Rhode Island Artscape: Composer Philip Glass Visits The Ocean State

Feb 26, 2015

World renowned composer and performer Philip Glass is in Rhode Island.  He performed at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence Wednesday as part of a program put on by local arts non-profit First Works. He continues his visit Thursday, to work with students at the Jacqueline Walsh School for the performing arts in Pawtucket.  For this month’s Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender examines the draw of Philip Glass’ music, and why it endures.

Philip Glass is one of the most acclaimed composers living today.  He’s written hundreds of pieces, from operas and symphonies, to film scores, and has been nominated for Grammys and Oscars for his work.

Philip Glass plays with violinist Tim Fain during rehearsal at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Providence.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“Philip Glass’s music is the music of our time,” said Paul Philips, the conductor of the Brown University Orchestra.  The group is performing the Rhode Island premiere of Philip Glass’ second symphony Thursday and Friday. “The number of composers that really changed the sound of music of their time is really quite short.  Beethoven did it, Wagner did it, Claude Debussy.” 

And Philips said Philip Glass did it too.  He said before Glass, classical music was getting more and more complicated, and, to general audiences, increasingly difficult to listen to.  Then, in the 70’s Glass helped launch the musical style known as “minimalism.” in the 70’s.  Hallmarks of minimalist music are simpler harmonic structures, driving rhythms, and slow change over time; sometimes very slow change. Philip Glass himself says he doesn’t really like the term minimalism, preferring instead to call his style “music with repetitive structures.”

Born in 1937, Philip Glass grew up in Baltimore, before moving on to study at the University of Chicago, and the world-famous Julliard School of music.  He studied composition in Europe, then moved back to New York, and started composting something new.

“Whatever label you want to put on it, that kind of music changed the style of music in our time,” said Brown conductor Paul Phillips. “And now you hear that kind of music, or aspects of that kind of music almost everywhere.”

So while you may have never heard of Philip Glass or minimalism, you’d probably recognize the style. Philips contends that’s why a lot of the music we hear these days sounds less like the music of Star Wars, for example, a sweeping symphonic score that harkens to late romantic composers.  Much of today’s has more in common with the driving chamber music of British TV drama Downton Abbey.

On Wednesday night, the sounds of tuning and mic checks rang through Providence’s Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, where Philip Glass and violinist Tim Fain warmed up before their evening concert.    At 78, Glass continues to tour regularly, and said keeping his rigorous schedule is easy.  “I have always known what to do. Even as a young fellow I knew I would do music,” said Glass.  “It’s very fortunate for people who have what we call a calling. It could be medicine, it could be teaching, it could be playing music, it could be painting.  When you have a calling, a vocation, you don’t say, ‘what am I supposed to do today?’ You just keep on going.” 

Glass said he thinks there are a several reasons the style of music he helped create continues to resonate more than 30 years later. Glass refers to himself as a composer-performer. Thanks to his touring schedule Glass can constantly bringing his own music to audiences across the world.  He’s not waiting for others to perform it.  In addition Glass said, there may be something inherent in the music of the minimalist style.  “My generation returned to the practice of writing tonal music,” said Glass. “When I say tonal music I mean the music that most people listen to on the radio.  Where you can hear a tune, and you don’t have to know anything about keys or tonics or cadences, when you listen to it you can sing the song.  Before us I’d say there was a good fifty years of modernist music, beautiful music, but very hard, and very hard for listeners to get into.” 

Looking towards to the future, Glass said he continues to find inspiration everywhere, especially in young composers, some of whom he’s helped teach.

Unsurprisingly he’s constantly working on new music.  He’s currently finishing up a double piano concerto, and working on an opera that traces civil rights in America.  “In a way you might say I’m listening to music all the time.  I shouldn’t say you might say, I’d say you can say. So one way or the other I’m listening to music, and I think that’s generally true.  I think that’d be true of people in poetry and dance and theater,” said Glass. “Where the art begins and the life begins, that’s a very blurry line.  You almost can’t tell sometimes, which one you’re in.”

At the end of our interview, after shaking hands, Mr. Glass got up, went back to the piano, and continued practicing.

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