Before his death, in 1989, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson spent years lobbying vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to have Philip Glass admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The situation neatly prefigures Tom Wolfe's recently publicized difficulties getting into the same august institution. Despite Glass's formidably vast oeuvre -- in three decades, he has composed sixteen operas, eight symphonies, five string quartets, and innumerable film soundtracks, piano études, and on and on -- and unmatched fame, the academy still hasn't budged. "None of the musicians would vote for him," says composer Ned Rorem, who remains genuinely perplexed by Glass's popular success. "They're jealous -- but not of what he writes. As I've also said about Andrew Lloyd Webber, everybody is terribly envious of him, but nobody wants to be him." Next month, Rorem plays a career-retrospective concert at the 92nd Street Y -- a splashy affair, to be sure, but nothing compared with the well-publicized ten days that Glass recently spent at the Brooklyn Academy of Music performing his newest Robert Wilson collaboration, the opera Monsters of Grace.
And here Glass is again, taking the stage at bam for one more night this season, on January 16, in a concert marking the release of an expanded Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, which the Philip Glass Ensemble will play live with Godfrey Reggio's documentary. As one of Glass's two or three best-known pieces, the sixteen-year-old score is also a perfect synecdoche for Glass's career as a whole. Though wildly popular (for a piece of contemporary classical music), it displays many of the qualities that have led critics, including Rorem, Milton Babbitt, and the British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft, to question Glass's relevance to the world of serious music. For one thing, Koyaanisqatsi is movie music -- which is what the naysayers argue the rest of Glass's oeuvre might as well be, too. Then there's the matter of all those endless ostinatos and cascading arpeggios. Too many notes, Mr. Glass?
"There's nothing that Philip Glass is doing that Lou Harrison wasn't doing 50 years ago," Rorem says. "Except that Lou was also writing beautiful tunes." True, the 82-year-old Harrison, like Glass, has long specialized in tonal music, repeated figures and drones, and cross-cultural hybridization. Not only is Glass simplistic and repetitive, then; he's not even original. But who's heard of Lou Harrison?
Sitting in the basement of his redbrick East Village townhouse, Glass makes clear that what sets him apart from Harrison & Co. may indeed have little to do with music. The décor -- an off-white couch with amorphous cushions, three low-slung cane armchairs, a sturdy square coffee table, a few stacks of CDs next to a small stereo system -- is well suited to a minimalist composer and practicing Buddhist. The telephone's unremitting activity, however, seems less so. Throughout Glass's late-morning business hours, the thing rings almost continuously, as assistants, lawyers, and agents provide updates on soundtrack deals, tour itineraries, and interviews.
Glass sips at a cup of black coffee. "There's no milk in the house," he apologizes. Glass is home for only a couple of days between international concerts, a common state of affairs for the peripatetic composer. When he's not overseeing his sprawling music-business empire, playing benefit concerts around New York, or working on new compositions (three at a time is his preferred pace), Glass is on the road -- for up to six months a year. For this former cabbie, commerce is simply a part, albeit a very large one, of being an artist.
"My friends call me a captain of industry!" Glass chortles. "I mean, I have a publicist!" The composer's corporate headquarters -- a few blocks west, in the same NoHo building as Details magazine and Condé Nast International -- includes Point Music, a record label; Looking Glass, a recording studio used by David Bowie, David Byrne, and Glass himself; Euphorbia Productions, which stages the Philip Glass Ensemble's technically demanding performances; and, probably most important of all, Dunvagen Publishing. Glass started Dunvagen in the sixties, and through it he maintains exclusive control over who performs his music, where, and with whom.