BIG EARS 09: Philip Glass

Philip Glass provides the centerpiece for Big Ears

Despite that oft-quoted line—"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"—music pundits have persisted in trying to pigeonhole, define, or somehow describe the practically indescribable music of Philip Glass. Minimalism is perhaps the most frequent, and unfortunate, term one hears in descriptions of his music, but it is one that Glass himself firmly rejects. Minimalism—whatever that could mean in a musical context—could hardly carry a composer, and a loyal audience, through more than 35 years of operas and theater music, film soundtracks, symphonies, concertos for various instruments, ensemble pieces, and a vast array of music for solo instruments. Glass's music does draw, though, from the complex use of repetition and iteration that collectively expands and develops, involving the listener in an environment crammed with aural textures. Glass admits he was not the first: Maurice Ravel's immensely popular Bolero takes a simple theme, repeats it multiple times, and heaps one instrumental texture on top of another with each iteration. Important, too, was Glass's association with Indian musician Ravi Shankar, who revealed to him how small units of music strung together could create structure out of repeating and changing rhythms.

Inspirations aside, it is perhaps the age in which Glass has lived and worked that has provided the musical opportunities—and the tools—of his career. Born in Baltimore in 1937 and educated at the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School, Glass began working in New York in the late 1960s. Out of a downtown art scene of writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians came the Philip Glass Ensemble, a collection of keyboard and woodwind players who reveled in the freedom of exploration that a new age of electronic tools brought to music performance.

At the same tim, Glass was also composing for various New York theater groups who represented various degrees of non-traditional performance. These seemingly separate paths merged when Glass met theater director/designer Robert Wilson in the early 1970s and they launched their collaborative work Einstein on the Beach. The piece—really music theater rather than opera—was premiered and performed throughout Europe in the summer of 1976, and then later in two sensation-causing performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

With the process of collaboration immensely important to Glass, he followed in the 1970s and '80s with volumes of work: the operas Satygraha and Akhnaten; film scores for Godfrey Reggio's entrancing Koyaanisqatsi and Paul Schrader's Mishima; works for choreographers Twyla Tharp and Lucinda Childs; and collections such as Songs from Liquid Days.

Although mass audiences today are most likely to experience his music through his scores for films such as the recent Cassandra's Dream, The Illusionist, and Notes on a Scandal, Glass continues to compose prolifically for the concert hall (Symphony No. 8, commissioned by the Bruckner Orchester Linz), the opera stage (Waiting for the Barbarians for the Erfurt Theatre in Germany), and for solo instruments with the recent Violin Sonata, as well as Songs and Poems for Solo Cello, a work written for cellist Wendy Sutter that will be performed by her with Glass at their appearance in Knoxville. -Alan Sherrod

For many misinformed dabblers in what's considered "high art," Philip Glass represents the most far-flung extreme of the musical avant-garde. The composer is known in some circles only for the supposedly maddening repetition of his music. Such judgment, of course, is reductive, oversimplified, and just plain wrong.

This brings us to the paradox that is Philip Glass. Although his oeuvre is oftentimes incorrectly labeled as fringe music for the artistic elite, this music is a fundamental element of America's sonic landscape. So most of the same misinformed people who think the composer's music to be iconoclastic or unlistenable have probably heard his works many times over, especially his soundtracks, and maybe even liked it. The Glass canon is the proverbial elephant in the room, sheathed in a veneer of conceptual hoo-ha that distorts a body of accessible, beautiful music.

Now we will proceed to the dreaded m-word—minimalism. It's rare that an article about Glass doesn't include the term, and I've already committed this crime. Glass' early works more or less defined the genre of musical minimalism, but, while late-'60s/early-'70s compositions like Music With Changing Parts, Two Pages, and Music in Twelve Parts might eschew dramatic crescendos and employ repetition, the music is anything but minimal. These musically demanding pieces require dexterity, precision, and stamina from the players. And once you've adapted your definition of what gets to count as music, you'll find that they're wonderful works that reveal new insights with each listening.

By around 1980 Glass had closed the door on his minimalist project, never to return. The 1982 collection Glassworks is one of his most revered and widely heard releases. Like Miles Davis' best work, the tunes stay with you and the silent spaces are as important as the audible passages.

In the mid-'80s, Glass became a fixture by scoring countless film soundtracks. This is how the composer moved from art galleries and performance spaces to the local cineplex and now into homes all over the United States. Over the past two decades Glass has provided soundtracks for dozens of films, including The Hours, Powaqqatsi, The Secret Agent, The Thin Blue Line, Cassandra's Dream, and too many others to mention. Glass has also delved into the world of opera with Einstein on the Beach, Civil Wars, and Akhnaten. And then there are his forays into pop with collaborations with David Bowie and Brian Eno, and the perhaps misdirected Songs for Liquid Days.

Glass' latest period has seen a resurgence of a characteristic adventurousness. The composer has moved into something of a classicist period with stunning and sometimes dramatic pieces. More evocative than the soundtracks, works like his second and third symphonies conjure mental geographies in a way that might be compared to Aaron Copland.

Glass is arguably America's finest living composer, and inarguably the nation's most influential one. This is a unique opportunity to witness genius firsthand, so don't miss it. -John Sewell