Philip Glass, from Minimalism to mainstream

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Where does one begin with the most prolific of major modern composers? Philip Glass has written more than two dozen operas along with a considerable amount of incidental music for plays. By next season, his symphonies will number nine. There are concertos galore, film scores galore, solo pieces galore, and an impossible-to-categorize repertory for his Philip Glass Ensemble (now complemented by the Glass Chamber Players).

Glass’ list of collaborators is also profligate. Along with film and theater directors — high and low — Glass has collaborated with musicians from a startling wide range of classical, pop, jazz and world music traditions and cultures. He gets along, and his music gets along.

It is that companionable aspect of Glass that has no doubt been most responsible for the trajectory of his career. One of the founders of hard-core, anti-establishment Minimalism in the 1960s, the 74-year-old composer has entered the mainstream, be it big-box opera, big-budget movies or, the ultimate pop-culture accolade, having your style ripped off by television commercials.


Throughout this month a Philip Glass Festival (, sponsored by the Pacific Symphony and Long Beach Opera, includes concerts, operas, film screenings and talks with Glass. In preparation, here is a potted survey of how the composer got to where he is in three important genres.

Glass in concert

Glass began “Strung Out,” so to speak. That early 1967 piece for amplified violin is all hard edges — melodies whittled down to a few notes, numbingly repeated rhythms, psychedelic phase shifts. The volume is meant to be turned up high, like rock music.

Over the next decade the processes of Glass’ early process music grew into grandly evolving structures. In 1976, he produced the four-hour virtuosic “Music in Twelve Parts,” with its infinite variety of shifting patterns and textures. From there he gradually entered into more traditional concert music. Orchestras hated the finger-cramping repetitions and the difficulty of counting rhythmic shifts. But Glass, nonetheless, gained the imprimatur of the likes of conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and violist Gidon Kremer.

Glass’ first symphony, in 1991, was a provocative Glassification of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s progressive rock album “Low.” Only eight years later, his Fifth was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival to celebrate the coming millennium. A huge oratorio-like choral symphony, it sets texts from a variety of sacred sources. The full-scale oratorio “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” given its premiere by the Pacific Symphony in 1996 and repeated this week as the centerpiece of this year’s American Composers Festival, is a kind of sequel.

Glass has also been a purveyor of solo and chamber music. Most recently he has turned to intimate solo cello and solo violin pieces characterized by grandly Romantic gestures.


Theater music

The now legendary 1976 “Einstein on the Beach” — an opera, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, of images and music — propelled Glass to fame. Written for his ensemble, it was in many respects a grand extension of the kind of incidental music he had been for years supplying to the avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines. The success of “Einstein” led to traditional commissions from established opera companies. The portrait operas “Satyagrapha” (about Gandhi) and “Akhnaten,” which reaches Long Beach Opera on March 19, came next.

From there, the subjects have been myriad and so have the theatrical experiments. An opera based on Cocteau’s film “Beauty and the Beast” is actually sung to the movie (with the original soundtrack turned off). Columbus has been a subject (“The Voyage”) as have the science fiction novels of Nobel laureate Doris Lessing. An opera about Walt Disney will be next.

Film scores

Glass entered feature film five years after “Einstein,” collaborating with Godfrey Reggio, another radical director obsessed with imagery. In their “Koyaanisqatsi,” visions of our cities and our planet are sped up and slowed down to show the array and disarray of modern life.

In Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” about the Japanese novelist, and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” about the Dalai Lama, Glass’ music helped elevate finely made films. But he has also scored the icky horror film “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” and supplied Woody Allen with a blubbing soundtrack to “Cassandra’s Dream.” Glass’ second of three Academy Award nominations was for “The Hours,” which his music prevented from becoming outright saccharine.