Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 1 of 8): Introduction

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

"I don't remember breathing.  I do, though, remember weeping."

Let's provide some context: the above quotation comes from Robert T. Jones describing his experience during a performance of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach.  He states:
Suffice it to say that by the end of the first Train scene, my own ideas of the possibilities of music had been turned upside down and inside out.  As Robert Wilson's intricate and beautiful stage images came and went, as Philip Glass' music seemed to breathe the bounds of the possible, I watched and listened in a state of awe.
For those of us familiar with the past hundred years of Western art music, the reasons behind this reaction are understandable.  The tale goes that, at the beginning of the 20th century, classical music was becoming increasingly atonal and complex, starting with Schoenberg and Webern, and evolving into total serialism with composers like Pierre Boulez and other members of the Darmstadt School.

However in the 1960s, the pendulum of history began to swing in the other direction, and a new sound took shape on the East and West Coasts of the United States, a sound we now call minimalism.  This music, characterized by repetition and an embrace of tonality, was radically different from the total serialism spreading from Europe.  Among the main founders (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and others), perhaps no one has reached such a superstar level as Philip Glass has.  Finding fame well outside the classical music realm, he has been parodied on shows such as South Park and The Colbert Report, made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live where they replaced the opening music with his piece "Facades," and has even written material for Sesame Street.

It wasn't always this way.  Kurt Munkacsi describes an early public performance of Glass' music where an angry observer walked up to the ensemble and furiously banged his fist on the piano, berating the performers for not being able to play music, let alone scales.  And despite the above quote by Robert Jones, one of his first reviews of a Glass concert said:
The music and the films were artistically limited enough to be merely trivial, lacking even the sophistication to raise them into the class of the primitive.  And this despite the electronics involved.
Or how about Donald Henahan, who in a review of Glass' opera, Ahknaten, wrote:
[Glass' operas] stand to music as the sentence "See Spot Run" stands to literature. 
Ouch!  But in spite of the many critics that derided the music, there was a growing faction of society that was moved by the hypnotic and mesmerizing sounds Glass had to offer.  Most were introduced to this new music during performances of Einstein on the Beach.  In an interview, the composer John Adams recollected an early concert he attended featuring excerpts from the opera:
That disturbed me... I remember driving home alone in the car, feeling very violent emotions about it.  On one level I didn't like it because I found some of it just mindlessly repetitive—the structures were so obvious.  Yet I think that the reason I was upset was that there must have been something else about it that I found extremely appealing, and I couldn't quite rectify the two conflicting emotions in my head.
Ransom Wilson, a conductor and flautist, remembers seeing the opera during one of its two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976:
There were no intermissions.  The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house.  Suddenly, at a point some four hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level.  People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my body was covered in goose bumps.
Others were introduced through Glass' work with film directors; Koyaanisqatsi, The Truman Show, The Hours, Kundun, and The Thin Blue Line are among the many movies Glass has written music for.  Collaborations with musicians such as Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Ravi Shankar, and Aphex Twin have also been widely successful.  Glass has even written music inspired by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Although I have described Philip Glass in a number of ways, I have only scratched the surface of his vast repertoire and profound impact.  It is my goal that this series will be helpful to those who read it, and provide context for his arrival in a few weeks.  We'll journey together and uncover Glass' upbringing, the difficult early years, and the subsequent fame and fortune.  We'll discuss his most important works, and listen to the music that brought him notoriety.  Throughout it all, I hope you will discover a new favorite work, or revisit a piece that had previously escaped your memory.  Maybe you will find that one of your favorite films has music by Philip Glass, or one of your favorite artists has worked with him.  In the end, I hope you'll have a greater appreciation for this influential American composer.

Part 2 - The Early Years


  1. I enjoyed this very much and love the history you provide in your writings. I look forward to following this series and have bookmarked this blog!

  2. I really enjoyed this a lot! Your writing style and content expertise is admirable and awesome. I will continue to listen to the rest of the series.

  3. This article is giving us an up close look at a truly great composer. Look forward to the entire series.