Philip Glass was unquestionably among the most innovative and influential composers of the 20th century. Postmodern music's most celebrated and high-profile proponent, his myriad orchestral works, operas, film scores, and dance pieces proved essential to the development of ambient and new age sounds, and his fusions of Western and world musics were among the earliest and most successful global experiments of their kind.
Born in Baltimore, MD, on January 31, 1937, Glass took up the flute at the age of eight; at just 15, he was accepted to the University of Chicago, ostensibly majoring in philosophy but spending most of his waking hours on the piano. He spent four years at Juilliard after graduation, followed in 1963 by a two-year period in Paris under the tutelage of the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Glass' admitted artistic breakthrough came while working with Ravi Shankar on transcribing Indian music; the experience inspired him to begin structuring music by rhythmic phrases instead of by notation, forcing him to reject the 12-tone idiom of purist classical composition as well as traditional elements including harmony, melody, and tempo.
Glass' growing fascination with non-Western musics inspired him to hitchhike across North Africa and India, finally returning to New York in 1967. There he began to develop his distinctively minimalist compositional style, his music consisting of hypnotically repetitious circular rhythms. While Glass quickly staked out territory in the blooming downtown art community, his work met with great resistance from the classical establishment, and to survive he was forced to work as a plumber and, later, as a cab driver. In the early '70s, he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, a seven-piece group composed of woodwinds, a variety of keyboards, and amplified voices; their music found its initial home in art galleries but later moved into underground rock clubs, including the famed Max's Kansas City. After receiving initial refusals to publish his music, Glass formed his own imprint, Chatham Square Productions, in 1971; a year later, he self-released his first recording, Music with Changing Parts. Subsequent efforts like 1973's Music in Similar Motion/Music in Fifths earned significant fame overseas, and in 1974 he signed to Virgin U.K.
Glass rose to international fame with his 1976 "portrait opera" Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with scenarist Robert Wilson. An early masterpiece close to five hours in length, it toured Europe and was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House; while it marked Glass' return to classical Western harmonic elements, its dramatic rhythmic and melodic shifts remained the work's most startling feature. At much the same time, he was attracting significant attention from mainstream audiences as a result of the album North Star, a collection of shorter pieces that he performed in rock venues and even at Carnegie Hall. In the years to follow, Glass focused primarily on theatrical projects, and in 1980 he presented Satyagraha, an operatic portrayal of the life of Gandhi complete with a Sanskrit libretto inspired by the Bhagavad Gita. Similar in theme and scope was 1984's Akhnaten, which examined the myth of the Egyptian pharaoh. In 1983, Glass made the first of many forays into film composition with the score to the Godfrey Reggio cult hit Koyaanisqatsi; a sequel, Powaqqatsi, followed five years later.
While remaining best known for his theatrical productions, Glass also enjoyed a successful career as a recording artist. In 1981, he signed an exclusive composer's contract with the CBS Masterworks label, the first such contract offered to an artist since Aaron Copland; a year later, he issued Glassworks, a highly successful instrumental collection of orchestral and ensemble performances. In 1983, he released The Photographer, including a track with lyrics by David Byrne; that same year, Glass teamed with former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek for Carmina Burana. Released in 1986, Songs from Liquid Days featured lyrics from luminaries including Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, and Suzanne Vega, and became Glass' best-selling effort to date.
By this time he was far and away the avant-garde's best-known composer, thanks also to his music for the 1984 Olympic Games and works like The Juniper Tree, an opera based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In 1992, Glass was even commissioned to write The Voyage for the Met in honor of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas -- clear confirmation of his acceptance by the classical establishment. In 1997, he scored the Martin Scorsese masterpiece Kundun, and, in coming years would become increasingly more involved with film, composing a new score for the 1931 Dracula film as well as original scores for films like The Hours (2002), Neverwas (2005), The Illusionist (2006), No Reservations (2007), and many more. Also during the 2000's, Glass prolifically composed for the concert hall, writing a series of concerti for various instruments, a handful of symphonies (No. 6: Plutonian Ode, No. 7: Toltec), several operas (Galileo Galilei, The Perfect American), songs, poems, and countless other projects. Theatrical works like his 2009 score for Euripides' The Bacchae and the opera Kepler led into the next decade which saw him continue to compose at seemingly tireless rate. His collaborations have branched out into various popular musical genres including rock musicians (David Bowie, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen) electronic and ambient artists (Aphex Twin, Brian Eno), and mainstream, big-budget cinema, as on his 2015 soundtrack collaboration with composer Marco Beltrami for Marvel's Fantastic Four film. 2015 also saw the publication of his memoir, Words Without Music. ~ Jason Ankeny & Timothy Monger