Philip Glass (born January 31, 1937) is an American composer. His music is frequently described as minimalist, though he prefers the term theatre music. He is considered one of the most influential composers of the late-20th century and is widely acknowledged as a composer who has brought art music to the public (apart from precursors such as Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein), in creating an accessibility not previously recognised by the broader market. Glass is extremely prolific as a composer; he has written ensemble works, operas, symphonies, concertos, film scores and for the piano. Glass counts many visual artists, writers, musicians and directors among his friends, including Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Doris Lessing, the late Allen Ginsberg, Robert Wilson, Godfrey Reggio, Ravi Shankar, David Bowie, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and electronic musician Aphex Twin, who have all collaborated with him. He is Buddhist and a strong supporter of the Tibetan cause. In 1987 he co-founded the Tibet House with Columbia University professor Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere. He has two children from his marriage to JoAnne Akalaitis, a theater director (m. 1965, div. 1980), Zachary (b.1969) and Juliet (b. 1971). Glass lives in New York and in Nova Scotia.
Life and Work
Beginnings, education and influences
Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland as the son of Jewish migrants from Lithuania. His father owned a record store, and his very refined record collection consisted to a large extent of unsold records, and thus Glass encountered modern music (Hindemith, Bartók, Shostakovich) and classical music, (Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartets and Schubert's two Piano Trios), at a very early age. He then studied the flute as a child at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and entered an accelerated college program at the University of Chicago at the age of 15, where he studied Mathematics and Philosophy. He then went on to the Juilliard School of Music where he switched to play the keyboard primarily; his composition teachers included Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. In the summer of 1960 he studied with Darius Milhaud, and composed a Violin Concerto for a fellow student, Dorothy Pixley-Rothschild.
A next step was Paris, where he studied with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger from 1963 to 1965, analysing scores of Johann Sebastian Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the Piano Concertos) and Beethoven. Glass later stated in his autobiography Music by Philip Glass (1987) that the new music performed at Pierre Boulez's Domaines Musicale concerts in Paris lacked any excitement for him (with notable exceptions of the music by John Cage and Morton Feldman), but he was deeply impressed by performances of new plays at Jean-Louis Barrault's Odéon theatre and the films of the French New Wave, by auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
After the work with Ravi Shankar in France on a film score (Chappaqua), Glass travelled, mainly for religious reasons, to north India in 1966, where he came in contact with Tibetan refugees. He became a Buddhist, and met Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in 1972.
His distinctive style arose from his work with Ravi Shankar and his perception of rhythm in Indian music as being entirely additive. When he returned home he renounced all his earlier compositions which were written in a moderately modern style comparable to the music of Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, and began writing austere pieces based on additive rhythms and a sense of time influenced by Samuel Beckett, whose work he encountered when he was writing for experimental theater. The first of the early pieces in this minimalist idiom was the music for a production of Beckett's play Comédie, 1963, in 1965 for two soprano saxophones, a fourth was a string quartet (No.1, 1966).
Minimalism: From Strung Out to Music in 12 Parts
Finding little sympathy from traditional performers and performance spaces, Glass eventually formed an ensemble in New York City in the late 60s with fellow ex-students Steve Reich, Jon Gibson and others, and began performing mainly in art galleries. These galleries were the only real connection between musical minimalism and minimalist visual art — apart from personal friendships with visual artists, who had similar aesthetic interests, and were supporting Glass's and Reich's musical activities (and often made the posters for concerts).
The first concert of Philip Glass's new music was at Jonas Mekas's Film-Makers Cinematheque in 1968. This concert included Music in the shape of a square for two flutes (an homage to Erik Satie, performed by Glass and Gibson) and Strung Out for amplified solo violin (performed by the violinist Pixley-Rothschild). The musical scores were tacked on the wall, and the performers had to move while playing. Glass's new works met with a very enthusiastic response by the open-minded audience which consisted mainly of visual and performance artists, who were highly sympathetic to Glass's reductive approach.
