Philip Glass

Born:  January 31, 1937, in Baltimore, MD

Early Studies   

Indian Music and the Additive Process       

Einstein on the Beach



Early Studies:

            Philip Glass was born in Baltimore on January 31, 1937.  The son of a record store owner, he learned classical music though records his father would bring home after they had failed to sell.  Glass took up the violin at age six, and by age eight was playing flute at the Peabody Conservatory.  When he was fifteen, Glass dropped out of high school and moved on to college, having passed the entrance exam to the prestigious University of Chicago (Duckworth, Talking Music, 318-323).  Although he majored in philosophy, his studies did not interfere with his musicianship; he composed his first pieces at the university and studied piano with Marcus Raskin.  Raskin came from Julliard, and after graduation, Glass went there to study composition.  His teachers at Julliard included Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma (Duckworth, 325-327).  However, he was dissatisfied with his musical output, feeling that he was writing in a style similar to his teachers.  Glass wanted to find his own style, and so he went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship to study with the famous Nadia Boulanger (Glass, 1987, 14).  Boulanger was one of the most famous theory composers in the world, and Glass began 6-8 hour lessons in technique, analysis, ear training, score-reading and other music theory concepts.  Although Boulanger did not care for Glass’ works, he gained much from her class, including a strong sense of harmony and counterpoint (Kostelanetz, 1999, 30-31). 


Indian Music & the Additive Process:

The skills he learned in these lessons prepared him for his future work with sitar player Ravi Shankar.  In 1965, Glass was asked to take the music for a film score Shankar was composing and copy it from Eastern to Western notation for the musicians.  Glass accepted and met with Shankar and tabla player Allah Rahka.  Glass found it difficult to add bar lines to the music because the divisions were adding unwelcome accents.  When Glass asked how to divide the music, Rahka would respond with the cryptic “All the notes are equal.”  Glass dropped the bar lines completely and saw a steady stream of rhythm, rather than eighth note groupings.  This led to the realization that while Western music divides time into quarters, eighths, etc, in Eastern music rhythm is added.  A rhythm will repeat itself many times, and then parts of that rhythm are added on to the original to create an entirely new sound.  This method of composing, known as the additive process, creates rhythmic cycles called Tal, which when combined with melodic improvisation creates the tension in Eastern music (Glass, 16-18). 

            Glass was fascinated by the additive process and began applying it to his compositions.  Still in Paris, he found that getting people to perform his pieces was difficult; most thought Glass was a madman with no compositional talent, and they refused to participate in his work (Duckworth, 334).  He then returned to America, and premiered his work with the Philip Glass Ensemble, a group he put together and performed with, in September of 1968.  The piece that best exemplifies his writing in this period is a composition entitled 1+1.  The work consists of two rhythms that are tapped on a table: two sixteenth notes and an eighth note making up the first, and a single eighth note making up the second.  The performer repeats these rhythms, then starts adding on parts of those rhythms to the whole line for as long as he/she likes.  The changes brought about by the added rhythms fit the definition of minimalist change, but unlike Terry Riley’s In C, for example, Glass’s interest lies in the rhythms (Nyman, 148-149).  The melodies, on the other hand, are deceptively simple.  Washington Post writer Tim Page sums up Glass melodic and harmonic style by explaining, “What may impress one as a banal chord progression at the beginning of the piece grows increasingly interesting as the work progresses” (Page, 4).  Subtle changes make sure the listener is never bored, and the pieces reward multiple hearings by presenting small shifts in harmony and tonality that may have been missed previously.  In America, his music was well-received and becoming more popular (Glass, 20-21).  Yet, he wanted to expand his writing, particularly after spending several years on a composition entitled Music in Changing Parts.  Being married to an avant-garde theater actress named JoAnne Akalaitis developed an interest in unconventional theater, and he wanted to exploit this interest (Glass, 23-24).  He found a way when he met theater director Bob Wilson in 1973.


Einstein On the Beach:

In the spring of 1974, Philip Glass and Bob Wilson spent each Thursday at a New York restaurant to plan a collaborative work.  They brought up Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi as subjects before settling on Albert Einstein, and then brainstormed the basic look and feel of the opera.  Their first decision, an unspoken but unanimous one, was that there would be no plot (Glass, 29-32).  All the actors would wear clothes similar to Einstein’s, every prop would connect with him in some way, and a violinist in full Einstein costume and make-up would perform on-stage to reflect Einstein’s amateur violin playing (Glass, 34).  They also came up with the visual themes of the opera:  a Train, a Trial, and a Field/Spaceship.  The visuals would be presented chronologically and develop as abstracts as the opera went on.  For example, the train transforms to a night train in Act II and a building in Act IV.  All these visuals would be presented in four acts with five “Knee Plays” separating them.  The Knee Plays, named for their connecting function similar to a leg’s joint, would serve as the opera’s interludes (Glass, 1984).   

