The relevance of Glass and his classical minimalist peers extends way beyond their own sphere. While it is true that most music is based to some degree on repetition, the ideas that informed minimalism give repetition a profound new meaning. After you listen to the likes of Philip Glass, that Brian Eno or Kraftwerk album may never sound the same again.
country of origin:
Minimalism, orchestral, world beat, classical
60's - 20's
some essential releases:
- Glassworks (1982, Sony)
- Koyaanisqatsi (1983, Polygram)
- Mishima (1985, Nonesuch)
- Powaqqatsi (1988, Nonesuch)
- Thin Blue Line (1989/2003, Orange Mountain)
- The Hours (2002, Nonesuch)
Reviewed by Mike G
If there was a moment in time that confirmed Philip Glass was hip to audiences well outside the modern classical and avant-garde scenes that spawned him, it was his hilarious lampooning in the animated TV comedy South Park in 1999. Glass appeared as the conductor of an absurd non-denominational Christmas pageant, staged after the town fathers decided they had to put on a show that didn't offend any one group or religion. The pageant itself was a parody of Glass' strange and exhausting contemporary opera Einstein On The Beach (1976).
But enough of the pop culture references. Glass is the best known member from a founding school of American composers known as the minimalists, the others including Terry Riley, Steve Reich and the seldom heard La Monte Young. Of the four, Glass’s music has been the most commercially successful and it's often surprisingly accessible; typically being a tapestry of pulsing, repetitive phrases combined with fairly simple melodies. His film soundtracks have graced scores of American films from the 80's onward and his quasi-classical sound is as conspicuous in film today as the music of Michael Nyman or Thomas Newman. Glass himself shies from the minimalism tag, preferring to describe his work as "music with repetitive patterns".
Whatever you call it, the relevance and influence of Glass and his classical minimalist peers extends way beyond their own sphere. While it is true that most music is based to some degree on repetition, the ideas that informed minimalism give repetition a profound new meaning. After you listen to the likes of Philip Glass, that Brian Eno or Kraftwerk album may never sound the same again. And the fact that his music used to upset, and even continues to upset, music academics is perhaps the surest sign that his work is worthy and important. In his lucid and enlightening memoir Words Without Music (2015), Glass recalls the signs he saw on notice boards at music conservatories in the 70's whenever his ensemble had concert dates there; under no circumstances, said the signs, were music students required to attend. This, from some of the same academics who thought Schoenberg and the Serialist movement's hideous mangling of tonality was a mark of genius.
Where to begin? Some Glass recordings are just too huge and too demanding for newcomers, most notably Einstein and the terrifyingly lengthy Music In Twelve Parts (1974). Also, a substantial part of his discography are operas which, weird as they are, belong to a genre beyond the scope of this review. Instead, I recommend a selection of Glass recordings mostly from the 1980's - including film soundtracks - as good starting points for the uninitiated.
The popular Glassworks (1982) is one of the most accessible minimalist genre recordings and as good a place as any to begin. A small ensemble including piano, woodwind, horns and synthesiser plays six compact, strongly melodic pieces. Some of his 80's film soundtracks have a similar appeal to Glassworks, insomuch as they break his ideas up into bite size pieces without sacrificing the impact of his idiosyncratic sound, deftly absorbing elements of sacred, ambient and ethnic music into the mix. The magnificent film score Koyaanisqatsi (1983) combines orchestra with choir, solo voice, organ and synthesisers. "Prophecies" and the title track feature a stately organ signature over which a deep, throaty voice repeatedly chants the film’s title, and the overall effect is mesmerising. With its tremendous choral arrangement, the more dramatic "Pruit Igoe" shows Glass’ ability to build cinematic climaxes of remarkable intensity using clusters of repetitive melodies and hypnotic, subtly changing rhythms and tempos. The Mishima (1985) and Thin Blue Line (1989/2003) soundtracks come minus the vocal arrangements but have a comparable cinematic sweep to Koyaanisqatsi. The exotic score for Powaqqatsi (1988) brilliantly integrates a rich array of instruments and vocal styles from Africa and the Middle-East into the orchestral mix. Finally, skipping ahead a few decades we find his excellent score for Hollywood film The Hours (2002), a highly accessible album with traditional orchestration but rich with his unmistakable ideas and motifs.
On one level, these six albums offer anyone who cares to listen a good education in the vital importance that minimalist repetition plays in so much modern music. More generally, they are all terrific releases on their own terms and a good place to start. If these push your buttons then you'll be ready - albeit cautiously - to dig deeper into Glass' oeuvre.