When Philip Glass was studying at the University of Chicago, in the nineteen-fifties, he formed a music-listening club with several friends, one of whom was the future astronomer Carl Sagan. As Glass relates in his recent memoir, Words Without Music, the group made a particular study of the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. (Glass’s father ran a record store in Baltimore, and the young man had access to a large library of records.) What struck him most was not the late-Romantic grandeur of the music—at the time, he was more attuned to the lyrical modernism of Bartók and Berg—but simply the scale on which Bruckner and Mahler worked, the “very big canvas” they employed. In the mid-twentieth century, when the god of modern composition was the hyper-compressed serialist Anton Webern, Glass caught a glimpse of future vastness, of music that would unfold before one’s ears like a landscape reaching to a far horizon.
A few decades later, after a wide-ranging education that included counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger and ragas with Ravi Shankar, Glass was ready to exhibit his big canvases: Music in 12 Parts, for instrumental ensemble (1971-74), which generally lasts four hours in performance; and Einstein on the Beach, for singers, actors, dancers, and musicians (1975-76), which goes on for five hours or more. Although Glass has composed much music since that time, and his output is still evolving, those masterworks of the seventies are sufficient to carve his name in music history. They brought several new kinds of wonder into the world: a revitalization of the most basic materials of music; a renovation of our experience of musical time; a mysterious emotional warmth that rose up from a cool, almost mathematical process. Bruckner’s symphonies are an apt point of reference, and it’s fitting that the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, which appears in this Glass at 80 Festival on Feb. 17, has become one of the composer’s strongest advocates.
I vividly recall the moment at which the full extent of Glass’s achievement became clear to me. Before Einstein went on a global tour in 2012, it had gone unperformed for twenty years. I was too young to have seen the early outings, and missed the 1992 revival, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. No video was available, and the Nonesuch recording, bewitching as it was, told only part of the story. In January, 2012, I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see a preview of the tour. I wondered how well the work would hold up against its legend. For an hour or so, I felt detached from the experience, as if observing a museum piece. Then Lucinda Child’s dancers came out to perform “Dance 1,” and I entered a state of bliss that persisted until the end. The dancers were beautiful to watch, swirling about in elegant ecstasy, and they also pointed up the complexity of Glass’s rhythmic schemes, the way he sustains constant repetition through constant change. (The 1979 piece Dance, which the Lucinda Childs Dance Company will present on Feb. 7, is a large-scale extension of the Einstein collaboration.)
People think that Glass’s music depends upon a recycling of familiar gestures: a slow-moving arpeggio in the manner of an old-fashioned Alberti bass; stately chord progressions, often in the minor mode; curt melodic ideas that recur in ritualistic fashion. We should remember first that this air of familiarity is a latter-day phenomenon: Glass’s trademark style sounded radically strange when it was first deployed. And what really matters is not the material you find in any given bar but the luminous structure that rises from those simple building blocks. Glass said of Music in Twelve Parts: “Music is placed outside the usual time scale, substituting a non-narrative and extended time sense in its place. It is hoped that one would then be able to perceive the music as a ‘presence’, freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound.” Glass’s big forms don’t overpower you, in the Romantic manner; they envelop you, offer a space of habitation.
This idea of the art-work as “presence” did not, of course, originate with Glass. It proliferated all over lower Manhattan in the golden age of the downtown avant-garde, in the sixties and seventies. In a way, it emerged from the older American experimental tradition, the open-ended universe of John Cage and Morton Feldman. Glass’s aesthetic of endlessly unfurling textures also had something in common with the hypnotic drone music of the Velvet Underground, which was itself rooted in the proto-minimalism of La Monte Young, and of the seventies-era David Bowie, who registered Glass’s influence strongly (see the Heroes Tribute on Feb. 3). And the phenomenon of Einstein helped to open the field to new forms of large-scale performance art—notably, the verbal, musical, theatrical, and cinematic conceptions of Laurie Anderson, who, fittingly, will appear alongside Glass in the course of this festival (Feb. 10).
Glass’s ease in sharing the stage with like-minded spirits points up the social and political dimension of his career. Through his film work and pop-music projects, he has achieved a level of stardom comparable to that of John Williams, of Star Wars fame. In a world that tends to view classical music as a culture devoted exclusively to the dead—no great distortion of the mentality of many major institutions—Glass has become, alongside Williams, the one living composer everyone knows. Moreover, he has consistently aligned his celebrity with progressive causes: no other composer could have exited a performance at the Metropolitan Opera and seamlessly joined a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Lincoln Center Plaza, as happened during the Met’s run of Satyagraha in 2011. Behind the scenes, Glass has been unstintingly generous to younger composers who catch his ears, and not only those who show his influence. He is a beneficent presence in the often disputatious world of contemporary music.
Celebrity came later. Early on, Glass famously took on all manner of odd jobs to make a living: he drove cabs, he worked as a plumber, he briefly ran a moving company with his fellow minimalist Steve Reich. Once, when he was installing a dishwasher in a SoHo loft, he looked up to see Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine. “But you’re Philip Glass!” Hughes exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” Glass finished installing the dishwasher. It is a classic Horatio Alger story—the scrappy outsider rising to the height of an élite profession. Let’s not forget, though, that Glass had immersed himself in classical music from an early age, avidly consuming his father’s records. His revolution arose from tradition: he listened to the old and heard the new. You know his place in history is secure when you encounter a churning, cyclical passage in Bruckner and find yourself thinking, “That almost sounds like Philip Glass.”