Philip Glass' Music


i am an absolute fan of this man’s music. i think each of his soundtracks to the qatsi films are masterpieces beyond belief.

but for some reason i would like to hear criticism about this man’s music. i have only heard a few references to his music, but they were all quite dismissive. Violently dismissive, i could almost say. So what are the main objections and criticisms to his work?

The main objection is, he’s a “minimalist” composer.

When I was studying for my undergrad degree in music composition at UCLA, one of the other composers performed a tape-recorded piece that consisted of a single recording of a guy’s voice speaking one line, played over and over and sometimes overlapping with itself. (This is more in keeping wth the style of Steve Reich, a different minimalist composer, but Phil Glass is guilty-by-association I guess.) What was the one recorded spoken line repeated over and over? Why, it was:

“Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Minimalist music is
Minimalist music is
Minimalist music is
Minimalist music is repeating the same few notes over and over again.
Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”

et cetera.

Other composers of “New Music” feel insecure and threatened by any music that has recognizable rhythm, harmony and melody because that kind of music shows what talentless frauds they are.

Uum… well, tracer that’s a bit of an oversimplification wouldn’t you say?

As a big fan of minimal music perhaps I may enlighten a bit. First off I should say that Tracer’s explanation is pretty much dead-on as the reason why most people would bash his music. Stick on a Glass CD for most of the people you know, they are sure to respond with something to that effect (“It’s just the same thing over and over again. How boring!!”).

A few things about Glass:

  1. He is a very visual composer. Many more people would agree that his score in any given film is very effective, than would agree that a CD of his is interesting.

  2. He really has hardly grown at all as a composer in decades. So many of his recorded works are just the same thing with different instruments. Most of his music basically involves simple progressions of triadic harmonies arpeggiated with different instruments arpeggiating them in different patterns.

  3. He was at a time (the 70’s) very ground breaking.

The Glass to own:

Einstein on the Beach - perhaps his most groundbreaking piece, a huge minimal opera from the 70’s. Different from most of his other stuff in that the harmony stays exactly the same (sometimes for longer than 20 minutes at a time) (i.e. no chord progression) and the same patterns repeat throughout. So what changes? The rhythm, or more often the meter (i.e. a pattern may play for 5 beats, and repeat this 2 or 4 times, then suddenly the same thing with the final beat removed so that it lasts only 4 beats. The meter keeps changing which really keeps you on your toes.)

Passages with Ravi Shankar. A truly beautiful recording which for the most part has very little to do with minimalism at all.

Koyaanisqatsi - I can take or leave Powa personally.

Aguas de Amazon - (or something like that). Same Glass as always but with this particular instrumentation (the group Uakti, a lot of wooden mallet instruments, and tropical-sounding flutes and stuff) it really is like a pleasant trip through the jungle on a river.

Steve Reich is infinitely more interesting than Glass. He began with tape stuff, as Tracer described, specifically having the same exact recording of a spoken phrase play on 2 tape decks that differ in speed by the tiniest fraction of a second. They would begin at the exact same time and seem to stay together for some time, but they would very gradually split and over the course of 10 minutes or so, many really neat musical things would happen. He brought this idea over to instruments and wrote some of the most interesting and influential music of the 20th century.

I’ll stop here, since you didn’t ask about Reich, but one more response to tracer’s post (and I promise to shut up for a bit). “Minimal” is not a term coined by composers to describe their own trend, but rather a term used by scholars in more or less retrospect. Thus there are as many kinds of “minimal” music as there are composers of it, and Reich and Glass are about 3 worlds apart. (though most minimal music usually involves some sort of repetition).

OK I’m done.

Glass also (according to a program I saw on him) hates academia, and does everything in his power to make life difficult for them. What inspired this, I can’t say, but it might very well be the source for some of the criticism of him.

I agree with Moe; Steve Reich’s music is much more interesting than Glass’. The 3 biggies in the minimalist world are Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams. What bugs me is that the 3 are always lumped together as if their music is somehow all identical, when in fact some aspects of their music are almost polar opposites. They can all be termed “minimalist”, but that doesn’t mean they are of equal ability. It would be like saying that Mozart and Salieri were equally talented because they wrote in the same genre.

