A GLASS ACT

COMPOSER PHILIP GLASS SEARCHES FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF BEAUTY IN BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

According to many classical-music historians, there were two principal strains of modern composition during the Fifties and Sixties: serialism, an approach often associated with Anton Webern in which tones are fixed in arbitrary designs that frequently defy traditional tonal relationships; and the so-called chance music exemplified by John Cage's unprecedented experimentation. After two years spent under the tutelage of Paris-based Nadia Boulanger and the discovery of the Indian music of players such as Ravi Shankar, Glass rejected both styles in favor of music built on shards of note clusters--rock listeners might liken them to riffs--that are repeated over long stretches or shifted subtly to achieve a hypnotic, otherworldly effect. Simply because Glass rejected the atonality that was so fashionable then, trademark efforts like 1973's Music With Changing Parts seem almost romantic today. But when they were first heard, during a period when Glass was toiling as a taxi driver and a plumber to make ends meet, these rigorously spare pieces (as well as compositions by Steve Reich and other kindred spirits) led to the coining of a new term: minimalism. The word has dogged Glass for decades, and he clearly believes that it's outlived its usefulness.

"After the excesses of the serial school, which went on for thirty or forty years, my generation really brought about a return to tonality, as it's called," he submits. "Now there are all kinds of things going on that employ tonality--and because there's so much diversity among the current generation of composers, labels like minimalism seem handy. But they're actually more confusing than helpful, at least to my mind. Artists are reluctant to define themselves too narrowly, because they're in the business of trying to extend their language and their horizons. My activity goes against the idea of definition, because I'm constantly trying to redefine myself--not to define myself. As I tell young composers, the first problem you have is finding a voice, and the second problem you have is getting rid of it."

That's a particularly daunting task in Glass's case, given the singular nature of the work that served as his introduction to mass culture--the 1976 opera on which Glass collaborated with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach. The mammoth undertaking ran for five hours, and although its staging was radical enough to attract considerable notice, it was Glass's score, suffused with howls of keyboards and reed instruments, along with a stirring chorus, that left attendees stunned. Even after the passage of so much time, Einstein's score retains the power to divide listeners. Some find it moving and epic. Some regard it as little more than a stunt. Some feel it's almost indescribably annoying. But no one can deny that it got people talking about Glass--and they've been talking ever since.

Since Einstein, Glass has been astoundingly prolific. As he notes, "I've written twelve operas; I've written music for thirty plays and a dozen ballets and maybe a dozen films." The operas include Satyagraha, based on the life of Gandhi, and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, composed with the assistance of author Doris Lessing. Glass's theater pieces are exemplified by 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, from an idea by playwright David Henry Hwang. In the Upper Room, staged by choreographer Twyla Tharp, is among Glass's best-known works for dance. And his soundtracks for 1983's memorable documentary Koyaanisqatsi, its sequel, Powaqqatsi, and two terrific projects by director Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time) are widely admired. At present, he's scoring a new picture directed by Christopher Hampton and starring Robin Williams, Patricia Arquette, Bob Hoskins and Gerard Depardieu, but he swears that these big names are no indication that he's gone Hollywood.

"This is an art movie--the budget was only 6 or 7 million dollars, and the actors did it because they wanted to work with Christopher," Glass insists, adding, "I rarely get involved with commercial film, because when the big studios are involved, the first issue is financial, and the artistic issues are all secondary. Of course, I don't get asked to score Jurassic Park. But I see these things when I take planes, and it's junk. It's garbage. There's nothing wrong with entertainment, but if there's nothing of artistic merit in it, I'm not interested. It's basically not worth doing. You never get paid enough, and the government takes half of it anyway. So why do it?"

Critics of Glass question such high-minded statements, implying that, for example, 1986's Songs From Liquid Days--which sports lyrics by David Byrne and Laurie Anderson and vocals by Linda Ronstadt and the Roches--reflects a man who would rather be popular than good. Glass was also knocked for 1993's "Low" Symphony, suggested by themes from the 1977 album Low, performed by David Bowie and produced by Brian Eno. The symphony certainly can't be described as rock--even lovers of Low may have a hard time unearthing the Bowie-Eno themes that Glass uses. Nonetheless, the rock-and-roll connection and the cover photo of Glass alongside Bowie and Eno helped the disc become one of the top-selling classical releases of the year.

"That was nice," Glass acknowledges, "but crossover is not much of a motivation for me. The motivation is to extend my own language and discover what possibilities I have as a composer. I don't do these things just to upset you guys. I do them out of my own curiosity."

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