Apart from performing his music he worked as a cab-driver, had a moving company with Steve Reich and worked as an assistant for the sculptor Richard Serra. During this time made friends with other New York based artists like Sol LeWitt, Nancy Graves, Laurie Anderson and Chuck Close. After certain differences of opinion with Steve Reich, Glass formed his own Philip Glass Ensemble (while Reich formed Steve Reich and Musicians), an amplified ensemble including keyboards, wind instruments (saxophones, flutes) and soprano voice. At first his works continued to be rigorously minimalist, diatonic and repetitively structured, such as Two Pages, Contrary Motion or Music in Fifths (a kind of an homage to his composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who spotted out "hidden Fifths" in his student works). Eventually Glass's music grew less austere, becoming more complex and dramatic, and in his consideration, not minimalist at all, with pieces such as Music in Similar Motion (1969), Music with Changing Parts (1970). The series culminated in the four-hour-long Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974), which was begun as a sole piece in twelve instrumental parts, but developed into a cycle which summed up Glass' musical achievement since 1967, and even transcended it — the last part features a twelve-note theme, sung by the soprano voice of the ensemble.
The Portrait Trilogy: Einstein on the Beach, Sathyagraha and Akhnaten
Glass continued his work with two series of instrumental works, Another Look at Harmony (1975) and Fourth Series (1978-79), but in turn his music theatre works from this time became more famous. The first one was a collaboration with Robert Wilson - a music theatrical piece which was later designated by Glass as the first opera of his portrait opera trilogy: Einstein on the Beach (composed in 1975 and first performed in 1976), featuring his ensemble, solo violin, chorus and actors. The piece was praised by the Washington Post as "One of the seminal artworks of the century."
Glass continued his work for music theatre with composing his opera Satyagraha (1980), themed on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi and his experiences in South Africa. This piece also was a turning point for Glass, as it was his first one scored for symphony orchestra after about 15 years, even if the most prominent parts were still reserved for solo voices (but now operatic) and chorus.
The Trilogy was completed with Akhnaten (1983-1984), a powerful vocal and orchestral composition sung in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Ancient Egyptian. In addition this opera featured an actor, reciting ancient Egyptian texts in the language of the audience. Akhnaten was commissioned by the Stuttgart Opera. At the time of the commission, the Stuttgart Opera House was undergoing renovation, necessitating the use of a nearby playhouse with a smaller orchestra pit. Upon learning this, Glass and conductor Dennis Russell Davies visited the playhouse, placing music stands around the pit to determine how many players the pit could accommodate. The two found that they could not fit a full orchestra in the pit. Glass decided to eliminate the violins, which had the effect of "giving the orchestra a low, dark sound that came to characterize the piece and suited the subject very well" (Music by Philip Glass, DaCapo Press, 1985, p.170). In the same year Glass again collaborated with Robert Wilson on another opera, the CIVIL warS, premiered at the Opera of Rome.
Theatre music: Glass and Samuel Beckett
Glass's work for theater from this time (apart from his works for his ensemble and music theatre) included many compositions for the group Mabou Mines, which he co-founded in 1970. This work included further music (after the ground-breaking Play) for plays or adaptations from the prose by Samuel Beckett, such as The Lost Ones (1975), Cascando (1975), Mercier and Camier (1979), Endgame (1984) and Company (1984). Beckett approved of the Mabou-Mines production The Lost Ones, but vehemently disapproved of the production of Endgame at the American Repertory Theatre (Cambridge, Massachusetts), which featured Joanne Akalaitis's direction and Glass's Prelude for timpani and double-bass. In the end though he authorized the music for Company, four short, intimate pieces for string quartet, which the were played in the intervals of the dramatization. This piece was eventually published as a String Quartet (Glass's second), and as a concert piece for string orchestra.
Postminimalism: From the Violin Concerto to the Symphony No.3
Starting with the composition of operas and theatre music, Glass has — especially since the late 1980s and early 1990s — written works more accessible to ensembles such as the string quartet and symphony orchestra, in this returning to the stylistic roots of his student days. In taking this direction his chamber and orchestral works were also written in a more and more traditional and lyrical vein. In his works, Glass occasionally even employs old musical forms such as the Chaconne - for instance in Sathyagraha (1980), and the slow movements of his Violin Concerto (1987) and the Symphony No.3 (1995). In the same way, his pieces often allude to historical styles (Baroque, Classical, early Romantic and early 20th century classical music), but mostly without abandoning his highly individual musical style or lapsing into mere pastiche.
