Philip Glass, Composer

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Intricate photographic thread tapestry portrait of Philip Glass by his friend, Chuck Close; Phoenix Art Museum

In the 1970s when I was a young woman hearing Philip Glass’ music for the first time, I didn’t like it. The repetitiveness of it bored me, then bothered me.

That all changed on June 4, 2016, when a friend and I went to a Phoenix Symphony concert where Glass’ The Secret Agent was performed. I didn’t expect to like it. Instead, it was my favorite piece on the program, one that I frequently now seek out.

In researching today’s post, I read a fascinating and detailed article on Wikipedia. Rather than try to paraphrase it, I have pulled out a few interesting segments; if you want more information on Philip Glass, I direct you to that link above.

Philip Glass was born January 31, 1937. He is an accomplished pianist and one of the most influential American composers of the late 20th century through today. Glass’s work has been described as minimalism, being built up from repetitive phrases and shifting layers.

Glass founded the Philip Glass Ensemble, with which he still performs on keyboards.

You may just want this music playing in the background as you work today:

He was the son of Lithuanian-Jewish emigrants. His father owned a record store and his mother was a librarian. At the end of World War II his mother aided Jewish Holocaust survivors, inviting recent arrivals to America to stay at their home until they could find a job and a place to live.  She developed a plan to help them learn English and acquire skills they would need for work.

Glass inherited his appreciation of music from his father, who often received promotional copies of new recordings at his music store. He spent many hours listening to them, developing his knowledge and taste in music. This openness to modern sounds affected Glass at an early age. He wrote in his memoir, “My father was self-taught, but he ended up having a very refined and rich knowledge of classical, chamber, and contemporary music. Typically he would come home and have dinner, and then sit in his armchair and listen to music until almost midnight. I caught on to this very early, and I would go and listen with him.”

Glass built a sizable record collection from the unsold records in his father’s store, including modern classical music such as Hindemith, Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Western classical music including Beethoven’s string quartets and Schubert’s B♭ Piano Trio. Glass cites Schubert as a “big influence” growing up, his favorite composer, and by coincidence, shares his birthday with him.

At the age of 15, he entered an accelerated college program at the University of Chicago where he studied mathematics and philosophy. In Chicago he discovered the serialism of Anton Webern and composed a twelve-tone string trio. In 1954 Glass traveled to Paris, where he encountered the films of Jean Cocteau, which made a lasting impression on him. He visited artists’ studios and saw their work; he said, “the bohemian life you see in [Cocteau’s] Orphée was the life I … was attracted to, and those were the people I hung out with.”

Glass studied at the Juilliard School of Music where the keyboard was his main instrument. One of his fellow students was another favorite composer of mine, musical satirist Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach).

In 1964, Glass received a Fulbright Scholarship; his studies in Paris with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, from autumn of 1964 to summer of 1966, influenced his work throughout his life, as the composer admitted in 1979: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart.”

His distinctive style arose in part from Ravi Shankar’s perception of rhythm in Indian music as being entirely additive. Glass renounced all his compositions in a moderately modern style resembling Milhaud’s, Aaron Copland’s, and Samuel Barber’s, and began writing pieces based on repetitive structures of Indian music and a sense of time influenced by Samuel Beckett.

Despite being an accomplished musician and composer, in the early years he did not completely support himself from his art. In addition to his music career, Glass had a moving company with his cousin, the sculptor Jene Highstein, and also worked as a plumber and cab driver (during 1973 to 1978). He remembers installing a dishwasher and looking up from his work to see an astonished Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s art critic, staring at him.

Though he finds the term minimalist inaccurate to describe his later work, Glass does accept this term for pieces up to and including Music in 12 Parts, excepting this last part which “was the end of minimalism” for Glass. As he pointed out: “I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I’d written through it and come out the other end.” He now prefers to describe himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”.

Here is more music to run in the background as you work:

Glass composed his first violin concerto with his father in mind: “His favorite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos. … So when I decided to write a violin concerto, I wanted to write one that my father would have liked.”

Philip Glass’ body of work includes numerous operas and musical theatre works, twelve symphonies, eleven concertos, eight string quartets and various other chamber music, and film scores. Three of his film scores, Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002), and Notes on a Scandal (2006), were nominated for Academy Awards; in 1998 he won the Golden Globe for best original score for The Truman Show.

Fun fact: Glass is the first cousin once removed of Ira Glass, host of the radio show This American Life.

About Andrea R Huelsenbeck

Andrea R Huelsenbeck is a wife, a mother of five and a former elementary general music teacher. A freelance writer in the 1990s, her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared in Raising Arizona Kids, Christian Library Journal, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult mystical fantasy novel and a mystery.

4 responses »

  1. Interesting post. I had similar thoughts as you about Philip Glass at first. I was introduced to his music in a college elective class, that covered music history from Beethoven to modern times. Glass was not my favorite. Then, years later, I watched the romantic comedy movie, “No Reservations,” and I really loved the movie and its soundtrack. The soundtrack has some Italian opera, jazz and instrumental music by Philip Glass that was used in some of the more serious, poignant scenes. I checked out “Secret Agent” and will have to give some of the other pieces a listen. You might find my latest post interesting. It’s in the music category. It features different musical/cultural mashups — rock songs using folk instruments or western songs with traditional Chinese instruments and lots of other combinations like that.

    Liked by 1 person

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