In Defence of Philip Glass
Updated: Jun 11
Four years separate my late-night discovery of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – one of the most cathartic works of art I know – and its screening last week at which the Philip Glass Ensemble performed the score live to picture (with the film’s director Godfrey Reggio in attendance, no less). In that time, I’ve met a handful of people who admit to liking Glass’s music and countless others who say they don't, but I think the most accurate reaction is the one I got from Indian theatre and advertising legend Gerson da Cunha: “I don’t understand him.”
Glass probably challenges our preconceptions of classical music more than any other composer. Now in his eighties, he has, like some elder statesmen musicians such as Herbie Hancock, managed to remain not just relevant but appealing to audiences a fraction of his age. He is also one of the most divisive figures in any art form: people either love him or hate him.
As an Indian who discovered rock and jazz as a teenager and Western classical music as a young man, I probably 'got' Glass in less time and with less trouble than his detractors. He has since become a big inspiration (you may have lost all respect for me at that sentence): I have listened to all his music that I could find, watched all the films and documentaries he has scored, and read his memoir Words Without Music as well as every interview of his I could lay my hands on. In the process, I began to understand why he occupies such a strange place in music.
Glass is the best-known member of a group of American composers who are said to have pioneered 'minimalism', a term that the composers in question have dissociated themselves from. Minimalism seems to be the classical music world's favourite punching bag: it's accused of making too much of too little (but so does every Mahler symphony); it requires appreciation of the cyclic and the formless; it can be dangerously accessible and border on pop music. Critics see Glass as a modern-day Vivaldi, someone who, to paraphrase Luigi Dallapiccola, has essentially written the same piece of music a few hundred times. (One doesn't even encounter his work in that last refuge of 'bad' music: elevators.) Glass sees himself as someone who writes "music with repetitive structures"; others see him, to hear Reggio tell it, as the "master of the broken needle” (maybe they only ever heard 600 Lines).
Does this imply that repetition within a work (or a body of work) is inherently bad? The former is how you keep track of where you are, and is probably why so much 'new' music has little recall power; the latter is a factor that determines an artist's style. Glass's music gets its energy (and its reputation for causing migraine) from combining very fast music with very slow rates of change, and while he does have his pet musical devices, the way he uses them has changed remarkably over the years: his early experiments in sending up music theory (he wrote one of the only two pieces of music in the world that consist entirely of ascending phrases, and I don’t think the composer of either knows of the other) are very different from, say, latter-day operas such as The Lost and The Perfect American – and surely Brian Eno was thinking of Glass when, in his Oblique Strategies, he proclaimed "Repetition is a form of change."
Let's turn this argument on its head. Musicians and aficionados may know the classical music repertoire like the back of their hand: they can recognize composers if not specific works. The average listener knows little more than Mozart and Beethoven and is unlikely to lose sleep over it. But nobody – nobody – can mistake Glass for anyone else. Not only does he have a unique style (which, he constantly half-jokes, he keeps trying to get rid of), he is unfashionable enough that no one, with the possible exception of his friend P.D.Q. Bach, seems to want to sound like him.
Glass writes in his memoir that "[he] was widely considered a musical idiot [and] found this unexpectedly funny;" at least one person who knew nothing about him suggested he take music lessons. As we shall see, Glass knows his place in tradition all too well: he grew up listening to the likes of Bartók and Shostakovich, learnt twelve-tone serialism as a student, and counts Bach and Mozart as his major influences. Indeed, this section of his favourite composer Schubert’s Impromptu in A-Flat Major, D 935/2 sounds like a distant ancestor of "Opening" off Glassworks, the work that catapulted him into popular culture:
But Glass is smart in other ways too. Composers today write for ensembles who might never play their music, and I’m thinking particularly of film composers who try to replicate symphony orchestras with computers; Glass has always written for whatever he could find. (I once heard someone say that beginner Indian rock bands sound like “bees fucking in a jar”, a description that applies equally well to the early Philip Glass Ensemble’s use of Farfisa organs.) Like Steve Reich, he also actively performs his own work, stating in a Telegraph interview that "if we'd waited for interpreters, we'd probably still be waiting." And, significantly, he became one of the first classical music composers to embrace amplification and integrate electronics and synthesizers in a way that put him closer to pop and rock than to musique concrète; in fact, his influence is not just widespread but welcome there.
And that brings me to what I think is the root of the problem: Glass is famous.
By the time Glass came of age, the classical music world had decided to favour respectability over listenability (as it still does to an extent) and contemporary composers had practically driven away most of their audience in the name of intellectual conceits. Unsurprisingly, if they were known at all it was usually only to a faithful few. For some time, 'popular music' had meant dumb music for dumb people; now 'classical music' began to mean dead music by dead people.
Enter Philip Glass with pedigree for days: a student of Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard, Darius Milhaud at Aspen, Nadia Boulanger and sitarist Ravi Shankar in Paris, and Shankar's tabla player Allah Rakha in New York. His music sounds nothing like it is expected to, and he realises that "the avenues for presenting new music [are] closed to [him]." The people who champion it tend to know nothing about classical music – and, to the consternation of those involved in said music, Glass becomes mainstream.
If one thinks about it, between teaching Glass and Quincy Jones, Boulanger’s most lasting impact has been on American popular music. There’s even a direct parallel with Glass in the critical reaction to Jones’ move from jazz to R&B, as bassist Buddy Catlett notes in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones:
“To a lot of white critics, the only time a black musician is authentic is if he’s toothless and wearing overalls and concrete boots, playing blues harmonica on a porch in the Mississippi Delta someplace, scratching his ass and dying with a bottle of wine in his lap. […] Quincy took jazz as far as it could go for him. What was he supposed to do after Europe, spend his life playing jazz so he could apply for a lot of grants and shit? So some middle-aged college professor and some nerdy bunch of dudes can sit around and give him a grant to play the music he helped make?”
And so it is with Glass, who went on to collaborate with more people outside classical music than within it: early fans David Bowie and Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Ray Manzarek, Laurie Anderson and Linda Ronstadt, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Foday Musa Suso, Ravi Shankar, Aphex Twin(!), Mick Jagger(!!), and even a remix of S Express's "Hey Music Lover"(!!!). His utilitarian approach to his craft – as a twenty-year-old at Juilliard he asked himself “Who wants this music? Who am I writing for?" – meant he ended up working with filmmakers (Godfrey Reggio, Paul Schrader, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Daldry, Neil Burger, Richard Eyre, Woody Allen), writers (David Henry Hwang, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee), poets (Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen), dancers (Lucinda Childs and Twyla Tharp), artists (Richard Serra), photographers (Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe) and theatre people (everyone from Samuel Beckett to Robert Wilson, who gave us Einstein on the Beach). And that's not even counting those who are influenced by his music: no wonder it is so recognisable.
Glass himself comes across as an unpretentious, extraordinarily well-informed man with a strong sense of the dignity of labour: a man who practised counterpoint all night in Paris and worked as a plumber and a taxi driver in New York to make ends meet until he was 41; a man who has written twelve symphonies and at least twenty operas as well as the alarm for a Swatch wristwatch and music for Sesame Street; a man who understands different ways of life and never stoops to cultural appropriation. He graduated from the University of Chicago (where he majored in mathematics and philosophy) at an age most people are accepted into it, and has been invited to lecture on everything from Buddhism to architecture. Ironically, it seems the only people who won’t give him the time of day are musicians.
Ultimately, one's attitude to all music – and perhaps to Glass's music more than anyone else's – depends on whether one perceives music with their heart or with their head. In either case, it's here to stay.