Philip Glass

Born 1937

Philip Glass

Composer • Keyboards


Philip Glass is an American composer and performer. He was one of the principal figures in establishing minimalism in the 1960s and has since become one of the most critically acclaimed and globally successful composers of his generation. His style has evolved significantly since the minimalist years - he currently describes himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures" rather than a minimalist. He is celebrated for his operas, musical theatre works, ten symphonies, eleven concertos, many solo works, chamber music and film scores.

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937 and began learning the violin from the age of six and the flute from the age of eight. At the age of twelve, he began composing and in the following few years worked part-time at his father’s record store. Glass left school at age 15 to start his university studies, as part of the University of Chicago’s early entrance programme. In Chicago he studied piano with Marcus Rasking, who introduced him to 12-tone technique, an element he adopted into his compositions, but had abandoned again by the time of his graduation in 1956. After graduating with a BA in Liberal Arts, he enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York, studying composition with Bergsma and Perischetti. During his Juilliard years, as well as having his compositions widely performed in the student sphere, he also wrote music for the dance department of the school and also took a course in film scoring. He took part in a summer school in Aspen in 1960 in which he attended Darius Milhaud’s composition class.

Glass went to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger. He described his two years in Paris as a re-education in the elements of music. Around 1965, his minimalist style was beginning to emerge. He wrote the score for Samuel Beckett’sPlay, which consisted of two overlapping soprano saxophones, each playing a single pitch, repeated in different rhythms. In 1966 he wrote his String Quartet, which is significantly representative of Glass’s transitional style. The structural principle is symmetrical rather than the cyclical structure that he was to become famed for in his later work; additionally, it does not exhibit the pronounced pulsation of his later New York works.

On returning to New York in early 1967, Glass attended a concert of Steve Reich’s at Park Place Gallery. Reich and Glass formed a symbiotic friendship in which they analysed each other’s work and performed in each other’s ensembles.

Glass’s works from the late 1960s include Strung Out for amplified solo violin, Music in the Shape of a Square for two flutes, as a homage to Satie and One Plus One, (originally called 1+1) for amplified tabletop. These pieces were written at a time when he was receiving composition lessons from Alla Rakha, the tabla accompanist of the pre-eminent sitar player Ravi Shankar. Glass had many performances in 1968 but he considered the performance at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque to be his début, on 19 May 1968, in which he performedStrung Out andMusic in the Shape of a Square.

On 25 July 1976, Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach  was premiered in Avignon, France by the Philip Glass Ensemble. The opera catapulted Glass to fame after its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November of the same year. The opera was a collaboration with the director Robert Wilson and was conceived as a metaphorical look at Einstein. It is devoid of any plot and has been termed by musicologists as a ‘theatre of visions’, combining media in a non-narrative manner, more reminiscent of a dream than the usual sequence of an opera. Instead of a plot, there are various dramatized icons drawn from Einstein’s life (a violin), his work (the trains of the theory of relativity), and their implications (a spaceship). The performance in the Metropolitan Opera was five hours in duration, in which the audience was free to come and go as they pleased – it was almost a glorified installation, incorporating opera singers reciting numbers, notebook jottings and sometimes switching to monologues. The Washington Post declared it "one of the seminal artworks of the century."

Image by Steve Pyke

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Glass formed an ensemble and with it, a uniquely distinctive ensemble style of music: highly amplified, diatonic, harmonically static, with additive and subtractive cycles and mechanical rhythms. The sound was more evocative of rock music than any form of Western music heard previously. Its sound and aesthetic had little in common with the serialism and late modernism of the period. The Philip Glass Ensemble consisted of: Jon Gibson, Dickie Landry, Richard Peck, Jack Kripl and Richard Prado in the wind section; Steve Chambers and Michael Riesman on keyboards and occasionally the sopranos Iris Hiskey and Dora Ohrenstein and cellist Beverley Lauridsen and violinist Barbara Benary. The sound engineer Kurt Munkacsi joined the ensemble in 1970 and contributed hugely to Glass’s first recordings.

The ensemble performed Music in Similar Motion and Music with Changing Parts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969 and at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970, and was confronted with many hostile reactions from critics, but enthusiasm from the younger public. Brian Eno’s impression of Glass’s music was "..this was actually the most detailed music I'd ever heard. It was all intricacy..." and “most extraordinary musical experiences of my life”, also finding it to be “a viscous bath of pure, thick energy”.

Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, composed between 1971 and 1974, is four hours long. It was originally written as a single piece but developed into a cycle, summing up Glass’s achievement since 1967. This piece is, in essence, marking the end of an era. Glass accepts the termminimalism to refer to his work up to and includingMusic in Twelve Parts, 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.” After that, he was on to new paradigms.

Glass’s next two large-scale works, Satyagraha, a depiction of Ghandi, and Akhnaten, a study of an Egyptian Pharaoh, mark his approach to more conventional instrumental use.

Glass dedicated himself to vocal work with his Three Songs for Chorus in 1984, which were setting of poems by Leonard Cohen, Octavio Paz and Raymond Levesque, as well as a song cycle,Songs from Liquid Days in 1985, in which the Kronos Quartet is featured strongly. He worked with the novelist Doris Lessing on the operaThe Making of the Representative for Planet 8, between 1985 and 1986. He also composed String Quartets No. 4 and No. 5 for the Kronos Quartet. Another chamber work of note isGlassworks for wind instruments and synthesiser, which is said to sound "glass-like". It was intended to be accessible to a wider audience. It has since been arranged forsolo piano.

In the late 1980s, Glass turned to symphonic writing. The most prominent work of this period is his Violin Concerto No. 1 from 1987, dedicated to the memory of his father. In the late 1990s and 2000s, Glass’s lyrical symphonic style peaked: his Symphony No. 5Choral and Symphony No. 7 Toltec are meditative while his Symphony No. 6Plutoneon Ode is based on Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem.

Glass wrote many works for solo piano, such as Metamorphosis, which was used in the film score ofThe Thin Blue Line. He composed Études for piano which he recorded himself. Most of theÉtudes are in the post-minimalist and increasingly lyrical style of his early 1990s output “from Baroque passagework to Romantic tinged moods”. Glass's Dreaming Awake (2003) was composed for a Tibetan Buddhist organisation, Jewel Heart and reaches the pinnacle of his dramatic expression.

In 2009 and 2010, Glass returned to the concerto: his Violin Concerto No. 2 was subtitledThe American Four Seasons as a nod to Vivaldi, premiered by the Toronto Symphony orchestra. His Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and Orchestra was composed for soloists and as a ballet score for the Netherlands Dance Theatre.

Aside from composing in the Western traditions, Glass has a considerable affinity with world music, electronic music, rock and ambient music. He has collaborated with Mick Jagger, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Aphex Twin.

Philip Glass has stated that Franz Schubert, whom he shares his birthday with, is his favourite composer and currently describes himself as a "classicist".