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Philip Glass at 80: A Personal Retrospective

Glassworks

On January 31st the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz celebrated the 80th birthday of American composer, Philip Glass, by performing an all-Glass concert at Carnegie Hall, which included the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11.  In September Glass was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Obama, who lauded the composer as, “one of the most prolific, inventive, and influential artists of our time, he has expanded musical possibility with his operas, symphonies, film scores, and wide-ranging collaborations.”  I couldn’t agree more.

In the summer of 2003 my family relocated for my father’s job, and I was about to begin 10th grade in a town where I did not know a single person.  Luckily, there was a video rental house a block from our apartment.  Most of our books and games were in storage, so I would make a daily journey with my little sister to get a movie to help pass the time.  One day we decided to rent The Hours solely because we thought it was funny that Nicole Kidman had to wear a rather large prosthetic nose in order to portray Virginia Woolf. I remember watching it for the first time and being completely mesmerized from the beginning as the River Ouse welcomes Woolf’s rock-weighed body while the score similarly rises to envelop the scene.  After the movie finished, I sat for a few minutes in silent contemplation, pressed “rewind,” and started it again.  When my parents got home, I wouldn’t stop talking about this incredible score, so after dinner we all watched the movie together.  

I grew up in a musical household, but our classical music collection consisted mostly of the major works from the Baroque period to the end of the Romantic era.  In Glass I was hearing something completely different, music from another world.  Discovering his complete output became an obsession, and through that obsession I not only found a deep love for 20th classical music, but also decided to spend my life studying music. Happy birthday, Mr. Glass.

 

Words without Music by Philip Glass

I couldn’t put this autobiography down. Besides being an incredible composer, Glass is quite the writer. With his operas, film scores, symphonies, chamber works, and pieces for solo piano, Glass propulsively remade the sound of late 20th-century music. Music lovers will be eager to track his growth from the University of Chicago to Juilliard to studies with the infamous Nadia Boulanger. But even those who can't tell a G clef from an F clef will be interested in reading about his culturally rich and enterprising life; from his entering college at 15, driving a cab while scribbling scores, traveling through India, and teaming with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar, Doris Lessing, and Martin Scorsese.

Symphony No. 3 by Philip Glass

I remember reading the writings of the composer and critic, Virgil Thomson, who felt that everything that could be done with a symphony had already been done. This form definitely fell out of favor with most composers of the second half of the 20th century. It is interesting then that Glass would now have eleven under his belt. Symphony no. 3 is considered to be one of Glass's most "classical" or "traditional" works. Glass stated that, "the work fell naturally into a four-movement form, and even given the nature of the ensemble and solo writing, [it] seems to have the structure of a true symphony."

Piano Etudes by Philip Glass

Glass wrote the Etudes primarily to develop his own technical skill at the piano. Particularly between no. 11 and no. 20 one can hear the transition from his middle, minimalistic style to one that is more post-romantic. It is inspiring to see an artist still developing in his late 70s.

Thin Blue Line

Last month, the director Errol Morris wrote in a birthday article for NPR:

“We would sit at his piano together and discuss the themes for my film The Thin Blue Line. I remember telling him, ‘The trouble with your music is that it's not repetitive enough.’ He looked at me without smiling and said, ‘That's a new one.’ On the wall over the piano was a New Yorker cartoon. Two explorers with pith helmets in an African jungle. One is saying to the other, ‘The incessant pounding of the drums, the endless repetition of the rhythms...’ The other interrupts and says, ‘It must be Philip Glass.’”

Glassworks by Philip Glass

One of the only works by a classical composer to take one of the top positions on the pop charts, Glassworks remains as fresh today as it was in 1982. “Opening” is frequently performed by Glass at his recitals, and it has become one of my favorite piano pieces, especially when I need to chill out.

 

 

Spotify users - check out Breck's recs for his fave Philip Glass tracks!

 

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