The brilliance of Philip Glass: seven leading musicians discuss his style and influence

We gathered a troupe of fellow musicians and composers to analyse the music of Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass

Violinist Gidon Kremer

Philip Glass’s music is always recognisable; it has a signature and it speaks of his personality. I always appreciate that in composers. Philip’s music has a lot of positive energy, which gives me an opportunity to build a bridge to listeners. His music is somewhat more accessible than others’, but that’s not why I play it. I believe in it so I’m happy to deliver his message. Yes, you can find that he is repetitious in his models and idioms, but wasn’t Vivaldi repetitious as well? Wasn’t Mozart? I’m speaking superficially, but still I think in many pieces by Philip you can find his refinement in dealing with the same models.

The challenge when you’re dealing with minimalistic idioms is that you have to be maximally expressive. What’s given me a lot of inspiration is reading Philip’s wonderful autobiography Words Without Music. I’ve never worked directly with him but we got to know each other in Australia. He’s a very generous person. If he accepts my way of looking at his music, it doesn’t mean
he won’t accept another way of looking at it.

Gidon Kremer has recorded both of Glass’s violin concertos for Deutsche Grammophon

Conductor Dennis Russell Davies

Philip attracts a lot of misunderstanding from professional musicians – it’s taken a long time for many of my colleagues to come to grips with the fact that this is a man who’s composed 11 symphonies and is a serious composer.

His music requires a different kind of listening – you need to concentrate and be enveloped in a time frame. There’s a similarity between Philip’s music and Wagner and Bruckner: musical modules or elements become the main melodic and rhythmic impetus and are allowed to exist for a long period of time until changes begin to take place – these changes become extremely important. Philip has a different sense of time which has to do with the influence of Ravi Shankar and the whole Indian musical language.

For performers, the problem with Philip’s music is that it’s like Mozart’s: as the saying goes, it’s too easy for the amateur and too difficult for the professional. You absolutely have to play in tune, and be able to articulate the rhythms exactly with nuances without rubatos (unless you intend to use them). You have to let the tempos have their pace and their time. His music isn’t helped by 21st-century virtuosity.

Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Bruckner Orchester Linz in the world premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 11 on 31 January at New York’s Carnegie Hall

Composer Nico Muhly 

One of things Philip Glass has done that is so key is the way that his early works invite composers to make their own band. The idea is to find your own sound – for him, it’s that early combination of electric organs, flutes, saxophones and the human voice. You don’t need to wait for an orchestra to call you to write a piece; you can sharpen your teeth on something you’ve created yourself.

Having worked for Philip as an editor, I know his work really intimately, but it still has the power to surprise me. Take his Eighth Symphony, for instance – you have these large structures and weird ritornellos. And I’m always surprised by his last Piano Etude, No. 20, whenever I hear it. What I think is alluring about much of his music is that you enter it just as you walk into a piece of sacred architecture. Even though there are a lot of individual details that can surprise you, there’s a sense of beautiful inevitability about what goes where. There’s a sense of the eco-system of the piece being somehow familiar, even if you haven’t been there before.

Nico Muhly worked as an editor and conductor for Philip Glass from 1999-2008

Harpist Lavinia Meijer

I think Philip Glass will be mentioned years from now as one of the composers who shaped music in the 20th century. He has had an important influence on the younger generation of composers, and is also able to put his music in a much wider perspective, connected to so many different artforms, artists and cultures, and to political aspects too.

When I first met him and started working on his music, I encountered various challenges. The first is that the way he writes music down is not easy to play on the harp. Another thing is that his fast movements, with their repetitions, are physically very challenging. When I first played them, I got cramp. I worked for about a year mastering this technique, and now have a very big muscle in my arm – I call it the ‘Glass muscle’! And then there’s the concentration needed. In some of his pieces there are very little shifts you have to be aware of, plus you have to have the concentration span to take the piece from the first note to the last, and make every note count on the way. Because his music is so beautiful, it’s very easy to get lost in it.

Lavinia Meijer’s ‘The Glass Effect’ was released on Sony Classical 

Pianist Paul Barnes

I first met Philip Glass in the early 1980s, on an aeroplane. The seat next to him was open, so I just plopped down next to him, told him I was going to be performing in New York the following season and asked if he had anything I could play. That began what has been an incredibly fruitful 22-year collaboration. In 2004 I commissioned Philip to write his Piano Concerto No. 2. I told him ‘give me something fun to do’ and he certainly did! There’s one section where the right hand is in a different meter from the left – it just flies. It’s also really interestingly orchestrated, so when I perform it, it’s just a total adrenaline rush.

The most important thing Philip has done is to make people rethink their whole aesthetic background or basis – the foundation from which they write. The western tradition has always believed that a composition has to progress through a beginning, middle and end. What Philip did was to question this narrative approach to music, and to make it more of a process.

Paul Barnes has recorded a number of Philip Glass’s works, including the Second Piano Concerto, for the Orange Mountain label

Saxophonist Amy Dickson

Philip Glass’s music is instantly recognisable by so many people, whether they’re classical music lovers or not – and it’s loved by people from across the musical spectrum, too. As a performer, I love that his music inspires people who wouldn’t normally comment on music. It brings out strong opinions.

The Violin Concerto No. 1, which I’ve arranged for soprano saxophone, is intricately designed. To play it is a huge challenge for both me as a soloist and for an orchestra, as it’s deceptively simple sounding but very intricate throughout.

The way Glass has thought out his timbral structure is hugely intricate, too – he’s obviously considered every last detail. I’ve been playing the concerto for over ten years now, and my feeling for it has only got stronger; I find more to give each time I play it. Learning it was a huge challenge – I have to use circular breathing a lot. But the Violin Sonata is 100 times harder: it’s 20 minutes of unbroken playing and the endurance and stamina I need for the embouchure is crazy!

Amy Dickson’s Glass album, which includes her arrangements of the Violin Sonata and Violin Concerto No. 1, was released on Sony Classical

Carducci Quartet violinist Matthew Denton

In many ways, Philip Glass revitalised tonal music. Music had been going in a very different direction and he brought it firmly back into a tonal world but with a new energy and soundworld that appealed to so many people. He brought a whole new generation to classical music.

We’ve always been a quartet that loves to explore all sorts of music and we were really drawn to Glass. The ‘minimalist’ tag applied to it is in some ways misleading and doesn’t do his work justice. When we were recording the quartets, a key area we wanted to explore was his music’s wistful, spiritual quality. The quartets are so full of expression. It’s how you convey it that’s the key. You don’t do it in the traditional Romantic way. His music demands the most accurate intonation, and the use of vibrato is very important. If you do slightly too much it just doesn’t feel right. It’s a bit like playing Baroque music in some ways. Also, because of the repetitive nature, you have to be very precise about making shapes, lines and phrases.

The Carducci Quartet’s recordings of Glass’s String Quartets Nos 1-5 are on Naxos

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

Advertisement