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Contrary Motion

September 25, 2007

Most people made up their minds about Philip Glass a long time ago. If you’ve heard his music at all, you’re probably either an enthusiastic fan (he’s one of the few composers with what’s been called, usually derisively, a cult following), a mild admirer of one or another period of his work, or a rabid detractor.
It’s been a long time since performances of his music drew boos, shouts, and hurled eggs. Glass now routinely receives commissions and ovations. Yet over the past four decades, as Glass himself acknowledges, he’s always found more sympathetic ears among rock and other pop music fans and in the arts community than among hardcore classical music listeners. Even after all these years, Philip Glass may be at once the world’s most successful living composer and the most vilified figure in the hermetic world of classical music. Of course, every listener is entitled to an opinion.

But much of the resistance to Glass’ music undervalues his real contributions to the arts of the 20th century and beyond. Classical music listeners who long ago wrote off Philip Glass might want to check out some of the new and recent Glass compositions being performed at San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, Stanford Lively Arts, and elsewhere in the Bay Area this fall in a collective form of celebration of his 70th birthday (see the item in Listening Ahead). Despite superficial similarities, they're not your father's Philip Glass.
Making Music, Making a Living
Glass deserves enormous credit for helping create the modern model of the indie composer. In 1967, Glass returned to New York from Paris, where he’d studied with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger and then made the great discovery of his career: A gig transcribing Ravi Shankar’s compositions for a film taught him about the rhythmic structures of Indian music, which became the basis for Glass’ late-’60s minimalism.

Rather than taking what was then the usual course — teaching, and therefore being beholden to an academic establishment and its narrow-minded tastemakers in order to get a couple of performances per year — he decided instead to work day jobs (plumber, furniture mover, taxi driver). They allowed him to pay an ensemble that would play his music. And when the classical establishment proved resistant, Glass and his then-colleague Steve Reich found performances and sympathetic audiences in lofts, rock clubs, and artists' studios.

Taking control of his music wouldn’t have been news to earlier composer-performers like Liszt, or to many jazz or rock groups, but with few exceptions (a prominent one being Lou Harrison and early Glass mentor John Cage’s San Francisco percussion ensemble of the late 1930s), this wasn’t what “serious” composers did in the 20th century. But in the late 1960s, Glass and Reich knew that their repetitive music was too advanced and radical to be performed by traditional classical ensembles. If they wanted their music played, they’d have to do it themselves.

Glass didn’t make a living from music until he was in his 40s, and even then, most of his income came from state-funded European performances. Glass’ later career offers a lesson in crossing from indie success to the mainstream. Never satisfied to be a cult figure playing to academic insiders, and despite angry reactions to his early efforts, he always sought larger audiences. He wrote operas in part because they reached more people than loft concerts, scored films because they reached even more, and kept his ensemble on the road for half the year, carrying his sounds out of New York to the rest of the country.

To this day he continually challenges himself by working with rock and world music stars, poets and playwrights, film and stage directors, and experimenting with various combinations of music and theater. His work has influenced scores of younger contemporary classical and pop musicians; in electronic pop music circles, for example, he's regarded as "the godfather of trance music."

Glass wrote the score to the film Koyaanisqatsi

As many rock musicians are now doing, Glass eventually set up his own publishing company and built a recording studio. Recently, he set up a production company and Orange Mountain Music to release recordings from his massive back catalog (40-plus albums and counting) via CD and the Internet. He’s cleverly, assiduously, and unabashedly constructed an efficient business model that allows him to compose constantly and reap the rewards of his work. Today, composer-led ensembles like the Bang on a Can All Stars are no longer rarities, and music schools are beginning to teach composition students how to build sustainable careers as composer-performers.

Glass also deserves credit for boosting the audience for classical and contemporary classical music, says Appomattox conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who inspired much of Glass’ orchestral music and has performed it with various orchestras over the past 30 years. “What happens with Glass’ music is that the classical-music audience gets expanded. Lots of young people and others who haven’t been part of the classical music experience come to the concerts,” he says. “Meanwhile a lot of people have seen The Truman Show and heard his other film scores, so there’s a very big audience of very discriminating viewers and listeners who have come to be receptive to this music.”

Thanks to his high profile, his music reached fans like me, who come from backgrounds more rock than Bach and are attracted by Glass’ rhythmic thrust, dense textures, easily discernible tonal harmonies, trippy atmosphere, and use of amplification and pop music recording techniques. Many of the pop fans he won over then also became interested in other postclassical composers, such as Reich, Adams, and their successors. Affable, articulate, and willing to chat at length about music to any audience, Philip Glass has been a great ambassador for postclassical music.
Glass Ceiling
Yet Glass' prodigious output has worked against him. His steely self-discipline and the high demand for his work result in nearly constant composition. At the press conference announcing Appomattox, Glass said he gets a different number each time he tries to count his operas. With so many assignments, Glass’ music can sometimes seem stuck. Although it’s certainly evolved, his signature style is so recognizable as to make much of it indistinguishable from other pieces, particularly to casual listeners. Applying Sturgeon’s Law (named after the great speculative fiction writer who defended the genre by noting that 90 percent of everything is crap) to a composer as prolific as Glass means that, admittedly, a lot of the music will be dismissible.

Glass' many projects have forced him to crank out similar-sounding music for years, which annoys critics who believe, in the spirit of 20th-century modernism, that each new work of art should sound new. Yet Glass’ work is no more formulaic than that of other prolific composers such as Haydn, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach — or, to take an example from outside the classical music orbit, Bob Dylan, who, like Glass, revolutionized music with his early work and has continued to record and tour incessantly long after his days of trailblazing music have ended. Haydn’s early symphonies and string quartets were more innovative, not to say accomplished, than his later work, but I’d hate to be without those magnificent later symphonies or quartets because they merely extended his successful early formula.

