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Philip Glass @ 75

Glass's Ninth Symphony is performed tonight and the revived opera Einstein on the Beach tours the world this year.
The DailyPhilip Glass

Besides the two dozen operas, the symphonies, concertos and solo works, Philip Glass, who turns 75 today, has composed literally scores of scores for films, beginning most famously with Koyaanisqatsi (1982), an essay film as dependent on its music as any other. Glass and Godfrey Reggio would complete the trilogy with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Another crucial cinematic collaboration has been with Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line (1988), The Fog of War (2003)), and other notable scores would be, for example, those for Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985; sample it here) and Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997). And whatever you think of Stephen Daldry's The Hours (2002) — and chances are, if you're reading this, you may not think much of it at all — that soundtrack, aimed straight at the mainstream and nominated for an Oscar, holds up better than you might remember.

"Glass is the only living classical composer with anything approaching a household name in America," writes Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press. "A seminal minimalist, he pioneered a radically distilled language of rippling arpeggios and scales, pulsating rhythm, repetition and glacial harmony." Einstein on the Beach, the opera co-created with director Robert Wilson and first produced in Avignon, France in 1976, "completed a decade of experiments with process, repetition and additive forms (12, 123, 1234, 432, etc). The music is hypnotic, easy to understand, meticulously organized and deeply groove-oriented. Like Glass's early work, it is more about process than marching toward a goal. Shifts in texture, rhythm or harmony carry the force of revelation, what critic Alex Ross once called the 'Ah! Effect.'"

A little over a week ago, Ross caught a preview of the revival of Einstein in Ann Arbor: "I've waited half my life to see the piece, and I was decidedly undisappointed: what an ecstatically dumbfounding thing this is." And he notes that the official premiere will take place in March in Montpellier, France before the show rolls on to Reggio Emilia, London in May, Toronto in June, Brooklyn in September and Berkeley in October.

Glass, to NPR's Tom Vitale: "What this amount of music has done for me is taught me how to write music. Oh, I had great teachers. Boulanger was one. Another was Ravi Shankar. And I went through the Juilliard process, and that was good, too. But I really learned from writing, which is how painters learn to paint, and writers learn to write, and how even dancers learn to dance. In a way, that's true. But what was the value of being so prolific? It's how I learned my trade."

Update, 2/1: "Regardless of success, neither Glass's life nor his music have ever abandoned their East Village sensibilities," writes Steven Thrasher in a long profile for the Voice. "He worked as a cab driver and furniture mover until he was in his early forties, and his identification (politically and artistically) has never left the idea of downtown."

Update, 2/7: "Philip Glass's place in musical history is secure," writes Alex Ross in the piece for the New Yorker he'd told us was coming. "His sprawling, churning, monumentally obsessive works of the 1970s — Music with Changing Parts, Music in Twelve Parts, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha — have fascinated several generations of listeners, demonstrating mesmeric properties that are as palpable as they are inexplicable. Twice in recent months, I've been gripped by the almost occult power of early Glass." The first time, of course, is the preview of Einstein mentioned above. "No less remarkable," he writes, "was the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Satyagraha, in November and December." Further in:

The contradictions inherent in presenting a Gandhi opera at one of the world's most richly endowed performing-arts institutions, even as protests against income inequality erupted downtown, inspired a notable demonstration on the last night of the run. A group allied with Occupy Wall Street gathered at the edge of Lincoln Center Plaza, berating the police, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the right-wing billionaire David H Koch, a Lincoln Center donor. When Satyagraha ended and operagoers left the Met, some defied a police barricade and joined the protest. Glass did as well, and he addressed the crowd, making use of the "human microphone" of call and response. All he did was to utter the final lines of his opera: "When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again." He said those words twice more, mingled for a little while, got into a cab, and went home. As in the greatest moments of his music, Glass delivered a message of awe-inspiring simplicity.

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Thanks for this, but such a harsh comment about The Hours soundtrack! I’ve listened to it often over the past few years, and you’re right that it does hold up very well. Guess I just can’t shake that mainstream part of me…
I believe the comment was about the film not the soundtrack.
Whoops, sorry I missed your comment earlier, Christopher, but yes, Danny’s right: Lovely soundtrack, shame about the movie.

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