After years of obscurity, composer Philip Glass, AB'56, has found his audience. His works have won the acclaim of opera buffs and rock-and-roll fans alike.
Avant-garde composer Philip Glass, AB’56, brought his ensemble to Mandel Hall last February. The kind of music he played would not have been heard there in his student days.
It would not have been heard because at the time no one was writing that kind of music.
Glass’ music, along with the work of fellow composers Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, has been termed “minimalist” or “trance-inducing” because of its constant repetition, elementary harmonies, and drone-like rhythms.
However, Glass’ music is difficult to place into any category of music. It draws from such diverse sources as Richard Wagner, jazz-player Miles Davis, the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, the Beatles, and the music he heard as a child in Beth Tfiloh synagogue in Baltimore, MD.
Glass says of his music: “It was a reaction against serialism, aleatory [based on chance methods], and other contemporary schools. The use of time is the big thing. In Western music we take time and divide it—whole notes into half notes into quarter notes—but in Eastern music they take very small units and add them together. They form rhythmic structures out of an additive process. We divide, they add. Then there’s a cyclical process, where you have something that lasts maybe thirty-five beats and then begin he cycle again. Then you join cycles of wheels, everything going at the same time and always changing.”
Glass, 45, first began to compose when he was a fifteen-year-old undergraduate in the College. He was a mathematics major; he took no music courses at the University. At the time, he composed serial music.
After graduation, Glass went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Later, he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, who taught such famous American composers as Aaron Copland and Lester Trimble. After leaving Boulanger in the 1960s, Glass was asked by the Indian musician, Ravi Shankar (who is most famous for his performances on the sitar), to help score and notate some Indian music. For Glass, this initial exposure to Eastern music was the turning point in his career. Glass found a body of music that contained great expression and beauty; he was captivated by it. He travelled to India, Morocco, and other Eastern and Near Eastern countries, to study their music.
Along the way, Glass decided to discard his own early works, and to start anew as a composer. He was, for the most part, unaware of the new compositions being produced by the American avant-garde community.
Inspired by the philosophy of composer John Cage that “all we hear is music,” a Berkeley student named La Monte Young had started to write serial works that contained tones that were sustained for long periods of time. In his Trio for Strings, Young takes five minutes to present exactly four sustained notes. This made his teachers believe that the young man had gone totally insane. In reality, Young had composed the first Western piece of minimalist music. Eastern music is at the root of all minimalist music composed in this country. Unlike Western music, in which constant variation is stressed and harmony is more important than rhythm, most Eastern music is repetitive, and rhythm is the key element. Young inspired his classmate, Terry Riley, who in turn influenced a Cornell graduate named Steve Reich.
When Glass returned to the United States, he became one of a group of avant-garde artists, writers, and composers centered in lower Manhattan. Young had been giving concerts in SoHo lofts; the others followed suit.
Glass played in Reich’s early ensemble. By this time, he was composing in a nascent minimalist style. He threw away harmony, counterpo4tt, and rhythm, in order to formulate his own style.
“I literally started composing from nothing,” he recalls.
What emerged initially was a form of music that was written in one voice, was tonal, and had repetition, although to a lesser degree than in the works of Riley, Reich, and Young from that time.
During this period, Glass also became intimately associated with experimental theatre. His first wife, JoAnne Akliatis, was the director of the avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines, and Glass composed music for many of the group’s productions.
Occasionally, some of Glass’ friends played his music, mostly in lofts, to sparse and sometimes hostile audiences.
In the late 1960s Glass formed his own ensemble, which consisted of electric organs, flutes, saxophones, and voices, occasionally augmented by a trumpet and electrical piano. He included an engineer, Kurt Munkacsi, in his ensemble; Munkacsi is still with the group.
By the late 1960s, Glass’ music, though still largely monophonic, was totally repetitive. It was based on a constant flow of eighth notes, with the rhythms based on the Indian additive process. In this process, an Indian classical composer will take a rhythmic pattern, repeat it several times, then augment or diminish the pattern by a note or a group of notes, with this new pattern being repeated many times until a new additive pattern is chosen. The effect is quite entrancing, although to many Westerners, such rhythmic monotony may sound stultifying.
With works such as Music with Changing Parts and Music in Twelve Parts, Glass began to add other voices to his music. Music in Twelve Parts is also a compendium of Glass’ rhythmic techniques up to that point.
As Glass’ range grew, so did his audience. The Philip Glass Ensemble began giving concerts in Europe. At the Royal College of Art in England, Glass’ listeners included rock stars David Bowie and Brian Eno; both were influenced by what they heard.
In the early 1970s Glass formed his own company, Chatham Square Records. In 1973 Chatham Square released Music with Changing Parts; Music in Fifths; and Music in Similar Motion. In addition, Virgin Records of England produced two recordings of music by Glass: North Star and Music in Twelve Parts, Parts I and II.
While struggling to gain recognition for his music, Glass went through some difficult economic periods. To help support his wife and two children he took odd jobs, including driving a taxi and assisting the sculptor Richard Serra. Because of these financial strictures Glass made elaborate arrangements so that, for the most part, no one except the Philip Glass Ensemble could perform his music, and only his company, Dungaven Music, could publish his works.
(Photo courtesy University Musical Society)
By the mid-1970s, Glass was devoting his time to re-thinking the harmonies of the past. In his music he had begun with only one voice, and had then added others. Now he desired to explore harmony. A series of works entitled Another Look at Harmony fused the rhythmic aspects of his earlier minimalist pieces with very simple harmonies. This culminated in his opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with the dramatist Robert Wilson.
