In October 1982, composer Philip Glass appeared in an ad for Cutty Sark scotch. Floating above an illustration of Glass with his trademark messy flop of hair, his left hand clutching a brace of musical notes, the tagline reads, "Here's to those who can make history out of the same 12 notes." Alongside is a biography that details his rise from a life of odd jobs to his success as a composer with "an audience so large and so diverse it even includes rock fans."
The sight of a composer in an ad for a product unrelated to music is certainly unusual, but then, Glass is an unusual figure. As the Cutty Sark biography says, his music has garnered a following far beyond classical music—though it's telling that having rock fans is the ultimate sign of credibility here. He is one of the few composers who are household names in the twenty-first century, and his brand of pulsating minimalism is heard the world over. Glass turned eighty on January 31, and Carolina Performing Arts is throwing him a huge birthday party, presenting six concerts that encompass all the facets of his work.
Glass's minimalism started developing while he studied with the famed musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—whose students included Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, and Quincy Jones—in Paris in the early 1960s. As he absorbed her rigorous approach to counterpoint, Glass also became interested in Hindustani music and its tension between rhythmic and harmonic cycles. The music he wrote after returning to New York City around 1967 is rigorous and austere, using simple scales or tonal chords to explore complicated, ever-changing rhythmic groupings. Those pieces, which include Music in Fifths, Music with Changing Parts, and Music in Twelve Parts, sit nicely alongside similar, contemporaneous works by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Julius Eastman. Change is constant, but it's often so gradual, subtle, or submerged within the larger texture that it's hard to notice.
This period culminated with his 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs. With no plot to speak of, it uses Einstein and relativity as a metaphor for timelessness by way of trains and spaceships. Throughout the piece, Glass's music continues to loop and oscillate in lopsided patterns of arpeggios while singers intone random syllables and numbers, a sound that echoes much of Meredith Monk's work. The amplified ensemble of organs, saxophones, flutes, and a solo violin gives the music a futuristic throb. Because harmonies pass so slowly for much of the opera, it often feels like a kind of charged, hyperactive drone. Glass's music provides the perfect backdrop for Wilson and Childs's massive, monochromatic tableaux, full of activity but static in their sense of space.
Nearly four hours into Einstein on the Beach, Glass does something unexpected: he starts changing chords, churning through progressions at a rapid clip. Organs reel off piles of arpeggios, a saxophone outlines the bass line, and a chorus hovers above it all. It may be the most famous scene in the opera, with a wall of lights operated by dozens of people and elevators flying around as a few dancers make odd gestures around the stage. It's an ecstatic explosion—one similar, perhaps, to the patterns of tension and release constructed by Larry Levan or David Mancuso at the underground dance parties happening around New York at the same time.
Einstein was a sensation, selling out its run at the Met and earning all kinds of national and international press. It also began the transition from Glass the composer to Glass the star to Glass the public musician and figurehead. The opera's closing scene became the blueprint for much of the music that would become widespread, propelling Glass's rise and forming the backbone of his mature style: perpetual-motion arpeggios running in different directions, chord progressions bustling by at dizzying speeds, a vaguely dance-like rhythmic feel full of three-against-two syncopations and lots of repetition.
Those drone-like textures still appear in Glass's subsequent music, but their importance fades. Instead, drama emerges from the high-wire act Glass plays with harmony. Once he establishes the home key, he finds increasingly outlandish ways of wrenching the fabric of tonality nearly to the point of breaking while still finding his way back home. This is the sound-world of Glassworks, his 1982 album aimed at a more general audience; his soundtrack for the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi; and much of his music since: a bountiful span of movie scores, string quartets, symphonies, and more. And yet "Philip Glass" the idea is somehow stuck, in the popular consciousness, on those endless arpeggios.
It's strange that Glass, of all the minimalists, was the one to become a household name. Because he's so prolific and his music has a certain amount of sameness built in, some critique him for only having a few ideas. Fellow minimalists Steve Reich and John Adams have been more consistently innovative, but neither of them have transcended classical music. Michael Nyman's soundtracks cover similar musical terrain, but it's Glass who has won Academy Awards. Meredith Monk has pushed even harder at the boundaries between music, film, and dance while remaining a niche figure. It's Glass who gets parodied on The Simpsons and South Park, who is a punch line in a Gallagher routine and a reference in Gilmore Girls.
A few factors account for Glass's prominence. First, he put himself out there, actively courting an audience and a discourse outside of classical music. In the 1980s alone, he collaborated with David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Allen Ginsberg, and Ravi Shankar, among others. His musical vocabulary lends itself to collaborations across the arts and media, and his best works are often buttressed by film or dance. For instance, his score to Errol Morris's 2003 documentary, Fog of War, is a powerful backdrop for Robert McNamara's disquieting monologue.
It's also significant that Glass arrived at a cultural moment of realignment within classical music. By the early 1980s, the gulf between "high" and "low" was finally starting to collapse, as composers started to reembrace tonality and popular forms. This is the same moment that Kronos Quartet was recording works by Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. Like the Kronos, Glass was in the right place at the right time to define a certain kind of cutting-edge sound for the public at large.
Most important, though, the deceptive simplicity of Glass's musical language makes it easy to oversimplify and even mock. The sense that "He's just repeating things over and over" or that he's writing "record-skipping music" make it really ripe to be ripped on, as when Homer Simpson gets tickets for "An Evening with Philip Glass" and quips, "Ooooh, just an evening?" The obvious absurdity within those extended repetitions is on par with John Cage's musical treatment of nonmusical sounds and Jackson Pollock's playful splatters.
In another episode of The Simpsons, Marge exhorts the audience at a symphony concert not to leave because "the next piece is an atonal medley by Philip Glass." The exchange is telling in part because Glass has never written an "atonal medley." The fact that no other well-known composers have written one either demonstrates classical music's (and atonality's) diminished culture stature. Thus, "Philip Glass" has become a metonym for "contemporary classical composer," an updated version of "John Cage," the last composer to stand in for an age, irrespective of the sound of his music.
John Cage was in his seventies when Philip Glass started becoming "Philip Glass." As we celebrate Glass's eightieth birthday, the question of who will emerge as the representation of the next musical era hovers in the background. Classical music is as vibrant and diverse as it has ever been, so it's hard to predict who that person (or persons) might be. For now, though, Philip Glass, the man and the idea, continues to push at the boundaries of minimalism, finding new ways to surprise us in his sounds.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Glass Ceiling."