Philip Glass

Philip Glass

(born Baltimore 31 January 1937)

The American composer Philip Glass is considered by some to be one of the most influential contemporary composers.

Associated with minimalism (in music, the use of short ideas which gradually change, resulting in an exceptionally hypnotic, layered effect), Glass himself prefers to describe his work as ‘music with repetitive structures’. Over the course of his 50-year career, he has evolved such repetitive structures to produce a style that is instantly recognisable as a piece of Philip Glass music.

Glass's Musical Style

While Glass’s very earliest works are simple, even naïve, in form, melody and harmony, his mature works develop his fascination with the extended repetition of tiny, melodic fragments interwoven to form an aural tapestry, often of some complexity.

At first Glass limited his material to only a few elements, but as he began to understand how to manipulate them, he developed the technique into something highly sophisticated and sonorously rich. To appreciate Glass’s music, listeners must not expect conventional Western musical events but rather yield themselves to sounds that twist and turn gradually.

Glass’s approach to word setting and language has also been unconventional: for example, the use of Sanskrit in Satyagraha; as well as the texts sung in their original languages in Akhnaten; or, in Einstein on the Beach, setting single words over such long paragraphs of music that the literal meaning is hard to discern.

His music has influenced contemporary popular music, and as such has created a mass following bringing new audiences to contemporary opera.

Glass's Life

Glass studied at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, where among his fellow students was Steve Reich, the founding figure of the minimalist movement in music. Shortly after, he won a BMI award for young composers – a small glimpse of the incredible musical career that was to follow.

Studies with Milhaud and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris eventually led him to jettison the prevailing serial compositional style of his contemporaries, which he considered to be music of the past masquerading as music of the present.

A growing fascination with Indian classical music led to visits to India and contact with the pre-eminent sitar player Ravi Shankar.

While he was making his way as a composer in the 1960s and 1970s, Glass supported himself by working as a plumber and driving taxis. His epic first opera, Einstein on the Beach, launched his international fame, and he has gone on to write (up to 2016) 24 operas, as well as 10 symphonies, 11 concertos, much chamber and choral music, and 3 Academy Award-winning film scores.

Glass’s influence and musical stylings are still prevalent in society today, with The Philip Glass Ensemble, founded by Glass in 1968, still performing.

To find out more about the life and work of Philip Glass, read our Beginner’s Guide to Philip Glass.

Glass's Music: Where to Start

Notable Operas

  • Einstein on the Beach (1976)
  • The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1988)
  • The Perfect American (2011)
  • The Trial (2014)