The Lost Ones
Mercier and Camier
Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Philip Glass is perhaps the world’s best-known living composer. One of the founders of Minimalism*, his swirling, propulsive style has penetrated almost all aspects of the modern musical vocabulary, from academic composition to the music heard in TV commercials. His influence can be heard in the rock music of such seminal artists as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, King Crimson and the Talking Heads. His operas have permanently changed the direction of musical theater, and with their nonlinear structure and multimedia breadth, they even offer a challenge to our concept of opera itself; in fact, some enthusiastic critics have compared him to Wagner. His influence has been profoundly felt by such composers as John Adams, Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen, Henryk Gorécki, Gavin Bryars, and Arvo Pärt, and his film scores have backed projects ranging from Godfrey Reggio’s avant garde masterpiece Koyaanasqatsi to Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. And despite this success or possibly, because of it Glass is also something of a controversial composer, drawing the venom of critics who contend that his accessible, repetitive, and unabashedly tonal works pander to the masses, setting classical music back by generations.
Personally, I believe this to be utter nonsense. As much as I enjoy the atonal works of the post-Schönberg school, one cannot live on intellectualism alone, and the passion of these works fires the mind more than the spirit. With its engrossing rhythms, majestic sweep, and the arching lyricism of the later works, Glass’ music is as beautiful as it is engaging, and much of its fascination lies in its ability to make the listener experience time and space through different modes of perception. While his remarkably prolific output means an unevenness in the quality of his oeuvre, at his best, Glass offers a sweeping Romanticism devoid of cheap sentimentality. His music reflects a beauty and soulfulness rooted in the rhythms and cycles of the human body, consciousness, and our interrelationships with the natural world. It is music than can equally celebrate the passage of clouds or the foundation of cities, reflect the clockwork motions of planets, or encompass the scope of the human heart.
A Philip Glass Biography, with an Eye on that Beckett Fellow
The grandchild of Lithuanian and Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrants, Philip Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937. His father, Ben Glass, was the owner of General Radio, an eclectic little music shop that repaired radios and sold albums. Born into this musically-oriented environment, Glass learned how to play violin at the age of six and flute at the age of eight. Familiar with all kinds of contemporary music and jazz from his father’s albums, he also began acquiring a taste for the more unusual classic works if an album didn’t sell well at the store, Ben Glass would bring it home and attempt to analyze the reason why. Thus, at a very early age, the young Philip was exposed to both modern music and the more esoteric works of the classic repertory Shostakovich, Hindemith, Bartók, the late Beethoven quartets, and so on. He has once joked that he didn’t hear any of the “real” classics until he was a teenager.
After attending the Peabody Conservatory, Glass enrolled in the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen, where he taught himself the twelve-tone technique of composing through the vigorous study of archived scores. Graduating with a degree in mathematics and philosophy, he entered the prestigious Julliard School, where he studied a less-serially oriented modernism under Persichetti, Bergsma, and Milhaud. After graduating Julliard in 1962 he spent a few years working in Pittsburgh with the Contemporary Music Project, composing music for the public school system.
Despite having over 70 compositions to his credit, Glass was dissatisfied with his work. Though his quick disillusionment with academic serialism in Chicago gave way to the influence of American modernists such as Virgil Thomson and Elliot Carter in New York, he realized that he had yet to find his own voice. In 1965 he left for Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger, the aging but still quite influential composition teacher who helped shape an entire half-century of neoclassical music. Under her strict tutelage in harmony and counterpoint deeply rooted in the works of Bach and Mozart Glass experienced several important breakthroughs, realizing that a rock-solid foundation in technique was essential in developing his own style. It was in Paris he would also experience two epiphanies, both of which would profoundly effect his musical career: Indian music and experimental theater.
Hired to transcribe the raga music of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha for Western musicians, Glass discovered the inspiration that had been eluding him for years. Freed from the Western sense of rhythm and the strict, linear division of time, he immediately began working on a series of radical new compositions inspired by his Eastern epiphany. This inspiration manifested itself in a new technique of composing in rhythmic cells, figures that would cycle over and over again with only small additions or subtractions of notes, occasionally combining or undergoing various other transformations. The result was music that conveyed a “timeless” sensation, a hypnotic swirl of arpeggios that assembled themselves in the mind like crystal structures of sound, wheels within wheels.
But Glass needed a venue for his new musical ideas, and he found that in the world of experimental theater. Although Glass had been interested in avant-garde theater prior to his relocation in Paris, it was here that the seeds came to blossom, fertilized by such rich sources of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Bertold Brecht. Indeed, Glass attended the first production of Happy Days, with Madeleine Rénaud as Winnie. Influenced by his young wife JoAnne Akalaitis, Glass fell in with an English-language theater collective that included Akalaitis, director Lee Breuer, and Ruth Maleczech among others. Taking on the role of unofficial company composer, Glass produced his very first score for Lee Bruer’s production of Play a score that utilized his new style. Unfortunately, the results were less than satisfactory. Not only was there a lack of Parisian support for an experimental English-language company, but many people roundly protested Glass’ highly experimental music: the score involved a pair of saxophones, each given only two notes to play in shifting patterns.
