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Joy In Repetition: Philip Glass Turns 75

At age 75, composer Philip Glass is as busy as ever.
Stewart Cohen
At age 75, composer Philip Glass is as busy as ever.

Philip Glass turns 75 tomorrow. Impossible, you say? Given his two dozen operas, reams of orchestral music, virtually uncountable film scores and scads of projects in every discipline, isn't he like 90 or 100 or 110? Or, judging by his kaleidoscopic connections and collaborators, isn't he somewhere between 20 and 50, hunkered down among hipsters and plotting his next move toward musical world domination?

Glass is celebrating his birthday with the premiere of his Ninth Symphony by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. It's the same ensemble that introduced his first mature orchestra piece, the sweetly lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1, 25 years ago. After Tuesday's festivities, life goes on as usual — an opera production in Norfolk, Va., that violin concerto in Bologna, Italy, orchestral music in Warwick, England. And that only takes us up to Saturday. He's touring throughout the year with Einstein on the Beach, the groundbreaking minimalist opera on a maximal scale he created with director Robert Wilson. (Here's a moving 2009 performance of the finale featuring the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.)

It's safe to say that no contemporary musician with classical ties has had Glass' reach or success. What other composer has been both commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and appeared as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live? But there are goals yet unreached, as in this exchange from The Simpsons:

No living composer has married music to a wider range of images and movement than Glass has. If you can judge a person by the company he keeps, consider that a very short sample of Glass' artistic partners includes Byrne, Paul Simon, Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Scorsese, Nobel literature laureate Doris Lessing, choreographer Twyla Tharp, playwright David Henry Hwang and filmmaker Errol Morris.

To get an idea of what makes Glass Glass, let's examine just one project, his score for the mesmerizing Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It's from 1985, when the former Baltimore child prodigy (University of Chicago at age 14) had completed his training (Juilliard and then Paris, with Copland's teacher Nadia Boulanger) and stints as a New York cabbie and plumber (he installed art critic Robert Hughes' dishwasher).

Mishima, like Einstein and the Gandhi opera Satyagraha, is built around a larger-than-life historical figure, a Japanese author whose ritual suicide is foreshadowed in the sweeping theme. The haunting score for string orchestra and percussion also has passages for the Kronos Quartet, which eventually became Glass' String Quartet No. 3. (Not only does his music resemble Vivaldi's in sound and quantity, but he also repurposes like his Baroque predecessors.)

In one memorable section of Mishima, the composer employs the sound of a surf-rock band that captures the anxious energy of postwar Japanese youth. In the slow section that follows, there's a passage that reappears time and time again as background music in This American Life, the radio show hosted and produced by Glass' cousin and fellow Baltimore native Ira Glass.

Mishima is but one moment from an international career that shows no signs of slowing down. Hear Mishima below, as well as a few other high points from Glass' catalog. What are your favorites? Have you seen him perform? Let us know in the comments section or Tweet @nprclassical.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Philip Glass Selection

Koyaanisquatsi: Vessels

"Koyaanisquatsi, film score [Vessels]"

From 'Koyaanisqatsi [Original Motion Picture Score]'

By Various

A slow, wordless rhapsody for six singers from the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack — at first in ravishing a cappella, then with a bubbling accompaniment, finally with the instruments at double speed. In the film it accompanies jets taxiing, followed by freeway traffic and images of increasing speed and violence. When the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble performed the opening section in concert, the singers crossed the stage slowly with white balloons on strings.

Mishima: Osamu's Theme, Kyoko's House

"Osamu's Theme: Kyoko's House"

From 'Mishima'

By Philip Glass

In Mishima, the author's biography unfolds to the sound of the Kronos Quartet, while his final day plays out with dramatic string orchestra and percussion. Scenes from his fiction, played on a color-saturated soundstage, get some of Glass's most atmospheric music, like this blend of surf guitar and singing violin.

Mishima: Kyoko's House (Stage Blood is not Enough)

"Kyoko's House (Stage Blood Is Not Enough)"

From 'Mishima'

By Philip Glass

If you're a This American Life fan, you've certainly heard this music. In the film, it accompanies the final decline of a dissolute young man headed toward suicide. On the radio, its pensive warmth allows Ira Glass & Co. to ring emotional changes.

Satyagraha: Evening Song


"Act 3 - King. Part 3"

From 'Glass: Satyagraha'

By Philip Glass

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. Glass's Gandhi opera — which received a spectacularly imaginative new Metropolitan Opera production in 2008 — ends with this simple, gently repetitive aria. The Sanskrit text includes the words "The Lord said ... by my creative energy, I consort with Nature and come to be in time."

Violin Concerto No. 2 - 4th Mvt.


"Violin Concerto No. 2 - 4th Mvt."

From 'Violin Concerto No. 2 "American Seasons"'

By Robert McDuffie

After recording the first violin concertos by Glass and John Adams, violinist Robert McDuffie commissioned this piece as a companion to The Four Seasons — with Vivaldi's harpsichord swapped for a synthesizer. It's left up to the listener to decide which movement represents which season. Glass's concertos also include pieces for saxophone quartet and two timpanists.

Mark Mobley