A series of orchestral works which were originally composed for the concert hall commenced with an almost neo-baroque three-movement Violin Concerto (1987) in the idiom of Akhnaten. In 1992 the Concerto was performed and recorded by Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This turn to orchestral music was continued with a large-scale Sibelian symphonic Trilogy (The Light, The Canyon, Itaipu, 1987-1989), The Voyage, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and two three-movement symphonies, "Low" 1992, and Symphony No.2 (1994). Glass described his Symphony No.2 as a study in polytonality and referred to the music of Honegger, Milhaud and Villa-Lobos as possible models for his symphony, but the gloomy, brooding, dissonant tone of the piece seems to be even more evocative of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies.
Central to his chamber music from the same time are the last two from a series of five string quartets which were written for the Kronos Quartet (1989 and 1991), and the piece Music from The Screens (1989). These works show a very different side of Glass's output. The Screens has its roots in a theatre music collaboration with the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso and the director Joanne Akalaitis (Glass's first wife), and is, on occasion, a touring piece for Glass and Suso. Apart from Suso's influence, the musical texture is remotely evocative to classical European chamber music ranging from Bach's Sonatas and partitas for solo violin and the Suites for cello, to French chamber such as Claude Debussy's and Maurice Ravel's work in this genre.
With the Symphony No.3 (1995), commissioned by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, a more transparent, refined and intimate chamber-orchestral style resurfaced after the excursions of his large-scale symphonic pieces (mirroring similar developments in the work of his contemporary and collague Steve Reich). In its four movements Glass treats a 19-piece string orchestra as an extended chamber ensemble, and seems to evoke early classicism (Bach's string symphonies and Haydn's early symphonies show some quite similar stylistic features), as well as the neoclassicist music of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and again Ravel. In particular, the second movement is much freer than anything else before in Glass' output since 1966, whereas in the third Glass re-uses the Chaconne as a formal device, creating haunting string textures. The companion piece to the symphony is another Concerto (also 1995), written for The Raschér Saxophone Quartet, and also possibly inspired by Les Six and Mozart.
Music for Piano: Metamorphosis and the Etudes
Since the late 1980s Glass also has written more and more for solo piano, starting with a cycle of Five Pieces for a theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1988), and continuing with his first volume of Etudes for Piano (1994-1995). The first six Etudes were originally commissioned by the conductor and pianist Dennis Russel Davies, but the complete first set is now often performed by Glass — "who is no piano virtuoso" (John Rockwell) — himself. Rockwell dismissed Metamorphosis (as well as all other works by Glass since Akhnaten) as "simplistic", but praised the Etudes as "powerful", comparing them to Bartók's oeuvre for piano. Most of the Etudes are composed in the idiom of the Second and Third Symphonies and Saxophone Quartet Concerto as well as the Opera triptych from the same time (which is the subject of the next section), while others (Etude No.10) are composed in retrospect to Glass's style of the 1970s.
A second opera triptych: Orphée, La Belle et la Bête and Les Enfants Terribles
Glass's prolific output continued to include operas, especially a second opera triptych (1993-1996), based on the work of Jean Cocteau, his prose and his films (Orphée (1949), La Belle et la Bête (1946) and the novel Les Enfants Terribles, 1929, later made into a film by Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950). In the same way it is also a musical homage to the work of a French group of composers, associated with Cocteau, Les Six. Furthermore, in the first part of the trilogy, Orphée (1993), the inspiration can be (conceptually and musically) traced to Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orphée et Euridyce, 1762/1774), as pointed out by the writer K. Robert Schwarz. One theme of the opera, the death of Eurydice, has some similarity to the composer's personal life; the opera was composed about a year after the unexpected death of Glass's wife, the artist Candy Jernigan, in 1991 - "(...) one can only suspect that Orpheus grief must have resembled the composer's own" (K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists, 1996, p.164). Schwarz praised the opera's "transparency of texture, a subtlety of instrumental colour", and the The Guardian critic Andrew Clements remarked: "Glass has a real affinity for the French text and sets the words eloquently, underpinning them with delicately patterned instrumental textures."
Les Enfants Terribles (1996, scored for voices and three pianos), is indebted in its writing for the piano ensemble, as Orphee, to another key musical work from the 18th century: Bach's Concerto for Four Harpsichords (or four pianos) in A minor, BWV1065. It is perhaps no coincidence that Bach's Concerto was part of the soundtrack for the 1950 film, as was Gluck's opera for Cocteau's 1949 film Orphee.
