A Rock Fan’s Introduction To Philip Glass …Happy 80th Birthday Maestro

In the early ‘70s Philip Glass would sit in the middle of his East Village, New York loft with a group of musicians he assembled to perform for an audience that circled around them. Behind them: a huge quadrophonic stereo system. Part of his intent was – under the influence of Jefferson Airplane concerts he had experienced – to use loud volume “like a river that sends up all this white foam,” as he put it in an interview with Spin in 2008. “It was the foam I was interested in.”

It’s groundbreaking events like these that made Glass – who celebrates his 80th birthday today – an icon to a wide range of music-lovers, including many who aren’t necessarily interested in the classical world Glass inhabits. As both the first major composer to come of age with rock n’ roll and a pioneer of otherworldly electronic keyboard textures, Glass has long been admired by musicians from diverse backgrounds. His repertoire includes collaborations with Paul Simon for the coda of “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” Passages with Ravi Shankar (whom he also studied under), his 1986 album Songs from Liquid Days with lyrics by Paul Simon, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega and Laurie Anderson, a series of symphonies based on David Bowie and Brian Eno’s Low and “Heroes,” the orchestration on Aphex Twin’s Icct Hedral (from 1995′s Donkey Rhubarb EP) and a 2007 adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing for seven instruments and vocal quartet. The influence of his pieces spans from minimalist composers to electronica DJs to Sufjan Stevens; earlier this decade he sought out Beck to remix his works; and the list of rock royalty he’s performed with at his annual Tibet House Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall includes Lou Reed, John Cale, Patti Smith, REM and Billy Corgan.

“He’s a weirdo and he’s nice and he’s crazy and he’s musical and he’s got his own way of doing things,” Wayne Coyne recalled to Vulture of rehearsing with Glass in March 2011 for the first time The Flaming Lips played the Benefit. “He’s changing it [the arrangement of “Do You Realize???”] every time we play. It kind of drives you crazy… He’s working out all these nuanced things and he kept thinking, ‘Let’s all play this together,’ and it quickly gets beyond my capabilities.” The result: the most unique version of The Flaming Lips most played song, several minutes longer than typical largely due to a solo piano section added by Glass. “We sort of fell in love with Philip Glass and his charming, loving way,” Coyne told The Guardian in 2015 ahead of their second Tibet Benefit performance. “We loved being in the presence of the sort of family of people that do those events.” When the Lips returned that year they worked up something special to play with Glass: an arrangement of David Bowie’s “Warszawa” inspired by parts of Glass’ “Low Symphony.”

Among other highlights of Glass’ collaborative performances at the Tibet Benefit over the years:

  • 1993 with Allen Ginsberg – Duet from Hydrogen Jukebox
  • 1994 with Allen Ginsberg – Witchita Vortex Sutra
  • 1994 with Paul Simon – The Late Great Johnny Ace
  • 1997 with Allen Ginsberg, Billy Corgan, John Cale – Skeletons
  • 1997 with Allen Ginsberg – Sunflower Sutra
  • 1997 with Natalie Merchant – Planctus
  • 1998 with Patti Smith – Poem To P.O
  • 1999 with Patti Smith – Cremation
  • 1999 with Trey Anastasio – Streams
  • 1999 with REM – At My Most Beautiful
  • 2001 with David Bowie, Moby – Heroes
  • 2002 with Adam Yauch and Nawang Khechog – Sun Mandala
  • 2002 with Patti Smith – On Cremation
  • 2005 with Patti Smith – Perfect World
  • 2007 and 2013 with Patti Smith – Wichita Vortex
  • 2007 with Lou Reed, Scorchio String Quartet – Who am I
  • 2013 with Rahzel – Etude No. 10
  • Most years with Patti Smith and that concert’s full lineup – People Have The Power

Renown as America’s paramount classical composer of the late twentieth century for flipping the apple cart on the expectations placed upon his generation (ie serialism, etc), he plotted his own path (minimalism and beyond) with a series of influential works highlighted by “Glassworks,” “Einstein on the Beach,” “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Akhnaten” and “Mad Rush.” Distinguished as they are, his most famous music is perhaps Sesame Street’s “Geometry of Circle” or the score to Jim Carey’s 1998 movie The Truman Show. For the latter, co-composed with Burkhard Dallwitz, Glass reworked his past themes (remixing himself in a sense). For all his high-brow repute it’s crossovers like these that distinguish him the most.

To grasp a bit of Glass’ musical openness consider this comment on Aphex Twin from the October 1995 issue of Future Magazine:

“This is a guy who conceptualises music… that’s what makes him interesting. What I heard in his music was the intention to discover a different mode of expression. Whether he reads music or studied at the conservatory isn’t important. Richard’s a guy who began by building his own synthesizers when he was a boy, putting odds and ends together – pieces of junk practically making sounds then taking those sounds and turning them into music. That’s interesting. I have some friends who go to the Berkley School of Music – it’s a very good school – but… not about building a synthesizer at home and making it burp and twurp and then seeing how it builds into a piece of music. He has a way of thinking that’s simplistic, and it’s interesting for me. I’m twice his age and more – I like meeting young people and seeing what they’re doing.”

Glass’ pioneering composition techniques, his use of repetition and his general openness to diverse musical traditions and ideas created a body of work that forecast several developments in recent decades’ music outside of classical. A “pop” tribute was inevitable and came in 2012’s Rework: Philip Glass Remixed, a double album remix project produced by Beck and  Hector Castillo (the engineer behind the mixes of David Bowie’s and Glass’s recent work; Castillo’s resume also includes Björk, Lou Reed and Roger Waters, among others.)


Castillo, Beck, Glass

Explore Glass’ career with the crossover highlights compiled below:

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