Dayton Hare: Reflections on Philip Glass
We all agreed that it was probably the least interesting concert we had ever attended. Utterly lacking in variety and generally monochromatic, the cyclical nature of the music failed to capture our attention, the repetitive patterns seemed to lack even a flicker of the creative flame and there were more than a few moments which I personally found to be soporific in a literal sense. The best part was probably when we snapped a photo with that guy who looked like (but wasn’t) the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
This took place around two years ago now, and the event in question was a performance by the composer Philip Glass and a violinist whose name I don’t remember. They played a handful of music by the first of the pair, as a sort of preview for an upcoming opera of Glass’s that was being staged at the same venue, UNC Greensboro. I and two of my close friends — a composer and a jazz guitarist/composer — attended on a whim, driving from where we studied half-an-hour away in order to see a man who is perhaps the best-known composer of contemporary classical music in America. None of us really loved Glass’s music — at the time we were more enamored of people like Gesualdo, and might have also been prone to worship at the altar of Webern — but none of us expected to be as tremendously dissatisfied as we were.
In between pieces Glass spoke about his music into a microphone, mumbling almost indiscernibly. I distinctly recall something about him writing a piece “about 10 years ago now, in 1990.” After the concert there was a table selling Glass’s recent memoir, “Words Without Music.” We walked past it.
All of which sounds rather harsh. And I suppose it is, but that’s how I felt at the time. In the years since, my tone has softened on Glass, but he remains a composer about whom I am supremely ambivalent. Over the past few days I’ve been thinking more deeply about him and his legacy — prompted in no small part by the pageantry surrounding his 80th birthday this week — and it has had a clarifying effect. In short, I may not be enthused about his work, but I’m very comfortable with his removal from my “List of Composers I Hate” (a perdition to which J.P. Sousa is forever damned), and a bit disappointed in myself that it took so long.
Starting in the ‘60s, Glass — along with composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young — was among the first to develop a musical style which has come to be known as “minimalism,” music characterized by simple, slow-changing and repetitive patterns. One of the only major movements of American origin within the classical music tradition, it appropriately draws from a variety of non-classical influences: from contemporary American pop music it took its simple, consonant chord progressions, from Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music it took its concept of time, from west Africa it took some of its rhythmic inspiration.
Glass himself has undeniably had a profound musical influence, especially in America. Perhaps more than anyone else he embodied the trends of postmodern music in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and he crossed over into the public awareness like nobody else in his generation. He became a household name in the way that Stravinsky did a few generations earlier and no one has since. Many of the composers active today — both of younger and older generations — openly acknowledge their indebtedness to him (such as Nico Muhly, whom I interviewed in 2015 for this publication, or John Adams, with whom I spoke in September). I suppose even my own music has been touched by his hand — I wrote my first vaguely “minimalist” composition while in Paris last summer (studying as part of a program modelled after one of Glass’s own teachers, the great Nadia Boulanger), though its stylistic differences from Glass are significant.
But Glass’s reach isn’t limited to the classical music world. Over the last week popular figures from Paul Simon to Laurie Anderson, both of whom have collaborated with Glass, have been lauding him in the press. And in this I think can be seen one of Glass’s greatest strengths; he doesn’t confine himself to just his little corner of art. Throughout his career Glass has consistently engaged with other artists to create new works together. And this is true in areas outside of music — he has collaborated with the poet Allen Ginsberg on opera, with film director Martin Scorsese for his beautiful “Kundun,” with director Godfrey Reggio on “Koyaanisqatsi” and with countless others on any number of projects. And, at least to me, it’s when Glass is working in these dramatic media that he is at his strongest as a creator. Some of his instrumental music might make me feel like peeling my epidermis, but throw in a libretto and some choreography and the music is transformed into an engaging and meditative experience like no other (see: the opera “Einstein on the Beach”).
Part of Glass’s appeal can certainly be traced to these collaborations, but it also comes from the fact that his music proved to be a democratization of sorts. When he first came to prominence — and broad public popularity — he and the minimalist movement were seen as an alternative to the abstract and elitist approach of modernist composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, who were generally locked away in offices on ivy-covered campuses with impressive names, inaccessible. But Glass — and Reich, and Riley — were easy to grasp on to, unpretentious and hip. And like much of the American avant-garde — musical, literary or otherwise — they dabbled in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, making them appealing to the New Age crowd which was rapidly forming.
My own first encounter with Glass’s music came sometime in middle school. I was spending my summer in the mountains of Colorado with my family, attending my first live concerts at the Breckenridge Music Festival and generally savoring existence. At a garage sale, my mother found a CD of his third symphony and “The Civil Wars Suite,” and immediately suggested we buy it. In a past life, Mom was herself one of these New Age types, and had come to love Glass when she lived in the Ginsberg-betrodden hippie town of Boulder, my birthplace. For her 26th birthday she had even made the trip out to San Francisco to see his opera “Satyagraha,” a work in Sanskrit (who does that?) about the life of Gandhi. On our drive down from the mountains, we listened to the CD we had found, the evocative music perfectly accompanying the winding road and rugged landscape.
I hated it. Sorry, Mom. I hated it.
But check back with me in a few years — the way this is going, by then I’ll probably have canonized the man.