Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass

One of the most versatile living composers, Glass is famous for his film scores and performances with his ensemble. He is also the most performed living opera composer.

Vital Statistics
1937, Baltimore, M.D.
20th-21st century
Performed As:
Keyboard player, director of Philip Glass Ensemble
During Lifetime:
During the composer’s lifetime: From the “beat generation” to the “British invasion,” culture is transformed in the late 1950s-1960s by new genres, a new appreciation for non-European-based musics, a youth counterculture, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s preaching, the Great Society programs, and the Vietnam War and the protest movement it caused.
Biographical Outline
  • Around the dial, 1945-1952: As a boy, Glass works in his father’s radio repair shop/record store. He begins studying violin at age 6, flute at 8, and plays bass trumpet and glockenspiel in his high school marching band.
  • Education: Peabody Institute, Baltimore, 1945-1951; University of Chicago, 1952-1956; The Juilliard School, New York, 1957-1962.
  • Branching out, 1954-1964: Glass studies philosophy and mathematics at the University of Chicago (where he enrolls at age 15), while working as a part-time baggage handler at an airport. On a trip to Paris in 1954, he encounters bohemian artists and the films of Jean Cocteau, which deeply affect him. After graduate studies in composition and piano, he becomes a composer-in-residence in the Pittsburgh public schools.
  • Paris polish, 1964-1966: A Fulbright scholarship takes him back to Paris, where he studies with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. Unimpressed by the modernist sounds then dominating Parisian contemporary music circles, he comes to admire French theater and movies. His music for a Samuel Beckett play marks his first foray into minimalism and launches his lifelong work as a theater composer. Working on that show, he meets JoAnne Akalaitis, with whom he soon collaborates in the experimental theater company Mabou Mines, where he becomes music director for 10 years. Glass and Akalaitis marry in 1965 (divorcing in 1980).
  • Passage to India, 1966-1967: During his Parisian sojourn, Glass is hired to work on a score for Conrad Rooks’ 1966 film Chappaqua, featuring the music of eminent Indian composer-musicians Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. Intrigued, he departs for India and other Asian countries to learn that music. His lifelong interest in Buddhism begins.
  • Making minimalism, 1967-1975: Back in New York, he immerses himself in the “downtown” art scene, a community of young artists (such as Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra) and composers. He encounters the pioneering sounds of his former Juilliard classmate Steve Reich and others who share his emerging minimalist esthetic. Disdaining the academic establishment, he and Reich form ensembles (sharing many musicians) that play their music in lofts, art galleries, museums, and other alternative spaces. To support himself, Glass works as a cab driver, as a plumber’s assistant, and in a little moving company with Reich.
  • The big break, 1976: Glass collaborates with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson in a five-hour, nonlinear, plotless parade of symbolic imagery and sound titled Einstein on the Beach, one of the 20th century’s landmark artworks. After winning accolades in Europe, the creators are offered two performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where the production earns lavish praise from critics and the public. The artists lose so much money on the venture that Glass returns to cab driving.
  • Maximizing success, 1978-1986: On the strength of Einstein, Glass is commissioned by the Netherlands Opera, with help from the Rockefeller Foundation grant, which results in Satyagraha, produced in 1980, and based on the early life of Gandhi. Created for traditional classical forces, it marks another turning point in his career. His third “portrait opera,” Akhnaten, premieres at Stuttgart in 1984. Composing at incredible speed, he makes major contributions to a wide variety of genres. He writes a beloved score to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982) and its sequels. His string quartet score for Paul Schrader’s epic movie Mishima (1985) is recorded by the Kronos Quartet. He composes music for the torch-lighting ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984.
  • Entrepreneurship, 1987-2011: Now famous, Glass writes his first original orchestral scores since 1967 — a Violin Concerto, and three independent works (The Light, The Canyon, Itaipu), all from 1987-1989. The Metropolitan Opera commissions him to compose an opera for the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas; The Voyage premieres in 1992. In 2002, he founds his (third) recording label, Orange Mountain Music, which, to date, has released more than 60 Glass recordings. He also runs Dunvagen Music Publishers. In 2011, he founds the Days and Nights Music Festival in California. He continues to maintain a prodigious performing career of more than 80 concerts a year. Turning 75 in 2012, his creativity undimmed, Glass has premieres of orchestral works, an opera, and other major pieces scheduled.
Fun Facts
  • Far-flung fame: Glass composed music for Sesame Street in 1977, and his music has appeared in the game Grand Theft Auto IV.
  • Multitasking: Glass was on the University of Chicago wrestling team, was a young devotee of motorcycles (he rode from New York to Aspen, Colorado, on a white BMW), and once punched an audience member who leapt onstage, uninvited, to accompany him on piano — while continuing to play with the other hand.
  • Don’t quit your day job: Glass kept his nonmusical jobs until 1978. Once, he installed a dishwasher in a SoHo loft that turned out to belong to Time magazine’s celebrated art critic Robert Hughes. “But you’re Philip Glass!” Hughes sputtered. “What are you doing here?” Shortly after the Met premiere of Einstein on the Beach garnered critical raves, a well-dressed woman hailed his cab, noted his name on the driver ID card, and said: “Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a famous composer?”
  • Sounds like Glass: Glass’ motoric background music has proved so influential in Hollywood circles that many scores for films, commercials, and TV shows bear more than a passing resemblance to his music. The director of The Hours, Stephen Daldry, used Glass’ music as the “temp” track for the movie’s initial cuts. After unsuccessfully auditioning other film composers, whom he asked to write in similar style, the frustrated filmmaker just hired Glass.
  • The right man for the job: An enthusiast of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, Glass was one of several musicians approached by representatives of a church hosting a speech by the Lama to supply music for the occasion. “How long a piece do you want?” he asked. Well, that’s the problem, he was told. The music would accompany a processional while the monk was walking down the aisle to the stage. But he would be greeting and chatting with friends and admirers along the way, so what was needed was music of indeterminate length that could just stop when he reached the stage, without jarring the audience. Could Glass supply such a piece? “I think I can do that,” Glass said with a grin.
  • Collaborations: Glass has said that his collaborations with other artists help to keep his creative fire stoked. In his long career he has worked with artists in all kinds of fields, including (in addition to those mentioned above), David Bowie, Brian Eno, Doris Lessing, David Henry Hwang, Jerome Robbins, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leonard Cohen.
  • Inspiring art: Glass has been the subject of five film documentaries and of a major photorealist painting (redone in a variety of media) by Chuck Close.
  • Lending a hand: Glass is a generous patron of younger composers and a genial ambassador for contemporary music.
  • Family resemblance?: Glass is a cousin of Ira Glass, host of the public radio show This American Life, who has interviewed him on the air.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

