Philip Glass is an American composer best known for his five-hour-long, avant-garde 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach and his numerous film scores, notably Koyaanisqatsi, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, A Brief History of Time, The Fog of War, The Hours, and, interestingly, Candyman. Along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, he is one of the progenitors of minimalism in concert music. But like many artists associated with a particular oeuvre, he hates the term most frequently associated with him, and prefers to be called basically anything other than a composer of “minimalist” music.
Today is not his birthday or anything like that. I was going to write an Artist Spotlight on him, but decided his output is too voluminous, and my knowledge of it too shallow, to honestly tackle that endeavor. However, I will note that he is the rare living composer to be lampooned on South Park (take that, Jennifer Higdon!).
Glass’s music is characterized by methodically repetitive, back-and-forth eighth notes and arpeggios, additive rhythms, and melodic austerity. It’s sometimes described as cold or robotic, but to say that is to focus on the trees instead of the forest. There is both a structure and an underlying emotion beneath those waves of plink-plink notes. Fun fact: Glass continued to work as a New York City cab driver for years after Einstein premiered. Imagine hopping into an Uber and seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda behind the wheel.
Please enjoy this snippet of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten, about the Egyptian pharaoh of the same name: husband of Nefertiti, likely father of King Tut, and founder of a brief era in Egyptian history that saw advances in artwork and the inauguration of a quasi-monotheistic religion. After his death, Akhenaten was scrubbed from official records of the pharaohs, his capital city’s buildings were disassembled so their stones could be reused in other construction projects, and Egypt returned to its old religion. Really makes you think.