Philip Glass (1937-  )

Born in Baltimore on January 31, 1937, Philip Glass discovered music in his father's radio repair shop. In addition to servicing radios, Ben Glass carried a line of records and, when certain ones sold poorly, he would take them home and play them for his three children, trying to discover why they didn't appeal to customers. These happened to be recordings of the great chamber works, and the future composer rapidly became familiar with Beethoven quartets, Schubert sonatas, Shostakovich symphonies and other music then considered "off-beat". It was not until he was in his upper teens that Glass began to encounter more "standard" classics.

Glass began the violin at six and became serious about music when he took up the flute at eight. But by the time he was 15, he had become frustrated with the limited flute repertory as well as with the musical life in post-war Baltimore. During his second year in high school, he applied for admission to the University of Chicago, was accepted, and, with his parent's encouragement, moved to Chicago where he partly supported him-self with part-time jobs waiting tables and loading air-planes at airports. He majored in mathematics and philosophy, and in off hours practiced piano and concentrated on such composers as Ives and Webern.

At nineteen, Glass graduated from the University of Chicago and, determined to become a composer, moves to New York and the Julliard School. By then he had abandoned the 12-tone techniques he had been using in Chicago and preferred American composers like Aaron Copland and William Schuman.

By the time he was twenty-three, Glass had studied with Vincent Persichetti, Darius Milhaud and William Bergsma. He had rejected serialism and preferred such maverick composers as Harry Partch, Ives, Moondog, Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, but he still had not found his own voice. Still searching, he moved to Paris for two years of intensive study under Nadia Boulanger.

In Paris, he was hired by a film-maker to transcribe the Indian music of Ravi Shankar in notation readable by French musicians and, in the process, discovered the techniques of Indian music. Glass promptly renounced his previous music and, after researching music in North Africa, India and the Himalayas, returned to New York and began applying Eastern techniques to his own work.

By 1976, he has composed a large collection of new music, much of it for use by theater companies and his own performing group, the Philip Glass Ensemble. This period included Music in 12 Parts, a four hour summation of Glass' new music, and the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach, now seen as a landmark in 20th century music theater.

Glass' output since Einstein has ranged from opera (Satyagraha, Akhnaten, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Juniper Tree) to film (Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima, The Thin Blue Line, Powaqqatsi) to dance (A Descent into the Maelstrom and In the Upper Room ), and such unclassifiable theater pieces as The Photographer and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, and numerous recordings. Among his recently completed work are Itapú, a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra based on South American Indian legends, and Hydrogen Juke-box, with libretto by Allen Ginsberg. Among his works in progress are Orphée, a chamber opera based on a film by Jean Cocteau, and The Voyage, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its 1992 season, and Through the Eye of the Raven, a collaboration with Robert Wilson.

Although he loathes the term, Glass if often classified as a "minimalist" composer, along with such composers as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams. His music is based on the extended repetition of a brief, elegant melodic fragments that weave in and out an aural tapestry. Listening to this music is something like watching a challenging painting that initially appeared static, but seems to metamorphose slowly as one concentrates. Compositional material is usually limited to a few elements, which are the subjected to a transformation processes. One shouldn't expect Westernized musical events - sforzandos, sudden diminuendos - in this music; rather, the listener is immersed in a sonic weather that surrounds, twists, turns, develops.

Glass prefers to speak of his work as "music with repetitive structures". His busy, tonal, aggressively rhythmic compositions would seem to mark a spiritual break with the spare, atonal and largely arhythmic world of the 50s and 60s avant-guardists. One thing is certain: Philip Glass has brought a new and enthusiastic audience to contemporary music.

(See article on Minimalism)  (See the article on The Operas of Philip Glass)