Glass Works 

Famed avant-garde composer is focus of weeklong film and music fest in Nashville

It’s been more than 30 years since the opera Einstein on the Beach catapulted Philip Glass to international fame, yet the composer still believes he’s misunderstood.

It’s been more than 30 years since the opera Einstein on the Beach catapulted Philip Glass to international fame, yet the composer still believes he’s misunderstood. “People have been calling me a minimalist composer for years, and though I’ve largely gotten used to it, the term is still a misnomer,” says Glass, who spoke recently by phone from his recording studio in New York City. “At best, minimalism applies only to a short period in music history from about 1965 to 1975. To apply it to any music written afterward does nothing but cause confusion. I’ve always thought the term should be stamped out.”

It’s been more than 30 years since the opera Einstein on the Beach catapulted Philip Glass to international fame, yet the composer still believes he’s misunderstood. “People have been calling me a minimalist composer for years, and though I’ve largely gotten used to it, the term is still a misnomer,” says Glass, who spoke recently by phone from his recording studio in New York City. “At best, minimalism applies only to a short period in music history from about 1965 to 1975. To apply it to any music written afterward does nothing but cause confusion. I’ve always thought the term should be stamped out.”

Glass, who’ll be in town next week for a sort of Philip Glass mini-festival featuring films, a new choral work and a performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble, has a point. There was an austerity in his early music that was indeed minimal. His works from the late ’60s and early ’70s were fiercely reductive, boasting titles that were themselves stripped-down descriptions of musical process—Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Twelve Parts and so on.

Fast-forward a few decades and his titles—Metamorphosis, A Toltec Symphony, The Light, to name a fewseem downright poetic. True, these newer works continue to include minimalist techniques, but the aggressive repetition that was once Glass’ calling card no longer seems like the main point. There are moments in 1987’s Violin Concerto when the music becomes so ardent and passionate that you almost feel as if you’re listening to Max Bruch or some other heart-on-the-sleeve romantic. Similarly, Glass’ recent symphonies are deeply emotional and dramatic, a far cry from the radical process-driven music of the composer’s youth.

Fast-forward a few decades and his titles—Metamorphosis, A Toltec Symphony, The Light, to name a fewseem downright poetic. True, these newer works continue to include minimalist techniques, but the aggressive repetition that was once Glass’ calling card no longer seems like the main point. There are moments in 1987’s Violin Concerto when the music becomes so ardent and passionate that you almost feel as if you’re listening to Max Bruch or some other heart-on-the-sleeve romantic. Similarly, Glass’ recent symphonies are deeply emotional and dramatic, a far cry from the radical process-driven music of the composer’s youth.

“I would agree my music has changed over time,” says Glass, who turned 70 on Jan. 31. “Melodies that were once in the background of my music have now moved to the foreground, while certain repetitive techniques have less emphasis.”

Yet the old perceptions—and jokes—persist. Glass’ profound influence on such popular figures as Brian Eno and David Bowie aside, the composer is probably best known in today’s pop culture for an episode of South Park in which he was lampooned as the absurdist conductor of a non-offensive, non-denominational Christmas play. There’s also that perennial knock-knock joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Knock, knock. Who’s there? Knock, knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass. Humor, of course, cuts both ways: most hardworking freelance musicians are grateful for any attention—what such recondite composers as Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen would give for 15 seconds of knock-knock fame. But most serious musicians—and it’s impossible to think of Glass any other way—hate when they’re not taken seriously.

“I think Glass got a bad rap early on, and so a lot people stopped listening to him,” says Alan Valentine, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s president. “But I’ve been a big fan for years, and I kept listening, in part because I was impressed that whenever I’d walk into a record store, I’d find Glass’ music in every section—pop, jazz, classical, new age, everywhere. So when an opportunity came along to co-commission a piece, I jumped at the chance.”

Valentine is talking about The Passion of Ramakrishna, a multi-movement, 45-minute work for large chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra that the Nashville Symphony commissioned with the Pacific Symphony. Sri Ramakrishna was a 19th century Indian mystic whose writings and teachings about Hinduism did much to shape modern-day India. As the title suggests, the work deals with Ramakrishna’s passion and death. Glass assigns the part of Ramakrishna to the full chorus, which has the effect of giving the holy man a luminous celestial weight and authority. Think of it as a sonic transfiguration. The parts of Ramakrishna’s wife, Sarada Devi, and his lifelong friend, Mahendranath Gupta, are given to soloists, in this case soprano Cynthia Haymon and bass-baritone Nathan Berg.

“This piece will probably surprise a lot of people,” says conductor Carl St. Clair. “It’s more romantic than minimal. At times, it even has the cathedral grandeur we associate with [Anton] Bruckner’s big romantic symphonies.” (St. Clair conducted the world premiere of The Passion last year, and will lead the Nashville performances at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center Feb. 15-17.)

So why write Brucknerian music about a Bengalese saint? In his typically articulate program notes, Glass explains: “It has been said that when a great man dies, it is as if all of humanity—and the whole world for that matter—were witnessing a beautiful, timeless sunset. At that moment the great matter of life and death is revealed, if not explained and understood. By bearing witness to that event, perhaps we understand a little better our own mortality.”

Glass’ interest in Indian music goes way back. While studying in Paris with legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in 1964, Glass worked on a film score with Ravi Shankar, the famed Indian composer and sitar virtuoso. Shankar composed the music, and Glass transcribed Shankar’s music into Western notation.

“What came as a revelation to me was the use of rhythm,” says Glass. “In Western music, we measure time by slicing it up into smaller units, like a loaf of bread. Indian music takes smaller units of times and adds them up to larger time values. I decided to incorporate that kind rhythmic approach into my music.”

Back in the U.S., Glass began experimenting with these rhythms, which became the foundation for his new ambient style of music. To support himself, he drove a New York City cab by day. Evenings he played with his own Philip Glass Ensemble, which, on a good night, might perform for a few dozen listeners at art galleries and downtown Manhattan lofts. (The ensemble will play for nearly 2,000 at the Schermerhorn Feb. 18.)

“That was an incredible time for art and music in New York City,” says Michael Riesman, longtime music director of the Glass Ensemble. “Lower Manhattan had all these derelict warehouses that artists and musicians turned into lofts. Philip lived there, and his neighbors were people like artist Chuck Close, who would make the posters advertising Philip’s concerts. I first heard Philip at one of those lofts in 1972 and was blown away. I joined the ensemble in 1974, and have been at it ever since. A lot of us have stuck with him, in part because he was such a great guy to work for. That was especially true in the early days, when he always made sure we got just enough work to collect unemployment.”

Finding work became less of a problem after Einstein on the Beach appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976. The work, written with the visionary theater director Robert Wilson, was a radical departure from traditional opera. It was five hours long and staged without intermission. (The audience was encouraged to come and go as it pleased.) The actors intoned numbers and syllables, and made references to The Beatles, teen idol David Cassidy and the song “Mr. Bojangles.” It was the most radical music of its day and, arguably, the most radical music Glass ever wrote.

In the years since, Glass has gone from enfant terrible to mainstream composer for the concert hall. He’s composed more than a dozen operas and theater works, eight symphonies, chamber music and piano works. He’s been an important film composer whose signature sound has been copied by second-rate jingle writers everywhere. Even at 70, he continues to compose at a blistering pace and has long since accomplished his life’s mission.

“My goal has always been to leave the world in at least as good a condition as I found it,” he says.

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