When Philip Glass was a boy growing up in Baltimore in the 1940s and early '50s, his father owned a record store. The young Glass' first musical education came from the records his father brought home: the symphonies of Bartok, the chamber music of Beethoven and Schubert. These were the records that didn't sell.
Thus Glass' destiny heralded itself at an early age. Not that Glass' work is neglected. If Glass is not one of the most popular composers of our time, he's one of the most recognizable. Imitations of Glass' signature gestures, such as the recurrent cascades of exhilarating arpeggios, can be heard as background in television commercials. His greatest mass appeal comes from his film scores, most notably the "qatsi" series of Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi (the completion of the trilogy, Noyaqqatsi, is due out this year), as well as his Oscar-nominated score to Martin Scorsese's Kundun. He was recently awarded a Golden Globe for The Truman Show (in which he has a brief cameo), although he contributed a relatively small amount of music. You hear those cascades of sound as Natascha McElhone runs down her apartment stairs after Truman's liberation. Perhaps proving Glass' mainstream status, he's even been lampooned on South Park.
With his symphonic work, his tradition-jarring operas, his works for solo piano and for the Philip Glass Ensemble, Glass is not only well-known, he's notorious. The opera Akhnaten received a mixture of applause and jeers when it premiered in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1984. The composer garners more respect these days, but there are still numerous and vocal critics. Peter Davis' New York magazine review of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Glass' The Voyage was titled "Star Drek."
In retrospect, those unbought records his father brought home are significant; they represent not Glass' future outsider status but the beginning of his passionate attraction to exploring musical idioms that the status quo had failed to acknowledge. Throughout his career Glass has found inspiration in what others have either ignored or dismissed. His genius has been to transform these foreign musical expressions into his own unique language, a language that commands attention and has managed to raise passions for over three decades.
After those Bartok records and a stint at Juilliard, the most dramatic development in Glass' career as a composer came in Paris in 1966, when he took a job translating the music of Ravi Shankar to Western notation. Glass had been under the stern tutelage of the revered, and feared, musicologist Nadia Boulanger for two years when he met Shankar. After the intense study of Bach and Mozart with Boulanger, Glass had a revelation with his initial glimpse into music from outside the Western tradition. As he struggled with Shankar's work, he discovered that the music opened up for him when he left out bar lines in his scoring, meaning that this was not a music divided by time but, rather, "a steady stream of rhythmic pulses revealed," Glass writes in Music by Glass. Remember that Glass' discovery came at a time when there was no study of what would later be popularized as "world music."
In the years since, Glass has continued to explore musical idioms that lie outside the province of the symphonic tradition. He's written two symphonies that grew out of his admiration for the collaborative work of Brian Eno and David Bowie, Low and Heroes. The opera Hydrogen Jukebox was written with the late Allen Ginsberg as librettist. He's worked with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Merchant and Mick Jagger, among others. Such celebrity collaborations have drawn some sniping from critics, who charge that Glass is too quick to embrace celebrity for increased popularity, but such talk has the ring of envy. Who wouldn't work with such artists if the opportunity were available? It would be so cool.
Even in discussing his current solo tour, Glass refers to influences from beyond the concert hall as he considers his approach to performance. He'll play nearly 90 minutes of music without intermission because "if you go hear Pearl Jam, basically rock concerts don't have intermissions."
In conversation, Glass speaks in a steady streams of words, not unlike the unbroken currents of his music. His program in St. Louis will include a scattering of pieces from the last 25 years, as well as a work in progress, the "Etudes." Glass has written nine of these, with a plan for 16 to complete the work. He will play six of the compositions at the Edison Theatre.
"They're really about how I approach the piano," he says of the "Etudes." "I originally wrote five of these pieces for Dennis Davies, the conductor I've worked a lot with. I didn't really have a name for them, and he said, 'Why don't you call them Etudes?' I said, 'Why would I do that?' He said, 'Because each piece approaches a different pianistic problem.' I looked at the piece that way and I saw that in fact he was right and that became the basis on which I continued it then.
"I'm thinking of the piano in terms of producing a volume or quantity of sound and what are the technical means by which I do that. Are they contrapuntal? Are they chordal? Is it quiet music? Is it fast music? Am I all over the piano? All these are questions that each piece can decide for itself. Each of the 'Etudes' will answer that question in its own way. 'Etude' really means 'study,' a pianistic study of a kind. Of course, one hopes it's more than that. They also have an emotional range. They have an expressive dynamic from piece to piece. One of the things I'm still doing is getting the right order of the pieces, and that's going to go on for a while."
Glass has also been touring with the Ensemble performing Monsters of Grace, a new collaboration between Glass and Robert Wilson that features a 3-D film. He regards these solo concerts as a means toward challenging himself as a performer. "It is the essential experience," he says. "I feel it's the quintessential activity that as a composer I can be engaged in. I am there with the audience, and there's nothing but them and me on the piano. I have nowhere to hide."
Adding to, or perhaps aggravating, the solo experience for Glass is his own relationship to the piano. He admits that for his larger compositions, "I always write an easy part for myself. I write the hard parts for other people. The reason is, I don't like to practice. With the piano concerts I can't do that. I actually have to practice, I have to keep the pieces ready to go, and since I do 20 concerts a year I'm doing them all the time. So I'm constantly playing the piano. Other pieces, like La Belle et La Bete (his opera based on Jean Cocteau's classic film), I never practice them. I leave all the hard pieces for other people. I show up, I do my talks with the audience, I play my part -- which is the third part, not the first or second. I play the easiest piano part. It makes sense. I don't want to spend my life practicing the piano.
"But with the piano concerts I really have to address the issues of confidence, ability, technique and all those things. I have to do my scales -- I don't do it every day."
Glass is now 62. He has produced an immense body of work and shows no signs of flagging. At this stage of his career, Glass says he has resisted looking back on what he has accomplished, yet those to whom he is closest have encouraged him to participate in creating an archive of posters, comments, reviews, articles and other miscellany.
He's still not wholly comfortable with the process but is coming to find value in it. "What I'm beginning to understand -- for the first time, really -- is the exponential increase of the power of the work when it becomes simply organized in the right way. I thought, Well, this is really interesting. I always went from piece to piece.
"It's an interesting question. I am in this curious place right now, yet I resist it, because personally I really think of myself as the guy who's writing the next piece. When people say, 'What are you interested in?' I say, 'I'm interested in what I'm doing now.'
Philip Glass performs solo piano at Washington University's Edison Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19. Call 935-6543 or 534-1111 for tickets.