Philip Glass

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Philip Glass
Philip Glass
Glass in Florence, 1993
Background info
Birthday/Birthplace (1937-01-31) January 31, 1937
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
  • Minimalism
  • contemporary classical
  • film score
Profession(s) Composer
Active Years 1964–present
Official Website
List of compositions by Philip Glass

Philip Morris Glass (Baltimore, January 31, 1937) is an American composer of minimalist music. He attended the Juilliard music school as a young man. He is relatively well known, despite the complexity of his musical proposals, since the appearance of his opera Einstein on the Beach.

He has composed more than 20 operas, long and short; eleven symphonies; three concerts for piano and concerts for violin, piano, timbales, saxophone and orchestra; has put music to an old film like The Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau. He works regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble. He has collaborated with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, Doris Lessing and Robert Wilson.

Philip Glass’s Biography


Philip Glass is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He was born and raised in Baltimore and as a child he studied flute at the Peabody Conservatory.

At 15 he started an accelerated course at the University of Chicago where he studied mathematics and philosophy. At age 19 he obtained his diploma and entered the Juilliard School in New York where he had as a teacher Darius Milhaud and began to play almost exclusively the piano. Given his dissatisfaction, from 1963 to 1965 he left to study in Paris, with Nadia Boulanger, at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau, the analysis of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (The well-tempered key), Mozart (the piano concertos), Wagner and Beethoven Glass also discovers the serialism of Pierre Boulez, but affirmed that he did not produce “any emotion”. This period in Paris served to discover the theater of Jean-Louis Barrault in the Odéon as well as the French Nouvelle Vague.

Encounter with Buddhism

After studying with Nadia Boulanger and working closely with Ravi Shankar in France, Glass traveled in 1966 to the north of India, mainly for religious reasons, where he came into contact with the Tibetan refugees. He became a Buddhist and would meet the Dalai Lama in 1972 as well as the poet Allen Ginsberg, who is a great advocate of the Tibetan cause. It was his work with Ravi Shankar and his perception of additive rhythm in Indian music, which led to his unique style. When he returned to New York in 1967, he gave up all his previous compositions in the style of Darius Milhaud and Aaron Copland and began writing austere pieces based on additive rhythms and a sense of tempo influenced by Samuel Beckett, whose work he discovered composing for works of experimental theater.

In search of an own style

The little appreciation he feels towards the performers and the traditional spaces lead him to form his own musical group, the Philip Glass Ensemble, with which he begins to play mainly in art galleries and other environments of underground culture. These hard times, which covered almost the whole of the 70s, forced him to work as a taxi driver and repairman of electrical appliances while he composed and interpreted.

The music of this early period is extremely repetitive, austere and complicated for the listener, which meant a great lack of understanding on the part of the critics and the public. Glass himself commented that when someone from the audience stayed until the end, they invited him to dinner. He only began to be recognized from his collaboration with the theatrical director and theatrical renovator, also minimalist, Robert Wilson (director), with whom he made the experimental opera Einstein on the Beach, an antinuclear allegation with a script written by a psychotic where each element classic of the operatic genre is renewed and altered consciously. Even so, despite the relative success of the work, he has to continue working as a repairman for a while before being able to devote himself totally to music.

Typically, Philip Glass refuses to frame his creations within the minimalist style, but he has defined himself as a music composer based on repetitive structures.


The realization of new operas as well as a sweetening of his style in the early 80’s, more accessible to the general public, advanced the fame of Glass, as well as its relevance within the alternative musical culture. The first dabbles with pop musicians (like Mike Oldfield in his LP Platinum, where he plays a piece by Glass) helped to make him known in wider circles.

It is possible that worldwide fame and certain status of genius came to him through the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio (1981-1982) and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Some pieces that were not used in the film (like Facades) eventually appeared on the album Glassworks (1982, CBS Records), which brought Glass’s music to a wider audience.

The “trilogy of portraits” was completed with Akhnaten (1982-1983, released in 1984), a vocal and orchestral composition sung in Akkadian, biblical Hebrew and ancient Egyptian. In addition, this opera presented an actor reciting ancient Egyptian texts in the language of the audience. Glass collaborated again with Robert Wilson in another opera, the CIVIL warS (1983, premiered in 1984), which also functioned as the final part (“the Rome section”) of Wilson’s epic work of the same name, originally planned for an “international artistic festival that would accompany the Olympic Games in Los Angeles” (Glass also composed a very prestigious work for choir and orchestra for the opening of the Games, The Olympian: Lighting of the Torch and Closing). The premiere of The CIVIL warS in Los Angeles never took place and the opera at the end premiered at the Rome Opera. Glass and Wilson’s opera includes music on Latin texts by the 1st century playwright, Seneca and allusions to music by Giuseppe Verdi and the American Civil War, featuring nineteenth-century figures Giuseppe Garibaldi and Robert E. Lee as characters. < / p>

Despite his fame, his recognition as a composer is not unanimous; some music lovers and even several contemporary composers such as Ned Rorem or Milton Babbitt, question their work for lack of rigor and consider their music cloying and superficial.

Other vocal works of the eighties were two sets of songs, Three Songs for chorus (1984, on poems by Leonard Cohen, Octavio Paz and Raymond Levesque), and a song cycle initiated by CBS Masterworks Records: Songs from Liquid Days (1985), with texts by lyricists such as David Byrne, Paul Simon, in which the Kronos Quartet appears with a prominent role (as in Mishima). Glass also continued with his series of operas with adaptations of literary texts such as The Juniper Tree (an opera in collaboration with the composer Robert Moran, 1984), The Fall of the House Usher by Edgar Allan Poe (1987), and also worked with the novelist Doris Lessing in the opera The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8 (1985-86, and interpreted by the Houston Grand Opera and the English National Opera in 1988).

During the rest of the 80s he continued to produce solo music and with his group but he did not skimp on collaborations with other musicians, pop or minorities or other cultures, and in the realization of film music. Since then and until today Glass has orchestrated some instrumental parts of the discs of David Bowie Low and Heroes (Low Symphony and Heroes Symphony) as well as many films; the biopic directed by Errol Morris A Brief History of Time (based on Stephen Hawking’s informative book on physics); Mishima, by Paul Schrader or Kundun, by Martin Scorsese.


In the late eighties and early nineties, Glass’s projects included two highly prestigious opera commissions, based on the lives of two explorers, Christopher Columbus (The Voyage [1990], commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang), and Vasco da Gama (White Raven) [1991], a collaboration with Robert Wilson and composed for the opening of Expo ’98.

Already in the 90s Philip Glass acquired universal fame. His music throughout this period has increasingly moved away from minimalism and his initial personal approaches to reach more commercial stances and full of “glasian” clichés, such as his characteristic arpeggios or tonal transitions. Already at the beginning of the 21st century his music has continued to be a source of admiration and criticism. Among his main works are his Seventh Symphony (Toltec), inspired by the music of the original peoples of Mexico; his Eighth Symphony, full of melodic and harmonic variations; and the opera about the American Civil War Appomattox.

More Facts about Philip Glass

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