Philip Glass is associated with a musical style called minimalism. Yet that term really reflects only the first part of his career. Glass’ minimalism was partly conceptual — “what can I do without, what is essential?” — and partly a response to the structures he discovered in his encounter with Indian music. Like many world musics, north Indian classical music has repetitive grooves that change little over long time spans. Glass’ minimalist works, like Two Pages (1968), Music in Fifths, and Music in Similar Motion (both 1969), are built similarly, in cycles of repeating phrases. This period culminated with Music With Changing Parts (1970), which inaugurated an additive process wherein notes are gradually added to repeating phrases, and with his six-hour magnum opus, Music in 12 Parts (1974).

After that, Glass took the rhythmic basis of his minimalist style and started to add things back in: more complicated harmony, more defined melody, and Western classical structures. Gradually, he has achieved a fusion of his revolutionary style with traditional Western classical approaches to music.

  • Connections: For some people, the real minimalist works were life-changing experiences. And Music in 12 Parts and its fellows clearly touched the spirit of the times. Brian Eno’s “ambient” music, most famously Music for Airports, uses Steve Reich’s “phasing” technique. When Bang on a Can musicians developed a live version, it was recorded on Glass’ Point Music label. Eno worked with glam-rocker David Bowie on Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, and in the long, looping instrumentals of the second half of “Low” (1977) a listener will hear the influence of Eno’s ambient minimalist ideas. Glass later wrote his Low Symphony (1992), remaking those tracks into a classical suite. In the mix-and-match world of New Age/folk/Celtic music, colmposer Mike Oldfield quotes a Glass piece, North Star, in his composition Platinum. In prog rock/electronica, the connections are even more apparent, and some of Glass’ later collaborators, such as David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame), were dialed in to what he was doing and heard it as part of their sound world.
  • Opera and music theater: Throughout his career, Glass has been an enthusiastic man of the theater, aided by his native desire and ability to collaborate. Some of these pieces are actually experimental music theater, like Hydrogen Jukebox (1990), composed to underscore poet Allan Ginsburg’s readings; the multimedia chamber opera The Photographer (1982), about the murder trial of the photographer who proved that a horse lifts all its feet off the ground when galloping; and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (1988), which underscores an actor’s monologue about alien abduction and which was first performed in an airplane hangar. One opera in his “Cocteau trilogy,” La Belle et la bete (Beauty and the beast, 1994), is sung and synchronized to a showing of Cocteau’s movie. His two further works for Robert Wilson, the controlling director with whom he created Einstein on the Beach, are also unusual, like the flawed multimedia piece Monsters of Grace (1998), which Wilson himself considered a failure. Glass continues to compose incidental music for plays such as Genet’s The Screens (1990, with Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso), and seven different Samuel Beckett productions (of which Beckett Shorts, 2007, is the latest).

    But Glass’ “normal” operas are the ones that have made him the most performed living composer in the genre, according to The original “portrait trilogy,” especially Satyagraha and Akhnaten, as well as the other two works in the Cocteau trilogy, Orphée (1992) and Les Enfants terribles (1996), are the most popular in terms of new productions. He is fascinated by science fiction, having written two works with novelist Doris Lessing, and has composed two additional operas based on the work and worldviews of famous scientists (Galileo, 2002, and Kepler, 2009). The Voyage also integrates science fiction elements. He continues to create new operas at the pace of one every two years.
  • Screen sounds: Glass has also become an important composer of music for movies. Beginning with the 1977 documentary North Star, Glass embarked on more than three dozen (and counting) film scores. They range from Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy to the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula, which he rescored with the Kronos Quartet in 1998, to Errol Morris’ documentaries The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2003), dramas The Truman Show (Golden Globe winner) and The Hours (nominated for Golden Globe and Academy Awards), horror films (Candyman,1992), and epics like Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1998). His previously written music has been used by filmmakers in later films, in addition to his commissioned original scores.
  • Orchestra and other instrumental works: Glass is working on symphonies numbers 9 and 10, and has written two violin concertos, as well as several for other instruments. Glass has composed two sets of piano études, which he often plays in concert, and many other works for various chamber ensembles.
  • Song cycles: Glass’ several song cycles include Songs From Liquid Days (1985), an intermittently successful collaboration with pop stars such as Paul Simon, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, and others; and the 2008 Book of Longing, a setting of songs by poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Recommended Websites