During a recent interview about his latest opera, The Perfect American, Glass said: ‘The whole idea of high and low art – nobody cares about that any more.’ Throughout a prolific career spanning five decades and more than 200 works, Glass has never really cared about such distinctions either. While some composers gained success by drawing on existing popular styles, Glass has created a musical style completely from scratch: a music that is entirely sui generis.
This unique outlook stems from Glass’s unusual childhood and upbringing. Born in Baltimore in 1937, Glass’s father owned a record store, and his young son would often spend time there. Glass junior soon noted that when a Beethoven 78 was exchanged for cash, even ‘high art’ had its value in the musical marketplace. Neglected records that gathered dust in his father’s shop were duly brought back home and Glass was fed on a diet of less commercial and more ‘difficult’ music – the late chamber works of Beethoven and Schubert or the music of modern composers such as Bartók and Hindemith. Such early experiences coloured Glass’s musical outlook. His music has rarely been ‘easy listening’ but can be appreciated on both commercial and artistic grounds.
After studies at the Juilliard School of music from 1957 to 1961, Glass moved to Paris, where he studied for two years with the revered (and feared) pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. As Glass later recalled, ‘It was a nightmare! But I loved it.’ In between lessons with Boulanger, Glass took on some extracurricular work by transcribing music by Indian musician and composer Ravi Shankar for the psychedelic film Chappaqua (1966), directed by Conrad Rooks. Glass’s exposure to non-Western music ‘changed all the rules’ for him and he soon struck upon the idea of basing a musical style on cyclical patterns and small rhythmic cells, combined and transformed in different ways to generate much larger musical structures.
Glass put theory into practice upon his return to New York in 1967, establishing a highly amplified ensemble comprising electric organs, synthesisers, saxophones and flutes to perform a body of work that became inextricably linked with the emerging minimalist movement: pieces such as Music in Similar Motion, Music in Contrary Motion and Music in Fifths (all 1969), and Music with Changing Parts (1970). This extraordinarily fecund period – the golden age of the Philip Glass Ensemble – culminated in his magnum opus, Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74), which added voices to the instrumental set-up to create a mesmerising, through-composed, large-scale work lasting for easily more than four hours.
During 1975-76 Glass teamed up with director Robert Wilson to produce Einstein on the Beach, one of the most radical and groundbreaking operas of the 20th century. The story goes that during one of the first performances of Einstein at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, one of the venue’s senior administrators stood next to Glass backstage, looking out at the audience, and asked him: ‘Who are these people? I’ve never seen them before.’ Glass replied: ‘You’d better find out who they are, because if this place expects to be running in 25 years’ time, that’s your audience out there.’
Glass’s music is often at its most inspiring when responding to new challenges. His superimposition of a newly composed operatic ‘soundtrack’ for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête (1994) or his song-cycle settings of Leonard Cohen’s poems from Book of Longing (2007) are notable highlights. Glass’s excursions into film music illustrate this point. Invited by director Godfrey Reggio in 1982 to compose music for Koyaanisqatsi, a film entirely without dialogue or voiceover that deals in different ways with man’s ambivalent relationship with technology, nature and the environment, Glass responded with a powerful, visceral soundtrack. His music for Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) prompted the director to describe Glass as the master of ‘existential dread’, and the composer’s use of semitonal shifts, minor-third ostinatos and unsettling chord patterns that continuously turn in on themselves has resulted in a number of highly effective scores, not least Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002).
Glass’s latest opera, The Perfect American, manages to encapsulate the creative dichotomy that lies at the heart of much of his work. Glass elevates the commercial ‘art’ world of Walt Disney to high-art status through the operatic medium, yet this is effected through Glass’s own inimitable style, which lies at the intersection between high and low. Not so much full of irreconcilable paradoxes, Glass’s musical language is immediately identifiable, self-contained and complete. Is he possibly the ‘Perfect American’ composer?