American Composer Phillip Glass Is Born

Phillip Glass, a vital force in postmodern music, is born in Baltimore, Maryland, on this day in 1937.

The description most often used to describe the music of American composer Phillip Glass is “minimalist.” While the entirety of Glass’s body of work does not fit within the category, he is easily the most prominent of the early proponents of minimalist music—an experimental, avant-garde movement closely associated with New York’s downtown art scene of the late 1960s. Glass’ “serious” compositions within this vein have earned him recognition as one the most important American composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His numerous scores for both studio and art-house American films have exposed tens of millions of moviegoers to his hauntingly beautiful music.

Phillip Glass’s musical education began at Julliard in the early 1960s, where he studied composition within a traditional paradigm, writing music in the vein of modern American composers like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. He continued his education in Paris, where his creative awakening came not through his formal studies, but through his exposure to French New Wave cinema and his friendship with the Indian composer and sitar player Ravi Shankar. The association with Shankar opened Glass’ ears to structural approaches in Indian music that informed his early, experimental work as a minimalist. It also inspired him to travel to India in 1966, where he began his lifelong involvement in Buddhism.

From the late 60s onward, Glass worked primarily from New York City, and primarily with his own Phillip Glass Ensemble. Perhaps the most widely known of Glass’s work from this period is his “Music in Twelve Parts,” a six-hour piece in the signature style of minimalism, featuring the slow transformation of repetitive motifs and structures. His opera “Einstein on the Beach” layered droning violins, woodwinds and electronic keyboards with spoken words and repetitive singing of numbers to powerful effect. In recent decades, Glass’ most prominent work has been in film—the medium that helped involve him in the avant-garde in the first place. The documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982), built entirely around silent footage and Glass’s score, was his most prominent early film work, and in recent years, he has written Oscar-nominated scores for Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002) and Notes on a Scandal (2005) among numerous others.

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