Is Glass Half Empty?

"I see
Philip as the last great nineteenth-century composer," says Errol Morris.
Photo: Robin Holland/Outline

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.

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.

Is Glass Half Empty?