In Glass's House

More a classicist than an avant-gardist, Philip Glass embraces rock music without imitating it

One snowy night last January, I found myself in a bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the good company of William Bolcom, who is one of our most successful contemporary opera composers—his A View From the Bridge earned raves at its Chicago Lyric premiere in 1999. Bolcom began his music career playing piano at burlesque theaters in Seattle, and he has a lot to say about almost every kind of music. Gathering that we were musicians, the bar's owner proudly boosted the volume on the randomly ordered CDs she was playing. The music was as agreeable as the setting—perhaps too agreeable, because Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald make it hard for two composers to talk shop. Just as we were about to solve the problem of opera, inspired or at least undeterred by "My Funny Valentine," the music changed from jazz vocals to something that sounded almost Baroque. Against a syncopated orchestral accompaniment a (solo) violin noodled Bach-like arpeggios—although in Bach they would have modulated rather than looped. Then the violin played and replayed a simple, plaintive phrase. The repetitions were not grating but soothing, and they stopped our conversation. Bolcom lifted his drink to one of the speakers and said, "Hello, Philip."

Philip Glass is probably the only American composer since George Gershwin whose music could work equally well in a cocktail lounge (the CD was his Violin Concerto) or a concert hall. The music world has not yet made up its mind whether this is a good thing. Twenty-five years after Einstein on the Beach changed the course of American music, Glass and the musical establishment still view each other with suspicion. Several important conductors, including Dennis Russell Davies and Carl St. Clair, champion his music, whereas others who often program the equally minimalist works of Steve Reich or the postminimalist works of John Adams steer clear. Some critics have raved about Glass since the early 1970s, but others remain unamused: in New York magazine Peter G. Davis called Glass's opera The Voyage (which had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1992) "star drek," and Terry Teachout dismissed Glass's recent Symphony no. 5 in Time as "same old same old." Glass has yet to be recognized by the Pulitzer committee, which has so far cold-shouldered the minimalist movement altogether.

Perhaps parrying with his own ambivalence, Glass keeps a certain distance from the classical world. He devotes most of his energies to the theater, where he formulated his minimalist style back in the late 1960s, and to his own rock-ishly amplifed band, the Philip Glass Ensemble, rather than to the usual instrumental ensembles of the concert hall. Yet he is America's best-known composer of art music, and he has also built up such a considerable catalogue of concert pieces—five symphonies, four concertos, five string quartets—that concert producers should have trouble making excuses for not programming him. The tide may be turning: the Lincoln Center Festival recently announced that Glass is its featured composer this year, and other festivals will likely follow its lead.

A large part of the resistance may have come from the fact that in the eyes of many in the classical world, Glass inherited the Emperor's New Clothes chair in contemporary composition from John Cage—who attained similar celebrity and notoriety, and who was similarly snubbed by the Pulitzer committee. Cage was known more for his ideas about chance and silence than for his compositions; Glass has been reduced to the idea of repetition. Unsympathetic critics who hear his latest work and find that Glass is still using repetition assume that he is peddling his one gimmick. They are missing the point. Though Glass first appeared in the milieu of the post-Cage avant-garde, he has turned out to be something else entirely—not an anarchist but a restorationist, stripping away hundreds of years of musical "progress" to return to basic principles of musical construction.

Glass's music is not for everyone. I like it more and more, but when I started working on this article, my wife and daughter threatened to move out of the house until I was finished with "that dizzy music." Classical listeners who want to acquire a taste for Glass might proceed as they would with another challenging composer—say, Bruckner or Satie or Busoni and listen to a lot of his music until its pleasures and principles become clear, and distinct from those of other composers. Heard in extenso (there are fifty-two Glass CDs listed on Amazon.com), Glass's oeuvre propounds certain consistent ideas and also takes surprising turns. A useful anthology, Writings on Glass, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, provides revealing criticism and interviews in which Glass is by turns cocky (he brags of outwitting Copland when he was a student at Aspen), down-to-earth, and utterly convinced of his mission.

For the reluctant newcomer the mellow, romantic Violin Concerto or the infectiously danceable Glassworks (later choreographed by Jerome Robbins) might be the easiest point of entry. But I would suggest instead biting the bullet and starting with Music With Changing Parts, from 1970. If you can overcome your resistance to this (and you may not), the rest of the music will sound like ear candy. Music With Changing Parts is classic minimalism, the aural equivalent of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc—a raw, relentless sixty-two-minute sound barrier. The music, written for the amplifed instruments of the Philip Glass Ensemble, repeats and transforms a short phrase, using a process of rhythmic addition that Glass developed when he studied with Ravi Shankar. The transformations are so subtle that at first they are barely noticeable, especially because the timbre, tempo, and dynamics of the piece remain the same. But gradually the piece evolves: the listener begins to perceive resonances beyond the forbiddingly monomaniacal surface, and to hear connections with rock and Indian music. What at frst sounds sweaty and secular gradually becomes ecstatically spiritual. Midway through the onslaught you may find yourself floating pleasantly toward nirvana.

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