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Classical 101

Glassfest in England with Philip Glass

Like the Energizer bunny, composer Philip Glass won't quit and good for him.  At 77, he has been touring England and performing his own music. For a man who didn't really begin to make a living with his music until he was 41, he's doing alright.  A recent article in the Indepenent highlights just how busy he is and how he keeps going. With the insightful things he has to say about today's music scene and the problems composers now have getting their work out to the public, Glass seems more relevant than ever see the article above.  Continually evolving technology, shifting genres of music, finding new audiences, these are ongoing concerns, along with a music business that is also rapidly changing. Glass is certainly the most famous living composer, with an instantly recognizable sound of swirling arpeggios, insistently repetitive  rhythms, sudden harmonic modulations, woven together into a Baroque richness and complexity built out of simpler elements.  I think he is our postmodern J.S. Bach. Like Bach, Glass seems to have a very workaday approach to his musical life. Keeping up with the sheer volume of music still coming out requires a very self-disciplined lifestyle, which seems to suit him fine. One of the most prolific composers of our time, he is constantly writing new pieces for commissions of various sorts and performs his own music all the time. These days, finding gigs is not that difficult, but it wasn't always so. Glass had traveled to Paris in 1964 where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, concentrating on counterpoint for several years of intense training with the famed pedagogue. Also while there, he contributed music to a theater production of a play by Samuel Beckett, and met and worked with Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Glass's own music began to take a decidedly new direction after encountering the diverse aesthetic worlds represented by these two influential creative artists. Beckett's "absurdist" plays invite the audience to bring the "meaning" to the work in a creative interaction with the words and actions onstage. It invites existential speculation, rather than giving you an answer. The usual notions of a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end are often challenged. Glass associated this with the kind of strategy used by John Cage to challenge conventions in music. Indian classical music is a big subject in itself, but there is often a different notion of time and scale involved. Melodies built on particular traditional scales and complex rhythm patterns evoking a particular mood (in the case of ragas) are emphasized over harmony in music that is often partly improvisation, yet following very specific rules. When Shankar performed ragas on the sitar for Western audiences, he often shortened some performances to keep them under an hour in length. Back in New York, Glass had to form his own ensemble to play the music he was now writing and that would come to be called "minimalism."  Initially, some critics hated what he was doing, but other people loved it and became fans. Years later, he was still driving a taxi cab in New York after his first opera, Einstein on the Beach had been staged at the Met. Echoing struggling musicians and composers then and now, he had to be sure where his next paycheck was coming from. It was only after the success of his second opera Satyagraha in 1980, based on the early life of Gandhi, that he stopped renewing his cab license. The rest is, as they say, history. Glass is now a household name, his music, which can no longer be called minimalism, has as distinctive a sound as Aaron Copland's  It is as much an expression of the times in which it was written as Copland's was in his time, when you think about it. May he keep marching along.