"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."
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.
"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
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