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Is Glass Half Empty?

He also decides who doesn't get to play Glass scores: Only the Philip Glass Ensemble can perform compositions written for it. That covers Koyaanisqatsi, Einstein on the Beach, Monsters of Grace -- virtually every really famous Glass piece there is. You'd think a composer would be grateful to anyone willing to play his work. Not this one. The system "helps to create a climate of demand for Ensemble performances," Glass says. "I daresay if anyone could hire that music and play it, we would lose some performances to competitive organizations." (Clearly, if Glass were a software mogul, the Justice Department's antitrust lawyers would be all over him.)

As for the music Glass is willing to part with, he has a 25-track CD sampler he sends out to anyone interested in licensing his music for commercials, film soundtracks, and the like. "If I deny access to the music totally, I've found that people simply steal it anyway," Glass says. "Either in fact, by taking it off CDs, or in effect, by hiring someone to make a soundalike." Glass is always involved in at least one lawsuit over the latter practice: "Basically they hire somebody and say, 'Please make a copy of this music.' Frankly, it's not that hard to do!"

Glass's critics would agree to that. Even New York's own Peter G. Davis wrote seven years ago that having spent most of his career relying on "locomotive rhythms, wispy melodies, arpeggiated chords, primitive syncopations," Glass had lately grown even less interesting. And last summer, in a barb-filled article titled "Is Music Dead?," Wheatcroft called Glass's music a "sorry" affair, adding that it merited the label minimalism chiefly for its "minimal musical content."

But Glass has his advocates, both inside and out of the musical Establishment. The conductor Dennis Russell Davies, the composer-writer Charles Rosen, the critic-producer John Rockwell, the sculptor Richard Serra, and the neo-Surrealist playwright Richard Foreman are all boosters (Virgil Thomson didn't make a bad ally, either). Errol Morris, the film director whose documentaries The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time Glass scored, has a unique perspective. A serious amateur pianist, Morris studied music with Nadia Boulanger, the same exacting theorist who trained Glass for two years after he'd finished at Juilliard. Morris considers Glass more a romantic than an avant-gardist: "I see Philip as the last great nineteenth-century composer," he says.

"Could be!" guffaws Glass. "Soon it'll be the twenty-first century, and here I'll be!" He stops laughing and sits up a little straighter. "If you look at the music of Bach to the music of Wagner, the development of the harmonic language is continuous and logical, and lands you in the early twentieth century." Glass thinks that when Arnold Schoenberg and his star pupil, Anton von Webern, took this evolutionary process to its next logical level -- twelve-tone music and its extension, serialism -- their logic got the best of them. Systematic as the music was, it was hell on the ears -- disorientingly atonal and polyrhythmic. Still, though, the sound dominated contemporary music for decades, turning off audiences and pushing musicians such as La Monte Young and John Cage into avant-garde sound experiments in the quest for an escape from the serialists' overcerebral hegemony.

Cage's experiments might have been fine in the fifties and sixties, says Glass. But "for a young composer today to get up on the stage and, say, take a chair and begin to scrape it with -- I don't know, with a saw or a hammer: For sure, someone's already done it!"

Far from feeling constrained by this state of affairs, Glass felt liberated by
it. Speaking of his early work, he says, "What was radical wasn't the language of the music but the way you were invited to hear it." Glass agrees with Morris's cheeky assessment: Once you've hit on notions like stretching the time frame of a symphony, or composing an opera without lyrics, Glass says, "the whole language of previous periods becomes available again." That includes tonal, nineteenth-century romanticism.

Glass's preference for tonality, for symphonies, opera, and requiems, is part of a still-evolving lyrical vocabulary -- not evidence of simple-mindedness. And Glass should be listened to not as the cold, out-of-touch minimalist his critics take him for but as a late-blooming romantic. From this perspective, Koyaanisqatsi is clearly part of Glass's late-middle period: more insistent, more majestic, and flat-out louder than recent works such as Monsters of Grace and La Belle et la Bête, but far mellower than his early-seventies magnum opus, Music in 12 Parts. His next project, to be unveiled at Salzburg this summer, is that most old-fashioned of musical forms, a requiem. Written with the Reverend James Morton to celebrate the millennium, the twelve-movement Symphony No. 5, a Choral Symphony: Requiem, Vardo, and Nimanakaya sounds big and ambitious -- in other words, more of the same.