Influences and connections
Besides working in the classical tradition for the concert hall, for theater and film, his music also has strong ties to rock, ambient music, electronic music and world music. His audiences in the early 1970s included musicians such as Brian Eno and David Bowie, who were impressed and eventually influenced by Glass's unorthodox style. Years later Glass (now friends with Bowie) orchestrated some of Bowie's and Eno's music from the albums Low and "Heroes" (which were originally written in Berlin in the late 1970s) in his first ("Low", 1992) and fourth ("Heroes", 1996) symphonies. In 1997, he produced Music for Airports, featuring an instrumental version of Brian Eno's album, performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Glass also collaborated with songwriters such as Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant and the electronic music artist Aphex Twin (resulting in an orchestration of Aphex Twin's piece Icct Hedral, in 1995). He owns a record label (Orange Mountain Music) and a recording studio, which is frequented by artists such as David Bowie, Björk, The Dandy Warhols, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop. Glass also influenced numerous musicians such as Mike Oldfield (he covered parts from Glass's North Star in Platinum), and bands including Tangerine Dream, Phish, Talking Heads and Coldplay (Clocks, A Rush of Blood to the Head, 2002). Film composers such as John Williams, James Horner, Howard Shore, Carter Burwell and Jon Brion are all influenced by Glass's musical style.
Music for film
Glass himself has also written many film scores, almost accidentally starting with his orchestral score for Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982) and continuing with two biopics - Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985, resulting the String Quartet No.3) and Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1997) about the Dalai Lama. He continued composing for the Qatsi trilogy with the scores for Powaqqatsi (Reggio, 1988) and Naqoyqatsi (Reggio, 2002). He even made a cameo appearance in Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998) (which uses music from Powaqqatsi), performing at the piano. In 1999 he wrote a new soundtrack for the 1931 film Dracula. The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002), Taking Lives (D. J. Caruso, 2004), and The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003) are the most notable scores for films from the early 2000s, containing older works but also newly composed music. He composed the score for Secret Window (David Koepp, 2004) and also composed the music for Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) and the sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (Bill Condon, 1995).
New Directions: Symphonies, Chamber Operas and Concerti
The trend of juxtapositioning the two idioms which started with the Etudes for Piano and Les Enfants Terribles, and also surfaced to some extend in a score for Godfrey Reggio's Naqoyqatsi (2002), in the Chamber Opera The Sound of a Voice (2003), to a lesser extend in the series of Concertos since 2000 (with mixed results), and in three symphonies which are centered on the interplay of either vocalist or chorus and orchestra. Two symphonies written in a very similar idiom, Symphony No.5 "Choral" (1999) and Symphony No.7 "Toltec" (2004), are based on religious or meditative themes, whereas Glass's operatic Symphony No.6 Plutonian Ode (2001), commissioned by the Brucknerhaus Linz and Carnegie Hall in honor of Glass' 65th birthday, started as a collaboration with the poet Allen Ginsberg (for reciter and piano - Ginsberg and Glass), based on his poem by the same title. In this piece Glass explored new, more complicated and dissonant textures in the first and second movement, only to return in the third movement to a sort of additive process with surprisingly fresh results.
In the year of the composition of this symphony, Glass married Holly Critchlow, a restaurant manager - he had met her four years earlier.
Recent works: Waiting for the Barbarians and the Symphony No.8
Glass's most recent piece of music theatre is his first opera on a grand scale in eight years, Waiting for the Barbarians, after J.M. Coetzee's novel, and with a libretto by Christopher Hampton. It was premiered in September 2005.
Only two months later, in November 2005, a Symphony No.8, commissioned by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. After three symphonies for voices and orchestra, this piece is a return to purely orchestral composition, and like previous works written for the conductor Dennis Russel Davies (the 1992 Concerto Grosso and the already mentioned Symphony No.3) it features extended solo writing (not unlike in the late 18th century Sinfonia concertante or Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra). In the New York Times, Allan Kozinn described the symphony's chromaticism as more extreme, more fluid and its themes and textures as continually changing, morphing without repetition, and he especially pointed out the "unpredictable orchestration" of the symphony, mentioning a "beautiful flute and harp variation in the melancholy second movement."
Future works include the choral work The Passion of Ramakrishna (2006), two symphonies (2007/08), a second Violin Concerto "The American Four Seasons" (to be premiered in 2008), and a second Volume of Etudes for piano.
Works for the Philip Glass Ensemble
Chamber operas, music theatre
Works for solo piano
Works for two pianos
Works for solo instruments
Other works for orchestra (with chorus and voices)
Works for chorus
Works for organ
Chamber music and albums with other musicians