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Happy Birthday, Philip Glass, Minimalist Composer

January 31, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Philip Glass is known for his immensely popular symphonies, operas and soundtracks. One of the greatest innovators of modern composing and famed classical musicians of our time, Glass was instrumental in developing the minimalist tradition.

Early Days

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore on January 31, 1937. As a child, he feasted on an obscure and exciting collection of music that he obtained from his father’s record and radio repair store. Glass told NPR that if something sold poorly in the store, his father always wanted to know why, and brought the music home to listen to it. Glass started playing music himself at age 6, beginning with the violin and then moving on to the flute. He double-majored in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Chicago. After graduating at age 19, he studied composition at Julliard.

Glass went on to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and then traveled to North Africa, India and Tibet. His travels, his time with the famed sitar player, Ravi Shankar, his love for math and science, and his newly discovered interest in Buddhism all had a notable affect on the music he began playing upon his return to New York in 1967.

Notable Accomplishments

The group he formed would come to be known as the Philip Glass Ensemble. It combined woodwind instruments, altered voices and keyboards and was the first definitive instance of the style of music Glass was developing. Glass is credited with being one of the developers of “minimalism,” a label that Glass himself rejects. Rather, Glass describes his style as “music with repetitive structures.” Regardless of terminology, Glass’s music undeniably defies conventional structures, but not in any career-damaging way; rather, it has succeeded in a variety of arenas. His official biography notes that he can sell out an opera house, concert hall, dance stage or movie theater.

Glass has composed the soundtrack to a number of films. He’s particularly well known by popular audiences for the score he wrote for the films “Kundun” and “The Hours.”

But Glass didn’t start out wildly popular. He explained to NPR in 2008 that when the Philip Glass Ensemble first began playing in New York, it received some harsh responses from critics; part of what drew audiences was curiosity about what could be so bad about it. Glass grew a following slowly but surely. In addition to his solo works, which include several operas and symphonies, Glass has collaborated with many other famous musicians and artists. His first major success was “Einstein on the Beach,” an opera he did in collaboration with the famed Robert Wilson. He also worked with Twyla Tharp to create the “Heroes” symphony, based on the work of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and produced other projects in conjunction with Allen Ginsberg and Woody Allen.

The Rest of the Story

Glass set 22 of Leonard Cohen’s poems to music in 2007. The Lincoln Center premiere of “Book of Longing” featured screens portraying Cohen’s drawings behind the musicians and singers. The New York Times critic noted that the music eschewed Glass’s usual repetitive structures, instead offering more uplifting, melodic rhythms that mirrored Cohen’s own music.

In 2008, Glass issued a 10-CD retrospective, “Glass Box.” A few weeks later, the New York City Opera announced that it had commissioned Glass to create an opera based on “The Perfect American,” a novel chronicling the end of Disney’s life. Unfortunately, the New York City Opera’s artistic director, Gerard Mortier, resigned not long afterward and the opera was canceled.

News about Glass’s upcoming performances and releases are available on his official Web site.

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