There was a time, more than 20 years ago, when someone hailing a cab in New York City might have been picked up by a certain aspiring composer, namely Philip Glass. Before his innovative theater piece, “Einstein on the Beach,” the 1976 collaboration with Robert Wilson that made him a celebrity, Glass often manned a cab by day. In his off hours, he invented his own, soon-to-be popular mode of minimalism.
That, by now, is something of a romantic footnote in his personal history. From such a humble beginning, Glass has risen to an almost unprecedented height, becoming one of the most, if not the most, recognizable and successful composers alive. While Glass’ critical reputation wavers wildly, his faithful following and steady flow of commissions keep him busy and in the public eye.
Glass has written for a variety of instrumental settings and idioms, including ambitious opera and multimedia theater projects. But when he arrives at the Alex Theater on Saturday, it will be in the spartan, stripped-down format of a solo piano concert.
In addition to other activities, Glass has performed his music solo for 25 years. “I get a lot out of it,” said Glass, speaking by phone from his Manhattan home last week. “For one thing, financially, the only time a composer makes any money is when he plays the piano. But more than that, the activity of playing the music brings the cycle of creativity to a completion, which I find no other way that is as satisfying.”
As a composer who necessarily spends much of his creative life in solitude, Glass also appreciates the sense of interaction with a live, listening crowd. “The presence of the audience affirms the dialogue, which I imagine that I’m in with the public.”
However unintentionally, the program at the Alex serves as a retrospective of Glass’ music over two decades, from the “Fourth Knee Play” of 1976 to his etudes for solo piano, written in the last two years. The program also includes “Openings,” from his popular “Glass Works” album of 1981, and an excerpt from “Satyagraha,” one of his many operas.
While Glass doesn’t view the concert as a retrospective as such, he says, “It will give a picture of a musical catalog or a landscape that does cover my musical interests and the way I’ve approached the piano, which has been very different than most pianists over the years.”
Glass recently returned from Brazil, where he finished writing music for a new work with collaborator Wilson called “Monsters of Grace.” The piece will be for “projected three-dimensional computer images, four singers and my ensemble. Nice description, huh?” Glass said, laughing.
Can it be described as musical theater? “Yes, sure. I don’t know what else to call it.”
Redefining musical conventions is nothing new for Glass. He has collaborated with and based his work on other artistic sources, including works by Jean Cocteau and David Bowie. Glass’ latest release is an orchestral revision of music from “Heroes,” Bowie’s experimental album from the late ‘70s.
Bowie’s unique instrumental approach, in collaboration with Brian Eno, included the album “Low,” from which Glass created his “Low Symphony” four years ago. Glass sees his involvement with Bowie’s music extending to one more piece in a trilogy, based on Bowie’s ’79 album “Lodger.”
Glass said, “I suggested to [Bowie] that maybe he write original material based on ‘Lodger,’ and that I work from that. We may find another process. I’ve got a few years to think about it.”
Meanwhile, Bowie, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, has suggested that he may create music based on Glass’ score for the film “Mishima.”
While Glass and Bowie come from different musical worlds, both have been rebels and became very successful.
Through his shifting personae and experimentalism, Bowie has lampooned and embraced rock traditions. For his part, Glass chafed against the intellectuality of serialism--the traditional 12-tone system of composition, and instead has written music with repeating arpeggios and a steady pulse, which attracted a new, young audience and fueled detractors.
Is rebellion a point of kinship? Glass insisted, “Well, I didn’t start making a living at music until 1979, when I was 41. During the time that I first met David, I still had day jobs. By the time I first met him, he was doing the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ stuff, so he was already a personality, if I could use that word.
“I think the commonality is a somewhat different one, and I think it’s an authentic one. He comes out of the world of art and ideas. Here’s a man who’s not coming out of a New Jersey garage band. He’s a very sophisticated person, and the world of art is something he’s very knowledgeable about. This is also my background. I was first supported and presented in galleries and museums in New York.
“I came out of that community, much as he did. When I first met him in the early ‘70s, he told me he was a ‘painter using rock ‘n’ roll as the canvas.’ ” In a similar way, Glass, reformed cabbie and rare example of a successful independent composer, continues to use old and new musical settings as his canvases.
Underlying almost all of his music is a broad sense of theater. “Poetry is a general word, not just about words,” Glass said. “In the same way, ‘theater’ is for me a general description of a process of creation rather than what you see on the stage.” That also goes for a stage equipped with only a piano.
Philip Glass will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
Tickets are $29.50 and $22.50; (800) 233-3123.