Philip Glass

Philip Glass

by Martin Degrell

Philip Glass’ life’s work does not lend itself easily to summary. Reviewing his creative life, what strikes one first are his many collaborations which span across genres and types of media. Glass has worked with choreographers and rock musicians, written scores for superhero movies and watch-makers, collaborated with authors of children’s books and poets – and at the same time managed to maintain his unmistakable sound. You know instantly if you’re listening to Philip Glass, or one of the many who have been influenced by him.

Glass trained at The Juilliard School in New York and wrote mostly conventional pieces until he met the Indian composer Ravi Shankar in 1965, a meeting that came to change how he viewed music. Up until then, Glass’ perspective had been traditional and western – but through Shankar he realized that music could be built around rhythm rather than harmony. What he learned from Shankar made him dismiss what he so far had composed and instead he started writing pieces built around repetitive rhythms. He was soon lumped together with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and other composer under the Minimalist label – a term Glass himself has used in relation to his music between 1965-75.

The musical journey Glass embarked on after meeting Shankar led to the formation of The Philip Glass Ensemble, a constellation of musicians who for the past 50 years primarily performed works by its founder and his new musical language. Working with the ensemble forced Glass out of an academic approach to music and into a living context; he became an active part of New York’s cultural scene in a wholly new way. This in turn led to collaborations with artists like Lucinda Childs and, notably, the director Robert Wilson, with whom he created the opera Einstein on the Beach, in 1976.

In a documentary from 2007, Glass recounts a meeting with Hollywood producers, who asked him to explain the difference between writing for the opera and the movies. “Not much, really and truly.” Glass answered. If you are interested in film, you’ve probably been introduced to his music through his many film scores, in particular Godfrey Reggio's  otherwise silent “Qatsi”-trilogy (1982, 1988, 2002), in which Glass’ music corresponds to Reggio’s hypnotic images of human activity and marvellous natural phenomena. Others have heard his music in productions such as Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002) or Notes on a Scandal (2006) – three movies for which he received Academy Award nominations – or documentaries by Errol Morris. Glass’ interest in film also resulted in new scores for older movies, for instance, Dracula (1931) and an opera triptych inspired by Jean Cocteau’s works, in addition to others like La Belle et la Bête (1946), derived from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

In turn, a younger generation has discovered Glass through electronic dance music. For someone having grown up with techno music, Glass’ repetitive work, amplified by thundering synth basslines, could act as a reminder of that genre’s rhythms and the trancelike state that may occur on a dance floor. In the same way that a minute change in rhythm in Glass’ music can lead to revelation in an audience, a temporary elevation from a grinding loop in a techno song can evoke something close to ecstasy.

Philip Glass creating a new piece, based on a poem, in collaboration with Cirkus Cirkör and with a world premiere at Malmö Opera, should surprise no one – if anything can be said to characterize his long career it is a boundless and unaffected curiosity towards genre-transcending collaborations.

Martin Degrell
Film critic and cultural journalist