Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 2 of 8): The Early Years

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.

For those who missed it: Part 1 - Introduction

Philip Glass began his life on the 31st of January, 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up as "a very active, precocious, athletic boy," according to his sister, often driving his mother "mad."

His father owned a radio repair shop on Howard Street that also sold records, and every Saturday, Philip and his brother would work and get to hear whatever was playing through the speakers.  Oftentimes, it was classical music, and it was from this that Philip began his lifelong love with the genre.  He started taking violin lessons at the age of six, and at age eight, he became the youngest person to enroll at the Peabody Conservatory.  He took a fancy to the flute, and in a few years time started composing music.  His brother once joked about how Philip received a "C-" on a composition assignment: "somebody must've been grading it that really didn't foresee his ultimate talent..."

At age fifteen, he earned a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago, and majored in mathematics and philosophy.  It was during this time that he began admiring the music of other American composers, such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.  After he graduated, he made the major decision to pursue composition and enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York.  While there, he studied with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma.  One of his fellow composition students was none other than Steve Reich, who would also play a major role in the minimalist movement.

However, instead of writing in the repetitive and tonal style he would be known for, Glass was busy composing serial twelve-tone pieces, often for "three or four hours" at a time, completely uninterrupted.  In the past, Glass has spoken about the music he composed during this time as if "they were written by somebody else;" he would later withdrew all of these pieces from performance and publication.

After graduating from Juilliard, Glass moved to Paris.  There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the same teacher of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliot Carter.  Lessons with her were "frightening" according to Glass:
You did not want to make mistakes in her presence; she could have a tantrum.  The lesson would stop, and I would be in for a personal assault on my qualities as a human being... I would crawl out of the room.  You just didn't want to go through that twice.  After that, I never brought any mistakes.
Through this rigorous training, Boulanger gave Glass "a complete confidence in what [he] could do."

And when he wasn't busy practicing, Glass was encountering a wide array of musical styles that were completely foreign to him.  In particular, he had a life-changing experience with the sitarist Ravi Shankar and his colleague Alla Rakha.  Glass was hired to transcribe Shankar's music...
I was writing down the music, and I would play it back, and he said "no, no, no... the accents are wrong, the accents are wrong... all the beats are the same."  I didn't know what he meant.
Through trial and error, Glass eventually removed the bar lines, thus eliminating the Western division of the beats.  He played it back, and finally understood what was meant by "all the beats are the same."

Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar provided the means for Glass to move forward with his composition...
It's almost like I spent my days with Boulanger, and my evenings with Ravi Shankar, and I became the child of them both... she taught through terror, and he taught through love... the collision of their intellects happened inside of me.
For Glass, this collision proved to be fruitful.  The Western harmonies fused with the steady, unbiased rhythms of India and created the musical style he would be known for.

After making this discovery, he decided to put it to work, and flew back to New York...

Part 3 - The Move Back to New York, and Minimalism


  1. This is a very interesting perspective. Isn't it remarkable how important his associations with real musical elites provided him such a background to the growth of his music. Look forward to the rest of the articles to come.

  2. really enjoying this well-researched and well-written article. Keep them coming.

  3. Love the background you provide. Looking forward to reading the entire series!

  4. very very interesting article.