Einstein is not a conventional opera; there is no plot, no libretto, and the “orchestra” is made up of the seven-member Philip Glass Ensemble. Rather, Einstein is a collage of images related in some way to Einstein, nuclear power, and the implications of the nuclear bomb as implied in the conclusion of Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, the title of which is included in the opera’s title. Rather than having a libretto, in the opera the chorus chants numbers that pertain to the rhythmic pattern, as well as basic solfege syllables. There are dance numbers, and projected images dealing with Einstein’s life, relativity, and space travel.
Einstein was given two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1976. However, when it closed, Glass and Wilson were $70,000 in debt, which they had spent to install an elaborate sound system. Glass went back to driving a New York cab.
Glass’ second opera, Satyagraha, which was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam and the Stuttgart Opera, had its world premiere in Holland in 1980. Many critics praised it, comparing the work to the operas of Wagner and Berg.
When Satyagraha had its American premiere in Lewiston, New York, in 1981, critic Joseph McLellan, in the Washington Post, commented: “An enthusiastic audience gave the opera three standing ovations at its American premiere—an event long-heralded and eagerly awaited after its nine sold-out performances last year in Europe. It is likely to get similar reaction in later productions, which will probably be frequent. Once you get used to the experience, it does not matter very much that the libretto of Satyagraha is entirely in Sanskrit—or that the cast of characters includes Lord Krishna, Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, as well as Mahatma Ghandi, who is the primary subject,” he wrote. “The latest opera by Philip Glass does not depend primarily on logic or instant intelligibility to make its points—and in the long run, makes them very effectively.”
Not all critics agreed. Writing in the New York Times, one critic expressed the opinion that the opera is a work “whose chief aim seems to be to induce the drugged, trancelike state that lies beyond boredom.”
Satyagraha (from satya, for truth, and agraha, for force) was the term coined by Mahatma Ghandi to describe the principles of the movement he led, first in South Africa, and later, in India, to better the lot of his countrymen. The opera deals with Ghandi’s life in South Africa, when he ‘fought for civil rights in the Dutch-controlled colony. It has arias, a libretto (taken from the Bhaghavad-gita by Constance DeJong), and uses a large orchestra of winds, strings, and an electric organ.
As in Einstein, and the upcoming opera, Akhenaten, Glass chose to have the opera revolve around one major figure.
“I like to write about people with singleness of purpose and a vision, those with inner power,” he said. Glass believes that since Ghandi knew the Bhagavad-gita by heart and lived his life according to its teachings, it is appropriate as a text for the opera. The Sanskrit is no major issue to him. It (the Sanskrit) sounds very much like Italian when sung, and the chorus really had no great difficulty mastering it in transliteration,” he said.
When Glass was to present some organ solos in New York, John Rockwell, in the New York Times, described the composer thus:
“Philip Glass is a composer who expresses himself in so many musical forms these days that no one form can do him justice. Although trained by the Juilliard School and by Nadia Boulanger—as ‘establishment’ a lineage as one might wish—he has never taught or sought the approbation of the traditional arbiters of new-musical taste in this country. Instead, he has built his own audience through tours and recordings, and gradually expanded his activities into opera and rock-and-roll simultaneously. In so doing, he is bridging gaps thought to be unbridgeable until just recently. His music is both intellectually rigorous and accessible, appealing to audiences that normally have little use for each other’s music. And he does all this ... by the evolution of a style that partakes unself-consciously of classical, popular, and ethnic traditions.”
In his latest work, Glassworks, written for a small chamber orchestra of horns, winds, violas, celli, and electric organs, the composer is quite classical in style, although dissonant and bitonal in parts.
Glass lives with his second wife, Dr. Luba Burtyk, and two children in Manhattan. When not touring with his ensemble, Glass composes at least two minutes of music every day. He works in a small, sparsely furnished studio in Greenwich Village. He has recently composed a score to a film dealing with America, in the form of pictures of people without narration or dialogue. He also is at work on an opera.
The lean days are over. Today Glass’ ensemble plays in concert halls around the world. Last year the Rockefeller Foundation granted Glass and avant-garde dramatist Robert Wilson $90,000 to produce new works. And Glass has an exclusive recording contract with CBS Masterworks.
Glass played before an SRO audience at Mandel Hall. He was invited to perform on campus by the Student Activities Office. He was pleased to be invited to appear at Mandel; this was the ensemble’s first appearance in Chicago.
“I saw musical scores for the first time here, in the library,” he recalled. “And I wrote my first composition in Burton-Judson.”
In fact, he confessed, he’d like to return every other year, if possible, to Mandel Hall.
Strolling about the quadrangles, Glass commented on how little the campus had changed in twenty-six years. Then, as we reached 57th Street, he exclaimed: “Where’s Stagg Field?” Obviously, Philip Glass needs to return to the University of Chicago more often.
David Blair Toub is a third year student in the College who is majoring in biology. A graduate in composition from the Juilliard School of Music’s Pre-College Division, Toub is founder and host of the Avant-Garde Hour on WHPK-FM, the campus radio station. He has interviewed Philip Glass and other avant-garde composers on the program. He also has given several Chicago radio premieres of new music. A composer himself, Toub is aiming for a career in medical genetic research.