Having said that, let me proceed with my criticism. When I listen to Glass, I just find that it sounds overly simplistic. I know, in a sense, minimalist music is simplistic by definition, because it involves a lot of repetition of short, basic ideas. But I think what the composer chooses to repeat is important. And with both Adams and Reich, the thematic ideas are much more interesting to start with. In addition, their compositions just seem more skillfully crafted to me. In a lot of Reich’s stuff, for example, there is an influence from African rhythms, which to me makes for a more interesting listening experience than Glass’ relatively primitive rhythmic structure.

I guess what Glass is trying to accomplish is to apply minimalism across the board: minimal thematic material, minimal rhythmic complexity, and minimal harmonic interest. I just think it makes for less stimulating music overall.

Stever Reich and John Adams are great artists who create music that is interesting and stimulating; Philip Glass is a hack who writes elevator music for pseuointellectuals.

OK, someone had to post this, plus I heard this joke a few weeks ago and have been DYING to tell it to someone who’d get it:

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Philip Glass.

Wow, second president of the United States and a minimalist composer! That Adams sure gets around.

Let’s not forget Terry Riley whose famous piece In C is what’s generally considered to have started it all.

Yeah, and despite it all he’s such a modest guy he even keeps his number listed.

Thanks for that enlightening contribution.

Personally I enjoy Glass, Adams and Reich. ‘Minimalist’ is a handy word to refer to them and a few of their peers, but it’s not much use beyond that. Adams in particular often ventures into what you might call a maximalist style, throwing in anything he feels like.

I think Glass comes under fire because he writes music that can be appreciated by those without any musical knowledge or expertise. A lot of recent serious music (i.e. since the beginning of the 20th century) has been aimed at those with a technical understanding of music theory, just as modern art often requires a grasp of recent art history to make its point. (A lot of jazz is pretty impenetrable to non-musicians as well.)

One way of thinking about minimalist music is to compare it to abstract painting: just as an abstract painter like Mondrian or Rothko uses colour and light without bothering to represent any particular object, so a minimalist composer like Glass might use harmony and rhythm without using orthodox patterns of notes. Or not. It was just a thought.

The main influence on Glass’ minimalism has been Indian classical music (hence his collaboration with Ravi Shankar), which has explored repetitive musical patterns for centuries. You don’t often hear the Indian classical tradition referred to as ‘moronic’, but many critics call Glass’ music just that. Oh well.

Alex B

The key to Glass’s music is that there really is no repetition if you listen closely. Yes, the main melody repeats the same pattern, but in a different key or a different note, changing subtly within the framework of a single phrase.

And with all due respect to Lissener, I defy him to listen to Satyagraha or Akhenaten and call either work “elevator music for pseudointellectuals.” Creating libretti from the Bhaghavad-Gita in the original Sanskrit and religious poems in Akkadian, Hebrew, and Egyptian is not exactly pop-culture friendly.

I’m a big fan of Glass, Reich, And Riley, but it is a very hard genre to share with people.
I saw Philip Glass live back in the mid 80’s and was just blown away that a group of musicians could perform that music live.
Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” still knocks me out when I listen to it after all these years.
To me, the only similarity this music has to elevator music is that it is uplifting. Y(Vertical)MMV.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Adams has written anything that could safely be called “minimalism” since Harmonium, back in 1981 or so. And even that wasn’t terribly minimalist.

Shaker Loops is his first well-known piece, and THAT was minimalist. But he’s feeling much better now.

Yeah, Adams is more associated with the next stage of music (whatever that is). Not some I consider one of the forefathers, er… 3 fathers (Glass, Reich, Riley), of minimalism. Though his stuff has certainly developed from the minimal school of thought.

I heard an “opera” of his, I think it was something like I Was Staring at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky (not too minimal of a title), which often sounded right out of Glass’ world.

His orchestral piece Fearful Symmetries which I highly recommend, is definitely based in minimalism, but also clearly a more advanced stage.