Philip Glass Now 75

by Richard Kostelanetz (July 2012)

Born 31 January 1937, to the day 140 years after Franz Schubert, Philip Glass grew up in Baltimore, the son of a record shop proprietor who fortuitously took home the modern-music discs that didn’t sell. As a teenager, Philip attended his city’s toughest public high school (called “City College”) while taking lessons in the flute at the local Peabody Conservatory. He matriculated early (at 16) at the University of Chicago, which has always been a more serious school, and then to Juilliard, then as now the most daunting music conservatory in America.

During the summer of 1960, he worked with the distinguished composer Darius Milhaud. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, Glass went to Paris in 1964 where he studied for two years with Nadia Boulanger, a legendary music pedagogue, who had also taught Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, among many other prominent Americans. In sum, by the time he turned thirty, Glass had received as rich an education as any American composer ever had. Innovative though his compositions have been, they nonetheless reflect such sophisticated preparation.

Returning to New York in 1967, he quickly made friends (and learned much) in avant-garde art and theater, co-founding Mabou Mines with his then-wife Joanne Akalaitis. To support his family, soon with two children, he often worked as a taxi driver and an artist’s assistant (to Richard Serra, among others).

Unable to get musicians to play his compositions, in the late-1960s Glass took the radical step of organizing an eponymous ensemble that still exists. He even self-published recordings of his music. Within only a few years, miraculously it now seems, he became a celebrity within this downtown esthetically fertile and yet discriminating community now remembered with the epithet SoHo.

Characterized as “minimal,” because it was less elaborate than traditional classical music, this early music is more accurately described as Modular, because he often worked with musical motifs that were repeated. “Musique répétitive” is an appropriate French epithet. While his contemporaries the composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley likewise worked modularly, the epitome of truly minimal music in the 1960s, by contrast, was LaMonte Young’s, which now seems a precursor of much so-called noise music that is likewise doggedly minimal.

Shrewder economically than most composers, Glass learned early that he could collect more money from his increasingly popular works if he performed them as well. Refusing to release his scores to others, he required concert promoters around the world to hire his eponymous ensemble, which would tour in a big bus, much like pop bands. When companies recorded his music, he collected fees as the composer, the music publisher, a performer, the owner of the “mechanical” licenses, and much else. Not unlike other sometime taxi drivers, Glass came to treasure every penny. He also hired lawyers to protect his interests. (Though he has disappointed scores of performers among others who thought they would be working with him, the personnel of his eponymous ensemble have remained mostly intact for decades.) A valuable book could be written about his entrepreneurial intelligence.

Glass’s single richest composition, in my considered opinion, is Music in Twelve Parts (1974), which is an extended masterpiece in this modular style. The best of his many operas is the first, Einstein on the Beach (1976), which has been revived yet again to tour Europe and then America, to remind everyone (some of whom might have forgotten) that Philip Glass ranks among the greatest American composers.

Soon afterwards, Glass began to compose for theater and film music that was less innovative and thus more accessible. Musicians other than his ensemble would play some of it. While some recent compositions for small ensembles echo his earlier spare style, most of his later music, especially for film, is thinner and more popular. Like no one else in our time, yet much like Aaron Copland before him, Glass has succeeded as both an elite composer and a popular composer.

(Less than 200 words from this text appeared in the book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)


Richard Kostelanetz wrote A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1999) and SoHo: The Rise and Fall of An Artists’ Colony (2003), in addition to editing Writing on Glass (1998).

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