Philip Glass Biography Term Paper

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Philip Glass Biography

Philip Glass is certainly the world's finest identified living serious composer owing to vast amounts of American recording contracts. He has a readily exclusive, if ever controversial, style that is both imitated and parodied the world over. He is familiar to pop audiences, crossover audiences, new music audiences, opera audiences and increasingly to chamber music audiences and symphony goers. He is in regular performance around the world performing with his ensemble; an output that generates around sixty concerts a year. Although he has written a fair amount of concert music, Glass has arguably won the most recognition for his work in dance, film, music theatre and opera.


Born in Baltimore on January 31, 1937, Philip Glass discovered music in his father's radio repair shop. In addition to servicing radios, Ben Glass carried a line of records and, when certain ones sold feebly, he would take them home and play them for his three children, trying to discover why they did not appeal to customers. These happened to be recordings of the great chamber works, and the future composer rapidly became familiar with Beethoven quartets, Schubert sonatas, Shostakovitch symphonies and other music then considered "offbeat." It was not until he was in his upper teens did Glass begin to encounter more "standard" classics.

Glass began the violin at six and became serious about music when he took up the flute at eight. However, by the time he was 15, he had become frustrated with the limited flute repertoire as well as with musical life in post-war Baltimore. During his second year in high school, he applied for admission to the University of Chicago, passed and, with his parent's encouragement, moved to Chicago where he supported himself with part-time jobs waiting tables and loading airplanes at airports. During off-hours, he practiced piano and concentrated on such composers as Ives and Webern.

Glass's history was an entirely orthodox one. He initially studied flute at the Peabody Conservatoire, then piano, harmony and composition with Louis Cheslock. He graduated in mathematics and philosophy at the age of nineteen from the university of Chicago. After attending at the Julliard Music School, he studied with Darius Milhaud (in 1960) and Nadia Boulanger (between 1964-1966) in France. Boulanger made Glass go back to the basics, as she did with all her students, and although Glass appreciated the experience in some ways, he bridled at the discipline. In addition to what he considered Boulanger's too excessive preoccupation with musical theory, nearly all the contemporary music to be heard in Paris. After that was at Pierre Boulez's Domain Musical Series - which Glass has since described as "a wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music... what one looks for in a composer is that singular personality that comes out of the soul of the person - that creativity cannot be taught." This reflected later as clearly Glass felt the stress in his music as he was cornered and confined by rules and regulations; he was unable to do what he really wanted. On his own initiative, he finally decided to introduce harmonic modulation into his music because he resented the constraints of orthodox theory. "I decided to change the rules," he recalled. "I noticed I had been operating under a lot of rules that had been automatic, and that there were things that weren't possible in my music because I had made them forbidden. I said, 'Why can't I do it?' 'Well there is this rule.' 'Rule!! Who is making the rules? I'm making the rules.' Moreover, that was the end of the rule. You can learn all the rules and yet the personality of the composer was not in the rule book." A story that Philip talks about shows how his thought process developed. "I had been working with Boulanger for some years. I was in my mid-20's and I had a good grasp of harmony. I brought in a harmony exercise and she told me that it was wrong. I said 'Madame Boulanger, I know that it is correct.' I quoted all the rules, analyzed it, and proved to her that I had all the voicing correct, etc.; from the point-of-view of the rules, it was flawless! In addition, she said: 'No, no, it is still all wrong!' She grabbed a score from the piano - a Mozart piano sonata. 'This is what Mozart did.' She found an exact parallel to my passage and she said: 'look how he resolves it. The soprano resolves on the third, not the root!' I looked at her in admiration. Until then, she had never mentioned anything like this to me and I suddenly realized that beyond the rules there was something else that went on."

In Paris, he was hired by a filmmaker to transcribe the Indian music of Ravi Shankar into notation readable to French musicians. In the process, he discovered the techniques of Indian music. After researching music in North Africa, India and the Himalayas, he returned to New York, renouncing his previous music, and began to apply eastern techniques to his own work."

During his stay in Paris, he worked on a film score and met Ravi Shankar and his tabla player, Alla Rakka. This was his first encounter with Indian music as he was employed to work with Ravi Shankar on a sixties hippy film by Conrad Rooks called Chappaqua. His job was to take Shankar's raga invention and notate them so that Western musicians could play them on the soundtrack. Glass set about this task without much prior knowledge of Indian music, and tried to figure out as he went along just how it "worked." His conclusions were inaccurate but this was the first step towards his own mature style. His work at this time was not liked in Paris.

In 1966-1967, Glass stayed in Tibet and India, where he became a Tibetan Buddhist and was inclined by Oriental meditation. During these trips, his interest in non-European music grew and he paid special attention to musical traditions based on additive structure principles. By the end of 1967, Glass had returned to the United States and settled in New York where he slowly began to find associates and set up his own performing group the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Having worked as a furniture remover, plumber and a taxi driver he was still working as a taxi driver while with the ensemble even after the Einstein premier in 1976. However, this non-musical work was always kept to least while touring with his collection. He followed the practice of not allowing his music to be published to ensure uniqueness and to maintain a high standard of performance by his ensemble. Glass is always attending rehearsals, working closely with the singers, whom he says play a central role in keeping the music vitally connected with the public, which he says, is "crucial if the music is to maintain a high degree of communicativeness."

Not much is known about the works Glass wrote before 1966 - some eighty compositions, of which around twenty were published, were written mainly in what Glass called "a more traditional style" and which he has disowned since 1968.

Glass's first recordings, which he made himself in the early seventies, were not intended as commercial products. "In 1969 and 1970, when I was touring, I wanted to get my music on the radio" he recalls, "but I discovered that radio stations at that time would only play LP's; they would not play cassettes. So what I did was to start a record company called Chatham Square."

By 1974, he had composed a large collection of new music, not only for use by the theater company Mabou Mines (Glass was one of the co-founders), but also mainly for his own performing group, the Philip Glass Ensemble. This period culminated in Music in Twelve Parts, a three-hour summation of Glass' new music; and reached its apogee in 1976 with the Philip Glass / Robert Wilson opera

Einstein on the Beach, the 4-1/2-hour epic now seen as a landmark in 20th century music-theater.

In addition to Einstein, Glass has collaborated with Robert Wilson on several other projects including:

the CIVIL warS - Act V (Rome Section) of the multi-composer epic was written for the 1984 Olympic Games, White Raven, an opera commissioned by Portugal to celebrate its history of discovery and premiered at EXPO '98 in Lisbon, and Monsters of Grace, a digital 3-D opera.

Glass's work and Style

On November 1998, it had been 30 years since the first music by Philip Glass was heard in a U.S. concert. The work was Strung Out, a solo for amplified violin. On the same all-Glass program, Glass personally played.

This spare, almost anorexic music puzzled some people, fascinated others. Most upsetting to traditionalists was the lack of a narrative progression in Glass' music. Using the classical concerto as an example, Glass once explained: "Most music…

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