In 1967 the company relocated to New York City, eventually settling on the name “Mabou Mines,” taken from a locale in Nova Scotia near where Glass and Akalaitis had recently purchased a house. By the early 1970s Mabou Mines were well underway, performing their own works as well as those by Beckett and others. Part of a growing downtown scene, Glass began flexing his compositional muscles, creating scores for the company’s numerous productions as well as establishing his own Ensemble devoted to performing his increasingly complex, repetitive music. (His original Ensemble was actually shared with Steve Reich; the two composers now have a more frosty relationship.) In 1972, his explorations of the territory between music and theater would produce his first masterpiece, Einstein on the Beach, a work that revolutionized opera and placed Glass squarely on the musical map.
A collaboration with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, Einstein was a four-and-a-half hour long work without plot, narrative, or even developed characters; it was essentially a “portrait,” a celebration of Albert Einstein and the loose constellation of ideas and notions surrounding him. Both Glass and Wilson ascribed to an aesthetic that expected their audience to “complete” the work, discovering a persona sense of meaning by actively engaging the work with their own set of associations. This idea a touchstone of postmodernism was first suggested to Glass by the theater of Beckett. According to Glass:
One especially memorable experience for me was working on Samuel Beckett’s Play... I found, during my many viewings, that I experienced the work differently on almost every occasion. Specifically, I noticed that the emotional quickening (or epiphany) of the work seemed to occur in a different place in each performance in spite of the fact that all the performance elements such as light, music and words were completely set.
This puzzled me. It also made me extremely curious, since traditional theater “works” quite differently... One might say that a classical or traditional play is a machine built in a specific way to make the emotional peak always happen in the places the author intended... It occurred to me then that the emotion of Beckett’s theater did not reside in the piece in a way that allowed a complicated process of identification to trigger response.... Beckett’s Play doesn’t exist separately from its relationship to the viewer, who is included as part of the play’s content. This is the mechanism we mean when we say the audience “completes” the work. The invention, or innovation, of Beckett’s Play is that it includes us, the audience, in a different way than does the traditional theater. Instead of submitting us to an internal mechanism within the work, it allows us, by our presence, to relate to it, complete it and personalize it. The power of the work is directly proportional to the degree to which we succeeded in personalizing it.
Extending the Beckett theory into other realms, one might venture that art objects be they paintings, string quartets, or plays don’t exist or function by themselves as abstract entities. They function and become meaningful only when there are people present to experience them.... This was a view very much shared by the world of musicians and artists around me. Certainly I had been prepared for it by John Cage’s book Silence, which I had read as early as 1962....
(Philip Glass, Music, De Capo Press 1995, pp 35-37)
But Glass credits Beckett with more than this epiphany about the nature of his theater. In a 1992 interview with Helen Tworkov, he cites Beckett as one of the primary inspirations for his “minimalist” musical style itself:
Is it completely coincidental that at the same time as meditation practice enters North America in a big way, a movement in music appears with obvious parallels to meditation music that, for example, denies habitual patterns of expectation, breaks the convention of beginnings and endings, eliminates crescendos, and dissolves the dualities of peaks and valleys?
There are other sources.
Samuel Beckett. Don’t forget that I was working with the Mabou Mines Theater at the time. And in those days we were all completely involved with Beckett.
How does Beckett’s influence translate into musical terms?
Nonnarrative theater or nonnarrative art is not based on theme and development but on a different structure. The influences are not Indian alone. Beckett was a big influence. So was Brecht. Genet, too.
(Helen Tworkov, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 1991. Reprinted in Writings on Glass, ed. by Richard Kostelanetz, Schirmer 1997, pp 319-320.)
Although Einstein on the Beach was critically acclaimed, played to sold-out houses, and changed the face of opera, it left its authors so far in debt that Glass returned to driving a taxi and working as a plumber to make ends meet!
He would not be driving taxis for long, however, as Einstein was followed by a commission from the Netherlands Opera, resulting in Satyagraha, a slightly more traditional opera focusing on Gandhi. This was followed by Akhnaten, the final opera in what would be known as “The Trilogy” a series of “portrait” operas about intellectual revolutionaries whom Glass found personally intriguing.
Soon Glass became an undeniable presence in the music world, and commissions came pouring in. Perhaps one of his most significant projects, however, was the score to Koyaanasqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s 1986 film of “Life Out of Balance.” This astonishing score not only increased Glass’ reputation outside the world of classical music, but it extended his creative idiom directly into the world of film, and opened to door for such groundbreaking future projects as La Belle et la Bête, his 1992 work which sets Cocteau’s 1946 film as a cinematic opera; and Monsters of Grace, a collaboration with Robert Wilson using 3-D computer imagery. (Based on poems by the Sufi poet Rumi, Wilson’s stunning images accompany some of the most lyrical songs Glass has yet to compose.) Even critics who pan Glass for his abstract concert works generally admit that his distinctive sound is a perfect accompaniment to moving images, whether on stage or screen. And despite the moaning, carping, or outright dismissal of influential critics such as Paul Griffiths and Paul Davies, or figures such as Pierre Boulez, Glass is more popular and influential than ever, and shows no sign of slowing down.
