage action, spiritual propulsion and radiant intensity, this was a work that was closer to ritual than entertainment, to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages than to standard opera.

If "Einstein" broke the rules with modernist zeal, "Satyagraha" adapted the rules to the composer's own vision, an even more difficult task. It was difficult to find any historical precedent for "Einstein"; in "Satyagraha," one may find references to many of the composer's forerunners.

The opening scene, for example, titled "The Kuru Field of Justice," was an aria that became a duet, and then a trio, set down with a rich, declamatory, near-Verdian directness over an elaborate chaconne. Other scenes seemed to have been written under the spell of Richard Wagner, or Hector Berlioz, or Glass's beloved Gioacchino Rossini. But there was never a descent into parody; one was never in doubt about the identity of the composer. "Satyagraha" is probably Glass's greatest work, and it is a pity that the only commercial recording is so poor.

By the mid-1980s, Glass was a genuinely popular composer in the United States and Europe. His ensemble played as many as 90 concerts every year, in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Midwestern rock clubs. But Glass consecrated morning hours to composition, and he was increasingly prolific. In addition to five major operas -- "Einstein," "Satyagraha," "Akhnaten" (1983), "The Making of the Representative for Planet 8" (1988) and "The Voyage" (1992) -- he composed music for several films, most notably Godfrey Reggio's impressive "Koyaanisqatsi," which has been widely imitated. He wrote "1000 Airplanes on the Roof" (1985) with the playwright David Henry Hwang and the theatrical song cycle "Hydrogen Jukebox" (1990) with Allen Ginsberg.

Moreover, he created "Songs From Liquid Days" (1985), an album of popular songs in collaboration with Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon and Suzanne Vega; "The Light" (1987), a large work for the Cleveland Orchestra; and a series of works for piano solo, among many others. Most recently, he has contributed to the soundtracks of the films "Kundun" (1997) and "The Truman Show" (1998), in which he also has a tiny role as a keyboard player. In September, a new "digital opera" by Glass and Robert Wilson will recieve its Washington premiere at Wolf Trap.

Even some of Glass's most sympathetic critics have suggested that he may be producing too much music and that it is not up to standard. Glass has acknowledged this, with his typical pragmatism. "It's in my nature to write a lot of music," he said. "Some works will naturally be stronger than other ones. But if you take the long view, the music continues to evolve over the years."

Although he is now probably the most commercially successful composer of concert and opera music in the world, Glass continues to live simply in a cluttered town house in New York's East Village. The man himself? Funny. Loyal. Unpretentious. Unfailingly generous to younger colleagues. Both deeply disciplined and more than a little abstracted. I stopped reviewing Philip's new work almost a decade ago because I was increasingly uncomfortable with the business of "judging" a friend I had made long before I became a professional journalist. Virgil Thomson used to insist he could write a fair, unsparing assessment of his grandmother -- and, indeed, maybe Thomson could have pulled it off. But most of us don't particularly want to review our grandmothers. Or our friends.

One of the last Glass pieces I covered for a daily paper was his Violin Concerto (1987). I was underwhelmed and said so -- probably too strongly, in the off-with-their-heads style of many young critics. Still, when next we met, Philip's response was cheerful -- and typical. "Oh, that's all right, Tim," he said. "I don't like everything you write, either."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar