In 1952, Philip Glass left his childhood home in Baltimore for the University of Chicago. A precocious 15-year-old, Glass had passed the entrance exam for the university earlier that year. Late aboard the overnight train to Chicago, he found himself listening in the unlit cabin to the sounds of the night train. “The wheels on the track made endless patterns, and I was caught up in it almost at once,” he recalled in his 2015 memoir. He was still years away from his formal training at Juilliard, and years further from his formative study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, or with the great tabla player Alla Rakha that would give him the means to articulate such an experience.
Nearly two decades would pass before the formation of his ensemble in New York that would help solidify his reputation and define his compositional voice. But, as a teenager that night on the train, listening to its endless rhythmic cycle of twos and threes made him realize, “…the world of music—its language, beauty, and mystery—was already urging itself on me. Some shift had already begun. Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The ‘out there’ stuff was the metaphor, and the real world was, and is to this day, the music.”
The breadth of Glass’s creative work is astounding; he has written for the concert hall, the stage, and the screen, acoustic instruments, and synthesizers, he has collaborated with actors, dancers, directors, and scientists, classical, rock, North Indian musicians, and folksingers. Who else but Philip Glass could include among his vast milieu of collaborators such household names as Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, and Martin Scorsese?
Yet despite the remarkable variety of his artistic collaborations and pursuits, Glass possesses a distinct compositional voice, instantly recognizable across several decades and media. Perhaps this owes something to the community of visual and performance artists to whom Glass has always been close-knit—artists whose work often revolved around the evolution of a singular, distinctive contribution to their respective media. With Glass, even a casual listener can identify his music after only a few moments of listening. But his music also rewards returning listeners, who will find plenty of surprises and new inventions with each new piece.
The kernels of Philip Glass’s musical language trace back to his earliest compositions, but mainly in the late 1960s and early ‘70s does his mature compositional voice become most recognizable. While musicologists and listeners often bandy about the term “minimalism” to characterize Glass’s music, the composer prefers a more accurate description, “music with repetitive structures.” “Minimalism” might belie the complex surface of this music and the intricacy with which these repetitive structures elide and interact. But even “repetitive” can be misleading. Take for example this excerpt from the beginning of Glass’s 1969 violin solo, Strung Out:
Example 1. Strung Out (1969), opening
The initial five-note grouping consists of two parts, a rising third from E to G, and a descending three-note scale from E to C. These two small gestures are the seeds for the entire thirteen-minute piece. In the second grouping, the third repeats, and the descending scale truncates after two notes. In the third grouping, an extra note appears in the first motive—a C, turning the third into a broken first-inversion triad, after which follows a scalar passage as before, now elongated by one note that turns the scale back upward. The fourth grouping replicates the tail of the previous group but leaves out the initial third. The fifth grouping is a three-note broken triad and a two-note scale. This sixth grouping actually does repeat the opening, but a listener will hardly notice, likely by now too disoriented to detect the repetition. The music seems to spiral outward, turning back on itself, while never returning to where it started.
The excerpt above is now 50 years old, but more recent pieces demonstrate similar phenomena. Especially in denser textures, Glass often creates situations where overlapping groups of twos and threes can rearrange themselves, speeding up and slowing down interdependently with one another. Here is a passage from the opening of a much more recent piece, his sixth string quartet, written for the Kronos Quartet in 2013.
Example 2. String Quartet 6 (2013), measures 1-5
Several rhythmic patterns overlap in this excerpt. Initially, the second violin neatly divides each measure into four even quarter notes. The viola and cello divide each measure into three uneven parts, subdividing eight eighth-notes into units of 3, 3, and 2. The first violin divides each measure into three regular groups of two (not groups of three as the triplet bracket might lead one to believe). Because of the syncopated subdivision of the lower strings, the downbeat is the only point in each measure in which everyone plays together.
Just as a listener might be able to untangle this web of patterns, in the fourth measure, several things change. The first violin shifts its pattern to two groups of three, while the lower strings lock together in regular quarter notes. This precipitates another change in the fifth measure, where the members of the ensemble switch roles. As the violins take on the syncopated rhythm that belonged to the lower strings in the first bar, the viola takes on the triplet rhythm from the first violin. At the same time, the cello adds yet another rhythmic layer: four groups of two, which cuts across the viola’s three groups of two within the same space of one measure.
Clearly, when Philip Glass describes his music as built from “repetitive structures,” this is quite different from “music that repeats.” Repetition, in the sense that Glass employs it, is a process of constant repositioning and rearrangement. An extreme economy of material creates a web of associations and motivic connections, suggesting what John Cage would call, “music that moves in all directions.” The resultant music unmoors our sense of time—it moves slowly and quickly, backward and forward, all at once.
But our sense of musical time is not limited to the domain of rhythm. Glass’s harmonic language works symbiotically with the rhythmic elements described above to evoke the unique affect of his music. In pieces like Strung Out, the harmonic and melodic materials are essentially modal. A handful of pitches (often diatonic) constitute the entire piece, and harmonic movement results from the repositioning of motivic elements that center around certain pitches.
This is different, though, from the latter example. Since the mid-1970s, Glass has developed an extremely distinctive approach to harmony, a language built from the most vernacular vocabulary: major and minor triads and seventh chords. Such sonorities are surely familiar to most audiences, even if in many avant-garde circles in the 1960s and ‘70s, such a harmonic language was more radical than the most jarring dissonances. But the way in which Glass arranges these familiar sounds is highly distinctive, perhaps one of the most recognizable facets of Glass’s music.
Though something as complex as “harmonic language” is difficult to investigate in this short space, this small fragment of Glass’s massive opera Einstein on the Beach illustrates something essential about his sense of harmony.
Example 3a. Knee Play 2, line 3, from Einstein on the Beach (1976)
Each measure in the above example spells a triad or familiar tertian harmony, in order: F minor, D-flat major, A major, B dominant 7, and E major. Here is the same excerpt rewritten to show each measure as a vertical chord, with arrows showing the voice-leading between each harmony:
Example 3b. Harmonic diagram: Knee Play 2, line 3, from Einstein on the Beach
If these harmonies sound familiar on their own, their arrangement is particularly alien to other musical traditions that employ such chords. Each harmonic shift retains something of the previous chord. Between the first and second chords, the internal F and A-flat remain fixed while the outer Cs move upward to D-flat. In the next harmonic shift, the D-flats remain fixed (as C-sharps), while the inner voices expand by half-steps in contrary motion. The voice-leading is smooth (that is, chord voices move by small steps) but intriguingly directionless. It is something like a series of common-tone modulations, except that there is no modulation—no definitive point of arrival.
But it does not suffice to talk about pitch alone when considering this harmonic language. Harmony operates co-dependently with time-structuring elements such that it is impossible to untangle our perception of pitch from rhythm. The progression above is five measures long, and then it repeats. This unusual phrase length augments the ambiguity of the harmonic progression; listeners might not detect a repetition at all, but instead find themselves adrift amid familiar yet constantly shifting arpeggios.
I have written a lot in this essay about disorientation. Someone unfamiliar with Philip Glass’s music (if such a person exists!) might read my description and conclude that this music is convoluted or inaccessible. But quite the opposite is true. The music invites us to lose ourselves in it. As Steve Reich once described his own process-based compositions, the music “opens [our] ears to it, but it always extends farther than [we] can hear.” For a curious listener, there is something empowering about this invitation, similar to what musicologist Jonathan Kramer called “vertical time,” likening music to sculpture: “…we determine for ourselves the pacing of our experience: we are free to walk around the piece, view it from many angles, concentrate on some details, see other details in relationship to each other … No one could claim we have seen less than all of the sculpture (though we may have missed some of its subtleties), despite individual selectivity in the viewing process.” Or perhaps it is more like the experience of a young Philip Glass on the overnight train to Chicago, listening to a mechanical and beautiful music that wavers so enticingly just beyond the cusp of comprehensibility.