Over the last few decades, Glass has continued his relationship with Mabou Mines, producing over a dozen scores for the company including adaptations of Beckett’s Play, The Lost Ones, Cascando, Mercier and Camier, Company, and Worstward Ho. Although they are no longer married, his professional relationship with JoAnne Akalaitis continues to this day, and includes recent projects such as a chamber opera based on Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and new scores for Beckett shorts including Act Without Words I, Act Without Words II, Eh Joe, and Rough For Theatre I.
*The Dread Footnote on Minimalism
When writing about Philip Glass, it seems mandatory to (1) call him a minimalist, (2) repudiate the fact that he’s a minimalist, and (3) group him with other repudiated minimalists such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. It has often been noted that Glass himself disdains the term, rejecting it for all but his first few mature works. The original use of “minimalism” implied a very limited approach to musical materials and the transformation of those materials. About the time of Einstein on the Beach and certainly onwards, the music of Glass could hardly be described in those terms. But old labels die hard, and the meaning of the term has shifted in the intervening decades. While Glass himself prefers the unwieldy “music with repetitive structures,” it seems that that the label “minimalism” has come through popular usage to mean exactly that. Today, the term is applied liberally to the music of Glass, Reich, Riley, Adams, Nyman, and others. the fact is that the label “minimalism” in music has come to mean exactly that, enabling it to be generously applied to the music of Glass, Reich, Adams, Nyman, and so on.In other words, like the controversial literary term “Magical Realism,” we seem to be stuck with it for better or worse. It helps to recall that Schönberg disliked the word “atonal,” preferring the much more accurate and friendly! “pantonal.” So while perhaps inaccurate in an exact sense, history seems content to call the Schönberg school “atonal” and label Philip Glass a “minimalist.”
Music for Play (1965). Glass’ first minimalist work, scored for two saxophones and used for the Paris production of Play, later for Mabou Mines. According to Glass, Play used two soprano saxophones, each given “two notes to play against each other, in a constantly shifting pattern. What was heard was never exactly the same, but it never really changed very much. I wrote six or eight little sections like that and put them on a tape with 45 seconds of music followed by 45 seconds of silence followed by the next section of music and so on.”
Music for The Lost Ones (1975). For the Mabou Mines adaptation of Beckett’s novella, The Lost Ones. Unreleased.
Music for Cascando (1975). For the Mabou Mines adaptation of Beckett’s radio play, Cascando. Unreleased.
Music for Mercier and Camier (1979). For the Mabou Mines adaptation of Beckett’s novel, Mercier and Camier. Unreleased.
Music for Company (1983/84) For the Mabou Mines adaptation of Beckett’s novella, Company. Also stands alone as String Quartet No. 2.
Music for Worstward Ho (1986). For the Mabou Mines adaptation of Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho. Unreleased.
Music for “Beckett Shorts” (2007). For the Akalaitis adaptations of Act Without Words I, Act Without Words II, Eh Joe, and Rough For Theatre I.
There are numerous Philip Glass links on the Web. The best place to start is at the simple but amazingly comprehensive Glass Pages, diligently maintained by José Jiménez Mesa. It is always current, and contains more information that I could possibly summarize!
The Official Philip Glass Page is also a wonderful resource, with news, interviews, photo galleries and up-to-date information.
Michael McDonagh offers some insightful Philip Glass reviews on the Classical Music Review site.
Mabou Mines, the theater group that first performed Company, have an official Web site that highlights them as a very Beckett-oriented company.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Glass CDs online from Amazon.com below:
Kronos Quartet: Glass, Nancarrow, Hendrix... / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1987
Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 1995
Kronos Quartet 25 Years / Kronos Quartet
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 1998
Gidon Kremer / Silencio
Glass (Composer) / Audio CD / Released 2000
Contains Company, for String Orchestra.
Other Notable “Literary” Releases:
Philip Glass (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1993
A song cycle based on poems by Allen Ginsberg
Monsters of Grace
Philip Glass (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 2007
A song cycle based on poems by Rumi.
Book of Longing
Philip Glass (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 2007
A song cycle based on poems by Leonard Cohen
There are a few very useful books about Glass and his music:
Music by Philip Glass
by Philip Glass, Robert T. Jones (Editor)
Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism
by Richard Kostelanetz (Editor), Robert Flemming (Editor)
Paperback - January 1999
Four Musical Minimalists : LA Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass (Music in the Twentieth Century)
by Keith Potter
Hardcover - June 2000