            Wilson worked on developing the libretto for the opera, using speeches written by actors Samuel Johnson and Lucinda Childs (who also choreographed the opera).  The majority of the text, however, was written by Christopher Knowles, a 14-year old autistic child Wilson knew through his work as a teacher of troubled children (Potter, 323).  Wilson asked Knowles to “Tell me about Einstein,” and Knowles wrote out a response that eventually became a major part of the libretto.  Meanwhile, Glass was creating the music for the opera.  He started composing in the spring of 1975, and the music was finished by that November.  He used themes from previous compositions, such as Harmony, Parts 1 and 2 which provided music from Act I, Scene I and from Dance I as well (Glass, 38-39). 

            The train scenes serve as an example of Glass’s obsession with rhythmic cycles and their incorporation into his minimalist style.  If performers play two different rhythms of different lengths, then mathematically, after a certain number of repetitions they will meet at the beginning again (Glass, 59).  In a way, this is similar to Steve Reich’s phase music; the patterns start together, separate, and then come back to where they started.  However, if the additive process is added to this concept, extremely difficult rhythms are created and the rejoining of the two rhythms is indefinitely delayed. 

            After months of work on the opera, Glass and Wilson premiered Einstein on the Beach at Paris’ Festival D’Avignon, a theater arts festival, on July 25, 1976 (Glass, 47-49).  Glass performed with the orchestra and Wilson surprised the company by performing a dance at the very end.  The audience reaction was beyond any of Glass’ expectations.  People returned night after night, some having to sneak in because tickets had sold out.  In a different Paris theater, hopeful spectators found a way to enter the orchestra pit from outside the theater, resulting in a mad rush of people scrambling to get inside the pit as the orchestra was playing.  The company toured six countries with Einstein, and due to word-of-mouth, each performance played to a packed theater (Glass, 49-50).

            Although European audiences embraced Einstein on the Beach, Glass assumed no American opera house would be willing to financially back a performance.  However, Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the opera in Paris and was convinced that it should be seen in America.  He convinced a production manager and the special events planner of the Metropolitan Opera to see the opera in Europe, which led to an offer for Glass and Wilson to come to the Met on a Sunday morning at 12:00 am, work at putting the sets together until 6:00 pm, then perform a half-hour later.  Needless to say, the logistics of putting the opera together in a day frightened them, but they both decided a Met performance was too good an opportunity to lose, and they agreed to the terms (Glass, 50-51).  Everything went according to plan, and at 6:30 pm on November 21, 1976, Einstein on the Beach had its American debut.  Both Sunday performances were sold out with only standing-room tickets available, a fact Glass learned when forced to stand in line to buy tickets for his family.  Several people stormed off within the first half-hour, most likely because what they were seeing was completely different from the type of operas usually performed at the Met.  However, the majority stayed, and the response was extremely positive.  At one point, one of the Met’s upper administrators asked Glass, “Who are these people?  I’ve never seen them here before.”  Glass replied, “Well, you’d better find out who they are, because if this place expects to be running in 25 years, that’s your audience out there.”  (Glass, 52-53).

            The success of Einstein on the Beach leads to the debate about whether the work is, in fact, an opera.  If one defines opera as “a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and overtures and interludes,” as Webster’s dictionary does, then technically it does qualify.  The difficulty is transforming audience expectations of the emotional effect of an opera should have on those who view it.  Glass and Wilson never meant to make a traditional opera with singing at all times and a plot that is served by the music.  They wished to follow the examples of Bertold Brecht and Samuel Beckett, two playwrights they admired.  In works such as Brecht’s Play, the text does not conscientiously wring emotions from the audience, demanding certain reactions at certain events.  Rather, the play presented itself as an objective occurrence, and relied on the audience to provide the emotion.  This concept of the audience completing the work by bringing its own emotions to the performance, rather than vice-versa, influenced the creation of Einstein.  Because Einstein is a popular historical figure, Glass and Wilson did not need to use stage time explaining who he was.  Instead, they could present a gallery of abstract images and sounds, put Einstein in the middle of it, and let the audience determine for itself how to react.  Audience members who gave the opera a chance felt that it meant something to them, despite the lack of story or planned emotion.  As Glass said, “The point about Einstein was not what it “meant,” but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it” (Glass, 33). 

Because of this connection, Einstein on the Beach can be classified as an opera.  It represents something new in the field, an innovative and unconventional work that demands an entirely different audience approach than traditional opera.  Yet, once the audience accepts this innovation and lets itself approach the work as it was meant to be, then the audience experience mirrors that of traditional opera.  The audience enters the theater in one emotional state and leaves in another.  The ability of Einstein to create this change of emotion truly establishes the work as an opera in its own right.



Glassworks:  Opening

Glassworks:  Floe

Glass's self-titled work represents the basic principles of minimalism; minute changes creating interest, and the many small variations creating a larger rhythmic, harmonic, or tonal shift after a longer period of time.  "Opening" and "Floe" make up the first two movements of  Glassworks.


        Einstein on the Beach:  Knee 1

       Einstein on the Beach:  Train

The opening of the opera Einstein on the Beach presents a basic illustration of the additive process.  The main theme consists of a four-beat measure followed by a six and an eight-beat measure.  The spoken text, by autistic child Christopher Knowles, is narrated by Lucinda Childs, the opera's choreographer.  In the Train sequence, the singers perform solfege syllables, while the instruments perform shifting cycles underneath.