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, 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.

In its sensibility and intellectual style Music With Changing Parts seems inseparable from lower Manhattan in the 1970s: CBGB, The Ramones, Talking Heads, modern dancers spinning themselves dervish-style into nausea or bliss. (Cynics might add two less prestigious seventies phenomena to the list: disco and New Age music.) Glass gave minimalism the self-conscious punk attitude of seventies avant-rock and the intellectual rigor of conceptual art.

Musical minimalism had ties to visual minimalism—Steve Reich to Sol Lewitt, Glass to Serra and Chuck Close. Both forms have a cool and clean aesthetic that is miles from the expressionist agonies of Arnold Schoenberg or Jackson Pollock. But whereas minimalist art tended to be dour and cerebral, minimalist music moved toward either the popular or the spiritually exalted or, in Glass's case, both. In the early seventies his music seemed like an exclusively avant-garde, art-world phenomenon. Glass played in lofts and galleries and received no support from the usual foundations; in one recent interview he defantly listed the funding sources that had rejected him.

The turning point was Einstein on the Beach, which was first performed in America at the Metropolitan (though not by the Met), in November of 1977. Like many works that appear revolutionary, Einstein was a summation of ideas from the preceding age. Like the collaborations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, it mixed dance, words, spectacle, and music in a determinedly uncoordinated way. The only musician onstage was the figure of Einstein, with his violin; singers and all other instrumentalists were in the pit. Instead of lyrics the singers recited numbers or solfeggios. In other words, it was an evolved "happening," and its presiding genius was not Glass but the director, Robert Wilson.

Nonetheless, the cumulative power of the music, especially in the climactic spaceship scene, made Glass world-famous. He soon set to work on two more operas, this time commissioned by opera companies, about history-making figures: Satyagraha (1980), based on Gandhi, and Akhnaten (1984), based on the Egyptian pharaoh who tried and failed to institute monotheism. Unabashedly identifying himself with these revolutionary heroes, Glass moved decisively and surprisingly beyond the aesthetic of Einstein. With these operas the mature Glass appeared, and all traces of the "happening" era vanished. (The CD Songs From the Trilogy is a good introduction to the three operas, and to Glass's later style.)

Glass's most telling radical move was to transcend the whole category of the avant-garde. In Satyagraha and Akhnaten, Glass affirmed the truly decisive influence on his music—not Terry Riley, the founding father of minimalism, but Nadia Boulanger, with whom he, like so many other American composers, had studied. He turned out to be the most Boulanger-influenced of all American composers, more so than even Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, or Elliott Carter.

Boulanger's teaching was essentially technical: score reading, counterpoint, solfeggio, and analysis. Aesthetically she stressed two qualities: classicism (economy of means, making every note count) and personal style. Every detail of a piece, Glass learned, showed the unique voice of its composer. He was immediately struck by this dual emphasis. "I understood that she wasn't teaching technique, she was teaching style," he told an interviewer in 1989. "Style is a special case of technique." Boulanger's classicism was to have just as strong an impact. Where Glass's early music is busy with frantically changing accents, his later music emphasizes harmony rather than rhythm, and in the feeling of calm it exudes is oddly reminiscent of the music of Boulanger's teacher Gabriel Fauré—a precursor about as far from the avant-garde as one can get.

Glass may not have been the first composer to understand that the hundred-year-old idea of the avant-garde was dead, but he was the first to act on that fact without regressing to neo-romanticisma stylistic direction that appeared in the music of George Crumb, George Rochberg, John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, and others at the same time that minimalism achieved its frst wide recognition. The idea of vanguard art assumed the existence of an alienation between artists and the general culture; artists challenged the mainstream through provocation and experiment. In the early part of the twentieth century the most extreme version of vanguardism in music was the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg. By the 1960s, however, atonality had achieved a place in the establishment (not a very well padded place but a place nevertheless), and the countercultural spirit of the avant-garde had passed into popular music. Neither Reich nor Glass was particularly devoted to rock, even though their artistic coming of age coincided with the moment when it began to be taken seriously as an art form (both are nearing age sixty-fve).

From the archives:

"Classical Appeal" (August 1997)
Many symphony orchestras think that luring jazz, blues, and rock audiences is their salvation—but neither musicians nor listeners get what they expect at crossover concerts, the author learned from experience. By David Schiff

Reviving the populist strain in American classical music, which had been in hibernation during the sixties, Glass embraced the ethos of popular music without imitating it. His music already shared tonal harmonies and motor rhythms with rock, so popular elements in his work do not appear as foreign bodies (as they do, for instance, in some of John Adams's). Glass based two of his symphonies, Low and Heroes, on music by the rock musicians David Bowie and Brian Eno, but they still sound very much like Glass. As he has often acknowledged, this populist approach did not make him a popular composer. His music is not the kind of crossover in which some version of pop music is packaged to attract classical listeners. It is high art for listeners steeped in rock rather than the classics.

By the early 1980s Glass's fame had brought him commissions from classical ensembles, and multiple requests for dance music, new operas, and new theater and flm pieces. Of the classical works, the Violin Concerto and—my favorite—the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra have come closest to being repertory pieces. Glass's concert-hall style is sharply different from that of many postminimalist composers, such as John Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Michael Daugherty. The music of those composers is often extravagant in scoring, eclectic in style, and dramatic or even melodramatic in contour. Glass's music is rigorously chaste in its style and means. His orchestration is plain and functional, with no unusual effects. He uses the same small group of rhythmic figures in almost every piece, along with a limited repertory of textures and figurations. As in Bach, each movement pursues a single idea and progresses structurally rather than rhetorically. In their refusal of splashy effects the two concertos remind me of certain poignant French music. The Violin Concerto fills a bar or a concert hall with instant tristesse. The Saxophone Quartet resists the temptation to sound jazzy, instead alternating meditative calm with rhythmic playfulness of a Stravinskian elegance.

Glass, a serious Buddhist, is a religious composer—something perhaps not to everyone's taste. His Symphony no. 5 is an almost two-hour cantata for chorus and orchestra on texts drawn from the world's religions. On first hearing, it seemed like an interfaith funeral service from hell. But it is not fair to judge this kind of music on the basis of a single listening, especially on a recording. Basking in the afterglow of a successful performance of Glass's Fifth, the conductor Carl St. Clair told me that "there were feelings by musicians and audience alike of elation, peace, inner calm, a great sense of accomplishment, an enriching feeling of brotherhood and unity."

Though I have not gotten there yet with this symphony (I may simply be allergic to works that attempt to sum up mankind's spiritual aspirations), I do recognize a nobility that distinguishes Glass's music from that of any of his contemporaries. In my mind that quality links his music to that of Christoph Willibald Gluck, also a theatrical composer, who drastically simplifed the musical idiom of the mid eighteenth century. Gluck's most famous piece, "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" (from Orfeo ed Euridice), has a title that Glass could often have used. Like Gluck's, Glass's music has the virtues and limitations deriving from a reformer's zeal: it is expressively pure but not rich; it has structural coherence but little flexibility. Glass is our Gluck, and not our Mozart (the most recent Mozartian was Benjamin Britten). It is miracle enough that he has achieved such integrity at a time when most of the classical-music world thinks of itself as engaged in an every-man-for-himself endgame.