By choosing to vary his formula incrementally (rather like the glacial changes within some of his early pieces) instead of reinventing himself with each new work, Glass has gone from being a radical 1960s modernist in the spirit of Stravinsky and Cage to — and here’s the irony for musical conservatives who loathe his work — a classicist working in the tradition of Handel, Telemann, Mozart, and other prolific 18th-century composers.

Not that he’s stood still. Classical critics often recoiled against Glass' and Reich’s revolutionary, austere early minimalism because they didn’t appreciate that it pursued different goals, such as achieving a meditative atmosphere, illuminating the process of composition, and focusing more on rhythm and catchy melodies than the music that preceded it in the Western classical tradition.

Yet Glass hasn’t really composed minimalist music since the mid-1970s triumphs of Music in Twelve Parts and Einstein on the Beach. Since then, says San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, who’s worked with Glass on operas from 1984’s Akhnaten to the new Appomattox, “[Glass] has over the last 25 years developed a broader repertoire, a more diverse compositional language than his early arpeggiated, repetitive material that ushered in the style known as minimalism. He can write more beautifully and lyrically than he was doing back then.” Gockley adds, “His orchestration has taken on great color and skill and he can characterize a scene orchestrally now in a way that he could not when he was less experienced. He’s an old hand at this point.” In Appomattox, for example, Glass tries something new: weaving in old folk material (hymns, marching songs) with his own music.

While fans of his revolutionary early work, like me, haven’t always welcomed his new approaches, they might actually appeal to more traditional classical listeners. “Philip as a composer has developed and the music has evolved over the years,” says Davies, the former Cabrillo Festival music director who now conducts the Linz Opera and directs the Bruckner Orchester Linz. “There’s a very definite expansion in his tonal palette. It’s harmonically more adventurous, and the instrumentation is increasingly adventurous and unusual. He’s also become extremely skilled at orchestration.” Despite Glass’ longtime use of electric instruments in his ensemble, Davies adds, “One of the things I appreciate about him is that he’s rigorously stuck with acoustic instruments in the theater.”
Stage and Screen
It’s the theater, which Glass has called "a haven for progressive music," that has been his true home, beginning with his 10-year stint as music director for the Mabou Mines theater collective in the 1960s and '70s. And he’s probably the composer most responsible for the revival of contemporary opera; even Adams’ breakthrough Nixon in China might not have happened without Glass’ magnificent late-1970s trio, as he calls it, concocted with stage director Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten. (You can listen to many of Glass' compositions via the innovative Glass Engine on his Web site.)

Einstein on the Beach

Photo by Babette Mongolte

What’s more, Glass' scores for the film trilogy that began with the mind-blowing Koyaanisqatsi changed the way music was used in movies. Although not nearly as prolific a film scorer as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, or Bernard Herrmann, and even given his relatively few Academy Award nominations for films such as The Hours, Glass may be as influential as any of them, considering the pervasiveness of his imitators. You can hear imitations of those minimalist repeating patterns in many contemporary dance and film scores.

What makes Glass such a theatrical composer? “He has an innate voice for expressing psychological situations on the stage,” says his longtime champion Davies, who conducted Glass’ first orchestral opera, Satyagraha, in the early 1980s. “He doesn’t do tone poetry, but his music psychologically underpins the drama that’s being shown.”

“He has a real sense of what works in a dramatic situation,” says Gockley. “He’s a good collaborator; he doesn’t get exercised or upset or nasty. He’s always working from a very constructive point of view. That may have to do with the Buddhism he practices — he is so egoless and direct and calm and open. It’s great for opera because he opens himself to the contributions of others.”

But critics often apply another inappropriate standard when they evaluate recordings of Glass’ stage or film music out of context. Shorn of visual elements, the music can sound shrill and numbingly repetitive. And Glass’ concertos and symphonies seldom reach the heights of his music for film and stage. Even some of his early champions, while acknowledging the innovations in his latter-day concert music, contend that they undercut the stark, meditative power of his early works. I must confess that I too have sometimes wondered why I should buy a new Glass album: Will it work, divorced from its original dramatic context? Would I really hear anything I couldn’t get from his existing work?

Then I’d encounter something surprising and delicious in performances around the country, like last year’s haunting opera Waiting for the Barbarians, a solo performance of his Etudes, or his lush, meditative Passion of Ramakrishna. These fresh triumphs make me optimistic about Appomattox and the other new Glass works to be performed in the Bay Area.

Still, for all the compelling moments you can find in his late work, it’s hard to imagine that Philip Glass can ever again conjure the sheer magic of some of those pure early works, which somehow caught something ineffably, unprecedentedly beautiful. Just as I was completing this essay, the American Music Center’s invaluable new Counterstream Radio chanced to play a new recording by the ensemble Alter Ego of Glass' mesmerizing Music in Contrary Motion. Compared to the composer’s recent music I’d been listening to all week, which I enjoyed but don’t feel especially eager to hear again for a while, this 1969 minimalist masterpiece lacked the orchestral color, harmonic variety, technical facility, visual and theatrical stimulation, and other elements Glass has added over the past four decades.

Instead, it chugged along relentlessly for almost a half-hour, its brief pattern barely changing as it repeated over and over and over, the shimmering streams of notes casting that inexplicable spell that has seduced so many listeners since minimalism’s advent two generations ago. The endlessly expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns, the jettisoning of the Western tradition’s themes, modulations, and hierarchies, the concept (derived from Indian music) of music as a cyclical rather than linear phenomenon, all led me to a new way of listening, a different plane of perception.

I can't imagine why Glass or anyone else would want to write anything so radically simple again. But I could have listened to it all night.

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.