Philip Glass came of age as a musician at the same time the percussion ensemble was first emerging in the concert hall. The decade before he was born in 1937 saw the first Western concert works composed for an ensemble of just percussion instruments, such as Varese’s Ionisation (completed in 1931) and Roldán’s Ritmicas (1930). Seminal percussion works by John Cage (like his 3 Constructions and Imaginary Landscapes) and Lou Harrison (Song of Quetzalcoatl, Counterdance in the Spring), which are the oldest works in our quartet’s repertoire, were composed when Glass was a young boy, and at the time, there were no “percussion ensembles” to perform this music. Cage assembled his own ragtag band of composers, dancers, and bookbinders to learn these works and try out this new way of thinking about music. At this point in time, percussionists in the orchestra were just beginning to branch out beyond the old staples of military drums, cymbals, tambourines, triangles, and wood blocks.
A young Philip Glass had his first experiences with these instruments as a student in the Preparatory Division of the Peabody Conservatory in his hometown of Baltimore. His primary instrument was the flute, but he also took advantage of an opportunity to participate in a percussion class. The memory of a room full of timpani, wood blocks, cymbals, and drums still stood out to him when he composed his first percussion ensemble work seven decades later.
As young Philip grew into a composer, his voice was shaped by his instruments—piano and flute—more than percussion. Glass and Steve Reich were at the forefront of the new musical movement dubbed “Minimalism.” Interestingly, both Glass and Reich reject this label in favor of terms that they feel more aptly describe each of their individual musical intentions; Glass talks about “Music with Repetitive Structures” while Reich talks about “Process Music.”
The two were contemporaries and collaborators, but each eventually formed his own ensemble to perform his music as they both found their own artistic path. Reich was a percussionist, whose studies of West African music and long-standing relationship with percussionists such as Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger, and Gary Kvistad (from NEXUS, one of the first professional percussion groups in North America) eventually gave rise to a long list of works for percussion ensemble and percussion-driven works. Glass, in the meantime, created his signature sound in textures driven by keyboards, winds, and the human voice.
Glass formed his own ensemble to perform his works. The Philip Glass Ensemble was the “orchestra” for Glass’s first opera “Einstein on the Beach,” made up of three wind players, two organs, and a solo violinist. These instruments defined the fundamental sound of this ensemble even as the instrumentation grew and evolved in future projects.
Percussion has sometimes been a part of this ensemble as well, and percussion instruments have played a part in many of Glass’s works for other ensembles. Many of his operas and symphonies have substantial percussion parts, generally scored for the more traditional percussion instruments of his youth—timpani, snare drum, wood blocks, etc.—and in 2000 he wrote a “Concerto Fantasy” for two solo timpanists with symphony orchestra. But as he approached 80 years old, Glass had still never composed a work for percussion ensemble, even as the genre had come into its own.
PHILIP, PERCUSSION + PERPETULUM (PART 2)
By the time the four of us in Third Coast Percussion were studying music in college, the percussion ensemble was a part of nearly every percussionist’s education. While the music written by John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Steve Reich remained an important part of the repertoire, decades of commissioning by professional and collegiate ensembles had given risen to new works by Iannis Xenakis, Gerard Grisey, Toru Takemitsu, Christopher Rouse, Michael Colgrass, and numerous others, including many percussionists writing for their own friends and colleagues.