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Philip Glass: Complex Minimalist

The music of Phillip Glass elicits an array of opinions. Some love it; some don't. Some just don't get it. When he sat down to talk with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne about a new 10-CD retrospective of his work, he said that last reaction was true of some of his early music.

"This is what people used to call the needle-stuck-in-the-groove music," he says. "Events happen in the music but rather more slowly than you're used to. So it was like taking a microscope and looking at something very close up and you'll see things that you never would have seen before. That happens to music when you slow down the rate of change. The music isn't slow but the rate of change is slow."

Just Don't Say Minimalism

Glass never liked the term. He prefers to call his compositions, "music with repetitive structures." His Web site explains his early work as "based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments" that "immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops." But the term minimalism stuck.

Glass chuckles when he remembers a concert in the Bronx in the early '70s. "There was a bunch of young people there and one guy said, 'What do you call this music mister?' And I said, 'I don't know. What do you call it?' And he said, 'I call it Buddha Rock.' And it was hilarious — some young guy in the Bronx, this is what he heard."

In fact, Glass got to meet and work with the giant of Indian music — Ravi Shankar — while Glass was in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger (who also taught Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla, among many others). Glass had studied at the University of Chicago and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. But his dissatisfaction with what he was hearing sent him to Europe. When he returned to New York in 1967, he formed the Phillip Glass Ensemble.

Glass told Montagne that audiences back then used to say of the ensemble, "You guys can't play." But he says, "It takes a tremendous amount of discipline and concentration to do this kind of music."

The critics weren't very nice either. But Glass says it didn't seem to matter. "Though we were vilified by certain parts of the press, at the same time we got huge amounts of attention. Without that kind of [critical] reaction I doubt that we would have had the kind of public we ended up with. People got curious about us. If it was so bad, what was it?!"

Growing Up With Music

Glass was born and grew up in Baltimore. His father, Ben, had a little record store. The composer says it was one of only two stores in the city where you could buy classical music. Phillip Glass and his brother worked in the store — unpaid — from the age of 12.

"We were there when Elvis Presley first came out," Glass remembers. "It was an amazing period. Music began to change very rapidly about that time. My father was a very interesting guy. When a record didn't sell, he would take it home to listen to it to find out what was wrong with it. And what happened, he would listen to these things until he learned to like them. And he became an expert on contemporary music at that time just through listening to records. And he passed that on to me and he passed it on to as many customers as he could. He would press these records on his customers and say, 'Take this home and listen to this.' He was a wonderful guy."

Phillip Glass was also fascinated by science as a kid. Albert Einstein, he says, "was the first time that a scientist became a real rock star. What I liked about it was that I saw the scientist as a kind of a poet."

When Einstein was asked how he came up with the theory of relativity, Glass says, "He would say, 'Well I imagined myself on a beam of light traveling through the universe at the speed of light and I tried to describe what I would see.' And the theory of relativity is the description of what he thought he would see. So he was like a dreamer, a poet."

Einstein became the subject of Glass' first opera, Einstein on the Beach. "The structure of the music I was writing then," Glass says, "was very much about the simple manipulation of numbers."

Other operas followed — more than 20 of them, including, Satyagraha, Akhnaten and The Voyage. Glass has composed eight symphonies, concerti for piano, violin, and saxophone quartet. He's written for film, including the sonic landscape he created with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi. And he's collaborated with choreographer Twyla Tharp, poet Allen Ginsberg and rocker David Bowie.

A fraction of that work is included in the new 10-CD set, Glass Box. The composer says it's a good introduction to his work then stops himself. "Introduction? Ten CDs? That's enough. That'll keep you busy."

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