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No Glass ceiling for 76-year-old composer

Perhaps the most famous contemporary composer alive, Philip Glass is visiting Finland the first time for the Helsinki Festival. His music is often associated with minimalism – despite Glass’ objections to such pigeonholing. At 76, Glass continues to produce reams of new music in a wide variety of genres and mediums.

Säveltäjä Philip Glass.
Säveltäjä Philip Glass. Image: Yle
Donagh Coleman

For Glass, his radical earlier work in the late 60s and early 70s could still be called minimalist. Five decades and a massive catalogue of different types of compositions later, he prefers to say he writes music with ‘repetitive structures’.

Glass studied in the classical tradition. However, meeting Indian music through sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in 1960s Paris proved decisive to the formation of Glass’ unique style, where Eastern rhythms and structures mesh with Western art music.

Influences from the East – and beyond – have since deeply impacted Glass personally and in his music. Glass has been known to practice Tibetan Buddhism, and he is one of the founders of Tibet House in New York – along with Richard Gere and Columbia University Professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman.

Universal music?

In Sunday’s solo piano recital in Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church, Glass opened his set with “Mad Rush”, composed to welcome the current Dalai Lama on his first visit to the U.S. Performing himself, the virtuoso ended the set with “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, a text-music collaboration with the late poet Allen Ginsberg – also a student of Tibetan Buddhism – that peaked with references to eastern gurus and philosophy.

As with musical style, the New Yorker resents being pigeonholed into any particular cultural or religious tradition.

“I’m extremely interested in the spiritual traditions of a lot of countries: China, Tibet, Australia, Mexico,” Glass noted at a press conference in central Helsinki.

“I’ve done that with the Buddhists, and with the Hindus, and with the Taoists," continued Glass. "And even one big piece I did called Symphony No. 5, there are more than 30 texts, from all different countries. Some of the best ones are from the Bible, the Christian Bible… The subject of compassion – that text came from the Bible. So the question is not what am I practicing, but what have I left out! I try that. I’m interested in the range of human curiosity and experience.”

Drawing on traditions beyond a limited western canon, Glass has also called himself a “universalist” composer.

Finding a voice

At a new music festival in the Czech Republic, which Glass visited before Finland, he was asked for advice from young aspiring composers still looking to find their own musical voice. At the Helsinki press conference he shared his response:  

“I have one word. But the one word has to be understood. And that the word is a powerful word. And the word is ‘independence’. If you cultivate your independence that’s the best thing you can do. Because then you don’t depend on anybody. Then you never have anybody to blame, but in a funny way, you have no one to thank either.”

Glass is both revered and criticised for persisting with his musical vision, without much concern for surrounding morés. His work is often instantly recognisable as Philip Glass – although it contains much variety and development to a discerning ear.

“Look, when you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, you see the same guy, right? What do you think is going to happen? For God’s sake! Now over ten years or fifteen years you may change your beard … And that happens in music too,” an impassioned Glass asserted. “But if you look, I would say there are ten-year periods, you can hear distinct things. But if you look moment to moment to moment, from year to year to year to year, it’s hard to see the differences. It’s hard to see yourself growing old.”

A productive collaborator

It’s hard for anyone to see Glass growing old, though, with his continuing voluminous output and busy performance schedule around the world. He works in a wide range of genres, including symphonies, chamber music, operas, theatre, dance, and film.

He is fond of collaboration, which he says, comes down to one thing: “Trust.”

This he seems to enjoy with many of the most influential directors and artists of our age. Collaborators include legendary theatre director Robert Wilson – with whom Glass produced his groundbreaking, and still probably most critically acclaimed work, the opera “Einstein on the Beach” in the mid-70s – Ginsberg, documentary auteur Errol Morris, and film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Peter Weir.

Glass is also a rare composer in having managed to bridge the worlds of classical and popular music, breaking down the distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture”. He’s made music with artists usually slotted into the latter category, including David Bowie, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon and British electronic music maverick Aphex Twin.  

However, it’s his film music that has reached the widest public. Beginning with the iconic art documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) made in collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio, Glass has composed close to 40 film scores.  

Glass plays to sold-out Helsinki venues

In the wow event of the Helsinki Festival, “Koyaanisqatsi” will be screened at the Helsinki Music Centre on Tuesday to live music performed by Glass and his ensemble, the the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the EMO chamber choir.

Glass’ visit to Finland ends with Wednesday’s retrospective concert, where the composer brings the Philip Glass ensemble to the Savoy Theatre for a selection of pieces from different genres and periods in the composer’s work. 

You can view a video version of this report via this link.

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