Image by: Javier Armas
Maverick. Revolutionary. Groundbreaking. Controversial. All of these words could be used to describe composer Philip Glass, whose music has enlightened and enraged people in equal measure. Here’s why I think he’s one of the finest, and most influential, composers of modern times.
Lots of composers have defined the sound of an era, culture or generation – Mozart, Beethoven, Copland, to name but three. A dominant force. An unmistakable sound.
Philip Glass is one such composer. Whatever you think of his music – some believe it to be important and vital, others repetitive and boring – there’s no getting away from it.
Personally, I think his music is entrancing, beguiling, moving, haunting, sublime, and incredibly affecting.
However, like all imposing musical icons, he’s been the target for scathing attacks and bilious vilification. From his early minimalist experimentations to his regular modern ventures in opera, television, film, and the concert hall, he has, like all great artists, divided opinion.
But there is an argument to be made why he is one of the most influential composers of modern times, if not the most influential. Even if you’re not familiar with the name you’re probably familiar with the music, so often has it been used, borrowed, adapted or incorporated in such a wide variety of modern media.
A Man Of All Mediums
Have you seen any of these films? The Hours. The Illusionist. Notes on a Scandal. Candyman. Seen this BMW advert or this one for Orange? If you have then you’re familiar, consciously or unconsciously, with his work. His unique musical soundscape has been the aural accompaniment for a plethora of TV and radio programmes and movies.
A cursory glance at the history of the majority of writers, poets, thinkers, philosophers, artists and musicians, and you’ll find that none of them made an impact because they did the same as everybody else. They very rarely did as they were told. They had to break the rules and find an individual way to express themselves. They had something new to say and had to construct their own rules and creative language.
And when Glass released Music In Similar Motion and Music In 12 Parts in the 70s, he certainly had something new to say. And he had his fair share of critics who attempted to slap on a musical muzzle and silence him, accusing him of having no musical talent or ability and trying to sabotage his early concerts. In fact, most of these concerts were held in galleries, art spaces and lofts, as no established musical venue would even entertain holding a Philip Glass concert.
Minimal Music/Maximum Impact
Though his music has often been referred to as minimalist (Glass prefers to call it “music with repetitive structures”), and it’s true that he does very often incorporate repeating patterns and musical motifs in his work, to simply label him as such is to not understand his work. Every good artist hones his skills and refines his craft over time, and Glass his no different. He’s collaborated with David Bowie and Eno, Allen Ginsberg, and Leonard Cohen.
In other words, he’s a widely misunderstood composer who has embraced past romantic musical traditions, styles and collaborations and transformed them in to his own unique form of expression.
Voicing A Generation Of Change
It’s worth noting that, despite vociferous criticism from some quarters -mainly the reserved, conservative, somewhat anal musical elite – Glass’ music was embraced very quickly. Even if in the beginning it only found a small audience , there was still an audience. Times and attitudes – not just musically, but emotionally ,psychologically, culturally – were changing and there was a need to fulfil a new cultural shift with a new kind of music. Glass – along with Steve Reich, John Adams and Terry Riley, for that matter – did this.
The musical history books have since proved the original naysayers very wrong, with his music becoming identifiable, popular, and more accessible than you might have been(mis)led to believe.
If you’re already a fan and familiar with his output then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re intrigued, plunge yourself in to his musical sound world. You may never be the same again.
Are you familiar with his work and do you love it or hate it? I’d be interested to know.