Connecting with people through his music has been the credo of Philip Glass for some forty years. As far back as 1967 he viewed the modern music scene as being transformed by “a generation of composers who were in open revolt against the academic musical world.” He said,” I personally knew that I didn’t want to spend my life writing music for a handful of people…I wanted to play for thousands of people; I was always interested in a larger audience. I saw that possibility from a very early age and I unswervingly set myself that goal.”
Glass restored a vital component to music: the composer as performer. The Philip Glass Ensemble, formed in 1968, became the core of his endeavors, a group driven by his sense of innovation and business savvy. As the son of a record-store owner, he knew the importance of selling his music. Rather than have others perform his music, Glass banked on the broad appeal of what he himself had to directly offer his public with his ensemble of amplified flutes, saxophones, keyboards, and synthesizers. “I felt that if I had a monopoly on the music, that as the music became known there would be more work for the ensemble.” Determined from the start to provide financial support for his ensemble and ensure performances of high quality, Glass worked for ten years at a variety of day jobs, as cab driver, plumber, and furniture mover. By 1978, however, with grants and commissions assured, he was able to concentrate on composing.
Performances of northern Indian music by Ravi Shankar he heard in Paris in the early 1960’s helped lead him to “a whole different way of thinking about music.” His resulting accessible style, often simplistically labeled “minimalism,” has typically meant working with basic rhythmic cells in an additive, cyclic process. While seemingly rather static and incantatory, this is a music that invites the listener to shed conventional standard listening habits, freeing one from memory and anticipation, in favor of savoring the moment–“to be able to perceive the music as a ‘presence’, freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound.”
Virtually all of Glass’s works from the mid-70’s on have been for dance, film, or theater. My favorite among his film scores, Koyaanisqatsi— the title is inspired by a Hopi word for “life out of balance”– was released in 1983. It was produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio, and presented by Francis Ford Coppolla. This 87-minute film provides a uniquely rich experience in savoring. Lacking any narrative or any identifiable character or dialogue, it presents the viewer with a series of compelling images, including clouds chasing clouds across the desert of New Mexico, the dynamiting of a failed housing project, crowds swarming in and out of Grand Central Station, road rage driving patterns on one of the Los Angeles freeways, and much more. Glass substantially expands his initial instrumental ensemble to include a vocal ensemble—one hears dark oracular voices at various points– as well as lower strings and brass, namely violas, cellos, double basses, French horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba. This is a remarkably prescient film anticipating in many ways the disturbing message of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Glass’s mostly widely acclaimed music for the theater is represented by his operatic trilogy about “historical figures who changed the course of world events through the wisdom and strength of their inner vision.” They are Einstein on the Beach (premiered in 1976 with a title shared with Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel ), Satyagraha (1980, the story of Gandhi’s nonviolent struggles starting in South Africa and continuing in India), and Akhnaten (1983, about an Egyptian pharaoh martyred for his monotheism).
A work I have particularly come to love is his 1987 concerto for violin and orchestra, a medium realizing his dramatic convictions. For him, the concerto form is “more theatrical and more personal” than pure orchestral music. Written in three contrasting movements and using a conventional orchestra, Glass’s work brings together his trademark permutations of cyclic rhythmic cells with a romantic warmth and soaring lyricism. Most memorable for me are the slow movement, with its solemn ground bass and passionate solo violin utterances, and the ebullient finale culminating in a slow coda with a solo line soaring into the stratosphere as we savor what we recall from the start of the work.