Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Composer Philip Glass Turns Eighty

Philip Glass is quite probably the most well-known minimalist composer of our time. He was born in Baltimore and studied music at a very early age at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. At fifteen, he continued his musical training and studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Listeners cannot help but "count" in one way or another throughout all of his compositions. And his work is surely a Calculus in our own time, retaining its minimalist core wrapped in a stylistic evolution.

Listening to Glass is often more an experience where one can get "into" the music as a participant rather than merely observe. Even at its simplest, his work has complexities in tone, harmony, tempo and orchestration. For one thing, Glass counts. He plays by the numbers, practicing his musical arithmetic adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and even solving some algebraic formulas here and there. In the end, music to Glass seems like mathematics he studied. Fortunately for our culture, popular as well as haute, he became an extraordinary, prolific composer and a significant international influence in the music world.

Here is an excerpt from his score for Koyaaniqatsi (1982), a mesmerizing audiovisual feast by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke examining the interface of people, technology, and nature. Glass's score for this film has become a signature piece, one that he and his ensemble have performed around the world for three decades. 

Glass has also composed for popular films including Candyman (1992),  The Hours (2002), and the memorable satire, The Truman Show (1998).

We close with "Knee Play 5" from Glass's 1975 opera, Einstein on the Beach, a work that has been called the composer's watershed piece as well as a defining experience in 20th century classical music.  Readers will find the lyric here. After the first listen, you may want to repeat the piece with lyrics at hand.

Philip Glass was born on this day in Baltimore in 1937.


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