August 11, 2017


How America Forged Philip Glass (MARK JUDGE, 8/11/17, Liberty & Law)

At age 15, Glass was admitted to a special, accelerated program at the University of Chicago. He recalled that on a train to the Windy City, hearing the rhythm of the train's movement on the tracks, "the sounds of daily life were entering me almost unnoticed." In Words Without Music, Glass cites Chicago itself as a major influence on his work. Glass went to symphonies that only cost 50 cents, visited modern art exhibits, and was exposed to bebop jazz greats, including Charlie Parker, whose brilliant and wild soloing broke established rules of harmony. At the University of Chicago, Glass was also required to read the Western canon in a program begun by philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler. It had a profound and lasting effect on the young composer:

I mentioned earlier the influence of the Great Books on the curriculum, but it extended far beyond that. Whenever possible, which turned out to be all the time, the books we studied would be first hand, primary sources. . . . The same primary-source method was carried out in social science, history and philosophy. Learning American history meant reading the Federalist papers and other late-eighteenth century essays by the men who wrote the Constitution. Of course, humanities meant theater and literature from ancient to modern. Poetry, same thing. The effect on me was to cultivate and understand in a  firsthand way the lineage of culture. The men and women who created the stepping-stones from earliest times became familiar to us--not something "handed down" but actually known in a most immediate and personal way.

Glass's eclectic subject matter and primary source immersion included the study of science. This would be the subject of his breakthrough opera, 1976's Einstein on the Beach, which was based on the life of Albert Einstein and would establish Glass as a major cultural figure. [...]

Early in life and in fact right up until the late 1970s, when he was an established composer and even a celebrity, Glass worked blue-collar jobs to pay the bills. In the 1950s, during summer breaks as a Julliard student, he punched the clock at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. He also worked as a plumber. At the time that Einstein on the Beach premiered in the Metropolitan Opera House, he was driving a taxi, in which job he once picked up a criminal and was almost murdered by the man. Asked by director Martin Scorsese if he had seen Scorsese's film Taxi Driver, Glass replied that he had been too busy actually being one.

Glass's experience in the real world might explain why the composer never developed a taste for the brand of European nihilism that became fashionable after World War II. He was unimpressed when he came across the French Existentialists:

Their work was heavily nihilistic and oddly narcissistic, and these sentiments simply did not play well to the aspirations of a new and powerful generation of Americans who came up after World War II. Their books struck me as full of self-pity and despair at the meanness of their lives and the inability to find meaning therein, and my generation was impatient with all that.

By the same token, Glass gave short shrift to the criticism he faced in 1982 for appearing in a Cutty Sark whiskey ad. He was accused of selling out. "I called it 'selling in,' because the money went right into my work," writes the composer. "It seemed to me that people who didn't have to sell out, or in, must have had rich parents."

Posted by at August 11, 2017 2:31 PM