Philip Glass at 80

The NYU Orchestras and Contemporary Music Ensemble will present a weekend of concerts dedicated to Philip Glass in honor of his 80th birthday year.
black and white photo of conductor's hands with baton over a music stand with a score on it

It’s been a very busy year for Philip Glass, who celebrated his 80th birthday in January with the premiere of his 11th symphony with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz at Carnegie Hall. Since then, there have been performances honoring him in concert halls around the world almost every single night—giving the prolific composer new reasons to crisscross the globe.

It’s no wonder that musicians are lining up to mark the milestone: Having written some 26 operas, 20 ballets, dozens of film scores, seven string quartets, and an array of other works for solo instruments and chamber groups, Glass is arguably the world’s most influential living composer. While he has said in interviews that he’d prefer to be known primarily as a composer of American operas—a genre that such works as Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980) changed forever, to say the least—he is, for better or worse, most famous for 1970s experimental works that looped very short musical cells together in subtly shifting patterns. A fixture of the downtown arts scene, Glass played art galleries, lofts, rock clubs, and public parks, steadily amassing devoted fans and impressive collaborators even as some high-brow critics dismissed his music as mind-numbingly repetitive and hecklers sometimes went as far as climbing onstage to register their distaste. To make ends meet in those days, Glass worked odd jobs—in trucking, moving, plumbing, and even as a taxi driver—and didn’t switch to composing full time until 1978, when he was 41. 

photo: Philip Glass photo by Steve Pyke

Philip Glass. Photo by Steve Pyke.

Decades later, the improbable elder statesman of the classical music world shows no signs of slowing down. And to add to the array of musical celebrations this year, Steinhardt’s NYU Orchestras and Contemporary Music Ensemble are presenting a Philip Glass festival this November 17-19, featuring the composer’s first two symphonies and his dark, brooding opera based on the Edgar Allan Poe story The Fall of the House of Usher. The first concert, conducted by Jonathan Haas, pairs Glass’s Symphony No. 1, based on the David Bowie album Low, with David Byrne’s The Forest, and the second, conducted by Eduardo Leandro, will feature American concert hall staples Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber’s violin concerto alongside Glass’s Symphony No. 2. In the third concert, also conducted by Haas, NYU’s Contemporary Music Ensemble will perform The Fall of the House of Usher as live accompaniment to a 1942 film based on the same story. 

Haas, who conceived of the Glass festival with NYU Orchestras co-director Stephanie Baer, has known the composer for decades and premiered his Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, after leading a lengthy campaign to raise funds to commission the work, in 2000. In advance of the festival, NYU News talked with Haas about Glass’s devotees and detractors, his legacy, and what music students can learn by studying and playing his works.

What is it about Philip Glass’s music that appeals to so many people?

His music is accessible, I believe, because he really calls upon the basic precepts of modern music, rock music, and pop music. In the same way that pop artists used comic book characters or Andy Warhol used Campbell’s soup cans to create artwork, Philip starts with musical material that is familiar to vast numbers of people. But he successfully employs these in his music so that it doesn’t sound like kitsch, and it doesn’t sound like someone else’s. Still, if you listen, the chord changes come from doo-wop, which is very simple in its harmonic structure. That’s not to say that audiences’ reactions to the music are simple, though. 

photo: Jonathan Haas

Jonathan Haas

Philip Glass was also one of the first modern composers who had his own ensemble, and he took that ensemble to rock and roll clubs with amplified instruments. In that way he really made inroads with the general public, instead of just playing within the concert hall for what you might call the New York Philharmonic audience—which was very proper and rather boxed in. So even now, when you go to his concerts in a concert hall, typically there will be concertgoers there to support his music who wouldn’t otherwise go to a concert in that kind of venue. He worked with the grassroots.

But Glass has faced a fair amount of snobbery and criticism, too—including from those who claim that that his music tends to be, say, the same three notes played over and over.

Well, that stereotype comes, in part, from the truth. His music is repetitious, but that’s the beauty of it! Remember, The Beatles had plenty of detractors when they first played on The Ed Sullivan Show. There was a whole generation of people saying that it was terrible, but there were also a whole bunch of people who thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever heard. Philip evokes a somewhat similar reaction—there are those who don't have the patience to wait for the subtle changes that occur in his music. It’s not the right cup of tea for those who want a lot of action. But I don’t know of any composer who has satisfied every person’s needs. Glass's hallmark is that the simplicity is what creates the complexity.

You worked closely with Glass on his timpani concerto. What was that process like?

It started like this: “Hi, Philip—we got the money for the commission.” His response to me was, “I don’t have a thought in my head about what I’m going to write. Is that a good thing?” I said, “Sure! Let’s do this together.” So he wrote the first version of the piece and sent me a track with two pianists playing the orchestral parts so I could play along with it and let him know my comments. I did that and called him afterward with suggestions. Then there were four months of rewriting and going into a studio to record so he could hear the edits I had made to the timpani part. Finally, we agreed that we could bring in a collaborator, Ian Finkel, who’s a great arranger. He did a lot of work on the timpani parts—it’s a double concerto with two timpanists and 14 timpani. It was a collaboration every inch of the way. I always found it interesting that Philip was so willing and open to having somebody other than himself contribute to the creation of the piece.

Are there special challenges to performing Glass’s works? What are students learning in the rehearsal process?

One challenge is stamina—both muscular stamina, because of having to play a lot of repeated figures that change slowly over time, and also mental acuity. You need to be able to keep your place, because in music when you repeat something a lot, it is very easy to get lost. An equally critical challenge is intonation. Glass builds chords very much as Dvorak did at the beginning of the slow movement in the New World Symphony. Throughout his music there are a lot of stacked, open chords—fourths and fifths that need to be in tune to really sound well and resonate. It’s a great challenge for everybody to work on those different aspects of their playing. Arguably, there aren’t a lot of things in Glass’s work that are “difficult” to play, in that they require you to practice for a million hours—it’s more these macro issues that you have to deal with. A different level of concentration is required.

Any chance Glass will show up for NYU’s celebration of his work?

Philip is in Australia at the time. Of course, we reached out to him, and he respectfully told us the news. This is a big year from him and he’s a tough guy to pin down. But he knows we’re doing this and he’s very supportive.  

Admission to all three Glass festival concerts is free. More info here.