Philip Glass Music and Where to Start
Phillip Glass is one of the most prolific composers of our time. From mesmerizing operas, to famous movie soundtracks and minimalist compositions, his music transcends all genres and audiences. We’ve rounded up some of the best Philip Glass music for you to enjoy.
Glassworks is a famous example of chamber music – classical music made up of a small number of performers and instruments. It consists of six movements : ‘Opening’, ‘Floe’, ‘Island’, ‘Rubric’, ‘Façades’ and ‘Closing’. These movements could almost be considered like singles on an album. Glass wanted to create a more mainstream, small-scale piece of work that could be suitably played on a cassette tape, making Glassworks one of the more accessible pieces of Philip Glass music for those new to his work.
Glassworks ‘Opening’ is the most well known movement from this piece of chamber music. It is the perfect example of Glass’ minimalist style as the simplicity of the piano music is what makes the piece so special. One other instrument is only introduced at the very end of the composition, when the horn is brought in to lead into the next symphony, ‘Floe’.
Evening Song, Satyagraha
The ‘Evening Song’ is an example of the beautiful music from Satyagraha. Unlike other operas that are often made up of distinguishable, plot driven arias, Satyagraha’s music is ‘through-composed’, which means that the work consists of an uninterrupted stream of music from start to end – an operatic style also championed in famous operas such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Satyagraha meaning ‘truth force’ takes its name from the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita, which is the basis of Philip Glass’ opera. To keep true to the religious text the whole opera is sung in Sanskrit – making it one of the few operas not performed in English by ENO. Audiences can expect transcendent vocals made up of vowel sounds rather than lyrics in this unique composition.
Hymn to the Sun, Akhnaten
Hymn to the Sun is one of the most famous arias from Philip Glass’s epic opera Akhnaten. It is a very poignant moment within the opera where Akhnaten sings a prayer to his God, which lends the aria its other name, ‘Hymn to Aten’ – the sun God from Ancient Egypt.
This is the moment when Ancient Egypt becomes monolithic – worshiping one God. Previously, Egyptians would worship multiple Gods, before Akhnaten decided that Aten was the one true God. Within the aria he praises Aten (the sun) for giving life to everything, declaring his adoration for its power.
The hymn itself is inspired by an ancient text and based on Akhenaten – a young pharaoh credited with moving Egypt away from polytheism to Atenism (the worshipping of Aten). This introduction to monotheism is set to have paved the way for many of today’s religions such as Christanity and Judaism.
The Truman Show
Glass is a renowned composer of film soundtracks, working on the likes of Candyman, Dracula and one of his most famous scores, The Truman Show.
The Truman Show is about a man (Jim Carrey) whose whole life is streamed on a TV show also titled The Truman Show. Therefore, the audience is put in a unique position where every time we are watching Truman, we are watching the same show that the characters are watching. Nothing demonstrates this better than Glass’s music…
‘Truman Sleeps’ is one of the most popular pieces of music from the film. As Truman closes his eyes, Glass’s beautiful music plays as the camera pans to the audience watching him sleep on TV. It’s not until the camera pans to the studio that we see Glass himself playing the piano. It’s only then we realise the instrumental music we are hearing is actually the score to the fake television show, rather than the movie.
This meta, complex use of a movie score makes The Truman Show one of the most popular uses of orchestral music in film to date.
David Bowie Symphonies
Glass loves a trilogy. First the portrait trilogy (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten) and then the David Bowie trilogy – a series of symphonies based on three Bowie albums known as the Berlin Trilogy. Glass combined instrumental pieces from these albums with his own compositions which resulted in a unique collaboration between pop and orchestral music…
Symphony No.1 (1992) was the first of Philip Glass’ David Bowie symphonies. Based on Bowie’s 1977 album Low, it featured a full orchestra, yet remained true to Glass’s minimalist and postmodernist style. Next was Symphony No.4 (1996) based on one of Bowie’s most famous albums, Heroes. This symphony was made up of six movements, each cleverly derived from a theme from the album.
Over a decade later the third and final installment of the Bowie trilogy was released – Symphony No. 12 (2018). Based on Bowie’s album Lodger, it was a bigger and bolder piece of work with a much larger orchestra. Unlike the previous symphonies which were based on instrumental music, Symphony No. 12 took inspiration from the lyrics, with the seven movements playing homage to the controversial lyrics from Bowie’s original album.
From world renowned operas, to famous movie scores and ground breaking symphonies, there isn’t much this decorated American composer can’t do. Find out more about his incredible career in our Beginner’s Guide to Philip Glass.