Glass, Philip: String Quartet No. 5

Philip Glass’ training was exactly what one would expect of an American composer born in 1937. He studied at the Peabody conservatory in his native Baltimore, and at Juilliard. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in mathematics and philosophy when he was nineteen. After receiving his degree from Juilliard, he studied with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Sometime, in the wake of studying with Nadia Boulanger and transcribing the works of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakka into Western notation, he began to write differently from almost all the others. There is something telling in this pair of influences: studying with Boulanger meant thousands of repetitious hours of studying the basic elements and hidden secrets of harmony, and studying the music of Ravi Shankar meant exploring additive rhythm and incantatory repetition of ragas. One might well wonder whether the intricate repetitions of Philip Glass’ music are some combination of these two final lessons, lining up jewels of Western harmony for meditative and joyous (as opposed to obsessive or didactic) exploration. The fruits of his labors and studies are now part of music history, from Strung Out to Music for Airports.

The extent to which ‘music history’ in this case does not mean classical music history deserves more than passing notice. For many years, his work has been pooh-poohed by classical circles, and Glass usually refers to his music as ‘theater music’ (as opposed to ‘classical music’ – many of his works have been of a multimedia sort, and he has written more than a dozen film scores). But most of all, he has been making rock music history. To name Brian Eno, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the Talking Heads as admirers is but a bare beginning of his influence in the larger musical world. How it will all play out in the history yet to be written is anybody’s guess, but there isn’t so much reason to distract oneself with Glass’ historical stature when one could just be hearing the music.

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