Saturday, February 4, 2017

Raising a Glass to Philip Glass

Indy Week has an article on Philip Glass, who just celebrated his 80th birthday. As he said in another publication recently, if you live long enough, you can actually make a living at this!

Philip Glass

Here is an excerpt from the Indy Week piece:
In October 1982, composer Philip Glass appeared in an ad for Cutty Sark scotch. Floating above an illustration of Glass with his trademark messy flop of hair, his left hand clutching a brace of musical notes, the tagline reads, "Here's to those who can make history out of the same 12 notes." Alongside is a biography that details his rise from a life of odd jobs to his success as a composer with "an audience so large and so diverse it even includes rock fans."
The sight of a composer in an ad for a product unrelated to music is certainly unusual, but then, Glass is an unusual figure. As the Cutty Sark biography says, his music has garnered a following far beyond classical music—though it's telling that having rock fans is the ultimate sign of credibility here. He is one of the few composers who are household names in the twenty-first century, and his brand of pulsating minimalism is heard the world over.
Philip Glass and Steve Reich are the two larger-than-life role models for composers these days, in America at least, as they have both done the seemingly impossible: achieved wide recognition in the public eye at the same time as they created a large repertoire of music in the classical tradition. They pandered to neither audiences nor the avant-garde and achieved genuine musical success.

But while they may seem superficially similar, they approached their careers in very different ways. For one thing, Glass has always seemed more media savvy than Reich. You won't find a photographic portrait of him nearly as finely-executed as a number of ones of Philip Glass:

Steve Reich
Philip Glass is more a downtown composer and Steve Reich an uptown one and by that I just mean that the former has moved more in the Greenwich Village arts circles and the latter more in the intellectual academic circles. Philip Glass had the more traditional academic training, oddly, at the Peabody Institute, Julliard and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris--exactly where any aspiring mainstream composer would have gone. Steve Reich, on the other hand, was a drum student in his youth, but was a philosophy student at Cornell (though he later studied composition at Mills College in California with Luciano Berio and others). This, combined with later studies of African drumming in Ghana and Balinese gamelan in California makes for a more unusual foundation.

Philip Glass has always been involved in theater, opera and other multi-media projects. He also wrote a fine memoir. Steve Reich is an intensely focused worker both in terms of how he structures his music, but also in his overall approach. He composes far more exclusively instrumental pieces than ones with voice and has done very, very little theater or opera composing. He has written almost nothing for orchestra, focusing instead on small and medium sized ensembles. Philip Glass, on the other hand, has written several concertos and is about to premiere his Symphony No. 11

In the early days, there were similarities between their styles, but they have grown further and further apart. Here is an early piece by Philip Glass, Music in 12 Parts:

And one by Steve Reich, Eight Lines:

But this is the sort of texture that Glass' music has evolved to, his Symphony No. 10:

And here is a recent one by Reich, his WTC 9/11 (the first piece in the clip):

I'm sure that people will be writing about and discussing the differences and similarities between Philip Glass and Steve Reich for decades, I just wanted to get a head start. It is interesting how, in music history, we have so often had pairs of composers, both working in similar styles at the same time, but who achieved rather different results: Léonin and Pérotin, Bach and Handel, Couperin and Rameau, Haydn and Mozart and now Glass and Reich.

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