Philip Glass: Finally being taken seriously?

The veteran composer divides music lovers like no other. Now he is getting his own Prom. About time, we reckon.


By Nicola Christie, August 6, 2009
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Philip Glass has written eight symphonies, 20 operas and countless film soundtracks. Critics, however, deride his work as repetitive

Philip Glass has written eight symphonies, 20 operas and countless film soundtracks. Critics, however, deride his work as repetitive

It is astonishing when you think about it. The world’s most significant living composer — we can argue about this later — gets his first Prom at the age of 72. Consider who he has worked with — Ravi Shankar, David Bowie, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Simon, Robert Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese. Just because the greatest film directors in the world queue up to work with him does not diminish Philip Glass’s classical credentials — it is a testament to the greatness of his music that all the greats want him to score their films.

So how has the world’s largest music festival ended up missing him — indeed, previously only ever playing seven minutes of his entire output? (Facades, performed by Ensemble Modern, under John Adams, in 1997). Even Proms director Roger Wright — also controller of BBC Radio 3 — is at a loss to know.

“Philip Glass is without question one of the most significant composers in history,” he says. “It’s very hard to talk about international culture, and certainly not American culture and the world of western music, without, in some ways, engaging with the music that Glass has written. Why, indeed, has he not been performed?”

And now he is making his official Proms debut — with a performance of his 1987 Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7 (Toltec), on August 12. “Glass has detractors, and there will be people that argue he doesn’t belong, but let their arguments rage on,” says Wright. “The opportunity to let people hear his music live, acoustically, in a late-night atmosphere, is a great one and what the Proms remit is about.”

His music seems so controlled, so tremendously organised, and his life is so wonderfully chaotic and messy with friends and family.

Scott Hicks

The arguments — they rage a little less now that every movie moves, hums and lulls to Glass’s meditative tones — are that all of his music is, well, a bit the same. Listen to the soundtrack of The Hours and you could mistake it for the Violin Concerto. Listen to the music for Godfrey Reggio’s iconic movie Koyaanisqatsi and you could mistake it for the soundtrack to The Thin Blue Line. Isn’t it a problem?

“I would say the opposite,” says Wright. “How many contemporary composers can you name that have such an identifiable sound-world? The way that he has stuck to it and mined it is a remarkable thing.”

That sound is variously trance-like, meditative, soothing, and swaying, every note to-ing and fro-ing with the other in repeated patterns. Some call it minimalist — a strange description, really, for music that is so ferociously busy. Others prefer repetitive.

When he used to perform with his Philip Glass Ensemble in the SoHo warehouses of 1970s New York, the audience used to wander in and out of the performance when they felt like it, or lie on the floor and meditate, most of them high on some illicit substance or another. It did not bother Glass. “I was aware, following my learning with Ravi Shankar in the early 60s, that I was going into another world, that there was a music for me to do, then, that combined two different languages, an intersection between Western and Eastern cultures,” he has explained.

Glass is the subject of a full-length documentary film, Philip: a Portrait in 12 Parts, by Shine director Scott Hicks, that has just been released on DVD in the UK. In it, he reveals himself to be a man with a huge hunger for experience and love of learning. He also comes across as a touchingly humble. He observes that he was given the ability “to write music so radical that I could be mistaken for an idiot — and I was often, and I still am to this day.” Music is “an underground river” for him, he says, that he chooses to listen to and write down.

For Scott Hicks, making the documentary was an opportunity to get to know a man as different to the mechanical, organised sound of Glass’s music as he could have imagined. “You tend to think of this austere, minimalist composer, composing in this lonely room — he is so far from that image. His music seems so controlled, so tremendously organised, and his life is so wonderfully chaotic and messy with friends and family. I love that counterpoint.”

Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore, to Jewish parents who wanted their son to be a Jewish doctor or lawyer — even though it was his father’s record store that arguably fed his early commitment to music. At the age of 18 Glass attended the Julliard school of performing arts; at 23 he was studying under the legendary music professor, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris; at 35 he was back in New York with his own Ensemble, and a year later he had an opera on at the New York Met.

Since then he has written eight symphonies, four concertos, 20 operas, solo works for piano, organ, string quartets, and countless movie and documentary scores (totalling a phenomenal 91 big-screen composer credits).

He has also married four times, had four children (by two different wives), and embraced numerous world cultures, Buddhism being a notable one.

“You might say I’m a Darwinist, I’m a Hindu, I’m Jewish, I’m Christian. It’s true I’m interested in all these things. But I can’t say I’m exclusively anything,” he has said.

It may be so, but you can certainly hear the Jewish influence in the steady wavering of his music, the consistent searchings, the determined treading — there is a survivor quality to it, in its never-ending-ness, its ever-ascending climb.

At the Proms, another Jewish musician, Gidon Kremer, will be playing Glass’s music. It might have taken the composer a lifetime to get to there, but on Wednesday night he will be at the Royal Albert Hall, with a whole Prom to himself, and with one of the greatest violinists in the world as his ambassador.

Book tickets at www.bbc.co.uk/proms or call 0845 401 5040

    Last updated: 2:12pm, August 11 2009