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Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass, Florence 1993.
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Having just watched Scott Hicks’ biographical documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve always found intriguing about Glass is the curious way his work blurs the line between the popular and the cerebral. He seems as home writing film scores and occasional music such as the Sesame Street piece below, as he is writing symphonies and operas.

I’d always assumed this was partly to do with his relatively unconventional career trajectory – until well after Einstein on the Beach was a hit he was still working as a taxi driver, for a time before they fell out, he and Steve Reich ran a moving business together, and I’m sure everyone has heard the anecdote about him installing a dishwasher in the apartment of a suitably appalled Robert Hughes during his time working as a plumber (in Hicks’ film they reproduce a comic strip in which Hughes is identified as “art critic John Hughes” which might be a deliberate slight but is probably just a fortuitous mistake). A career which so deliberately eschewed the conventional path for a composer and performer must, I’d always assumed, bring not only its own financial pressures but a preparedness to step outside the traditional parameters of high and low art. But interestingly, in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ history of twentieth century music, he suggests it is as easily understood in historical terms:

“Riley, Reich and Glass came to be called minimalists, although they are better understood as the continuation of a circuitous, difficult-to-name development in American music that dated back tot he early years of the century, and more often than not took root on the West Coast. This alternative canon includes Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, who drew on non-Western traditions and built up a hypnotic atmosphere through insistent repetition; Morton Feldman, who distributed minimal parcels of sound over long durations; and La Monte Young, who made music from long, buzzing drones. All of them in one way or another set aside a premise that had governed classical composition for centuries – the conception of music as a self-contained linguistic activity that develops relationships among discrete thematic characters over a well-marked period of time. This music was, by contrast, open-ended, potentially limitless.

“It was a purely American art, free of modernist angst and inflected with pop optimism . . . Reich and his colleagues borrowed from popular music, especially from bebop and modern jazz, and they affected pop music in turn”.

It seems curious to me that even now Glass is so routinely derided. How anyone could engage with the beauty and intelligence and rigour of his work and not be affected is difficult to understand, not least because it isn’t really necessary to take on the major works to appreciate him: the sheer profusion of his work means that often the details and the seemingly throwaway moments are – ironically, given that his music is so much about the construction of soundscapes – themselves things of extraordinary beauty.

But – and I think this is what I wanted to say to begin with – it was particularly fascinating to hear Glass speak about his process in Hicks’ film, and the sense that he often doesn’t know what a piece – even, or especially a major piece – is about until quite a long way into the process, a feeling I’m sure any writer knows very well (as indeed they know the worry Glass jokes about, that you may not realize what it’s about until it’s being performed). But I was particularly touched by his remark immediately afterwards, that for all that he is used to working with this uncertainty, sometimes for younger artists it can be terrifying.

Oddly, given all this, Glass has more than intellectual interest for me. When I was writing The Resurrectionist I listened to Glass a lot, not just for the hypnotic effect of the music, but because there was something in the way the pieces worked as larger cycles I wanted to understand, and use. And it must have worked. When I met my French translators (brothers, who work together, and lovely guys, both of them) in 2007, they asked me whether I’d listened to much music when I was writing the book. Yes, I said, Radiohead’s Kid A when I was writing the sections in the centre in which Gabriel loses his mind, but mostly Philip Glass. And at this last they began to laugh. ‘We knew it,’ they said. ‘We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Glass must be 71 now, but in 2007, when he turned 70, The Guardian ran this piece which is well worth reading.

Here, in one of the odder cross-pollinations, is a segment from Sesame Street which used Glass’ music.

And for good measure, here’s Branka Parlic playing one of my favourite pieces of Glass’ music, Metamorphosis One.

And here, out of interest, is the trailer for Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice post, James. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never heard Metamorphosis One until Battlestar Galactica employed it to such great effect, but it’s become a bit of a staple now. Kim Stanley Robinson once told me that he wrote almost exclusively to “Akhnaten”, and Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” is a firm favourite of mine. I was led there by my teenage crush on Tangerine Dream, and wished I’d heard the music earlier in life.

    What are you listening to these days? When the Wiggles aren’t on, of course. 🙂

    January 29, 2009
  2. Kylie #

    Wasn’t that documentary – Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – a beautiful piece of film making? I would highly recommend it to those who only know Glass from his constant award nominations for film scores. It shows the breadth of his work, a bit of insight into the artistic nature and a wonderful nostalgic look at the arts scene in NYC in the 60s before SoHo existed! It also helped that the ABC recently aired this on rainy night that only added to the glorious soundtrack. Have you seen any other good docos on the ABC in this sort of vein? I particularly enjoyed the one on Jeff Koons hosted by Tom Ford – two completely different and yet both fabulous designers!

    February 1, 2009

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