Philip Glass


March 1996

I'm very fond of most of the music composed by Philip Glass. I would want to be, with about 55 of his releases in my collection. My favourites are Powaqqatsi, Akhnaten, Music In Twelve Parts, Dancepieces and Songs From Liquid Days.

Glass used to be part of the minimalist school, where the music is repetitive and pattern-oriented. Others who created music in the same mode were Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. If you want to get a good feel for what the music is like, try Glass' Music In Twelve Parts. Even though I like this music very much, I have found that this piece, when played long and loud, is sufficient to encourage guests, who have overstayed their welcome, to move on. Another piece of music in a more "classical" style, that can also be called minimalist, is Maurice Ravel's Bolero.

Glass soon left that style behind and experimented with many different forms. He is still called a minimalist for the same reason that all serious music is called "classical" - it's an easy tag to apply when you don't care enough to differentiate.

His sound is basically repetitive and simplistic. But he manages to combine his bits and pieces with enough variation to be entertaining. I discovered Glassworks in 1986, found Einstein on The Beach in 1988, and over the next few years I managed to find almost all his music. I've had ups and downs with my thoughts about his music, but the biggest test of my pleasure came with the 1996 concert in Sydney where Glass performed on solo piano and horrified me.

Live At The Opera House - 12th January 1996

March 1996

I went and saw Philip Glass perform live at the Sydney Opera House in January 1996. Solo Piano. That was when I discovered that it is far better to listen to Glass' Solo Piano than to watch it. Watching it was terribly demoralising.

The performance was part of the Sydney Festival and I suspect that a lot of people had come along because it was part of the Festival and not because they knew his music and knew what to expect. During the first half, we listened to Opening, Witchita Vortex Sutra and Five Metamorphoses. The couple beside me kept fidgeting all through the performances and seemed disturbed. They were looking at the young section of the audience cheering wildly as interval started, and I overheard comments about "ill-educated audiences lacking in basic musical taste", and other very derogatory comments.

During interval, a young American couple approached me because I was holding a programme. I was asked if the second half was going to be like the first half. I explained what was coming and said that basically Yes, it would be the same. They said Oh, and thanked me. I asked if that was good or bad, and they said Bad, and they left. When we went back for the second half of the show, the couple beside me were not there, and neither were about a third of the audience. There were big gaps everywhere and it was very, very noticeable.

In the second half, we heard The Fourth Knee Play and Six Etudes, which included the world premiere of Etude #6, specially commissioned by the Sydney Festival, and an excerpt from Satyagraha. At the end of that, there was wild cheering and clapping from the seats containing very young people dressed very casually, and very little applause from the rest of the audience. Then came several encores.

There was one thing that grated throughout the concert. Glass kept his hands almost exclusively in the middle of the keyboard. There was very little range on the keyboard. But regularly, his right hand would cross over to the far left and press and hold down one key for a deep dungggg sound effect. The first time this happened, most of the audience just blinked and didn't take much notice of it. Then it became very, very annoying. When he did it, I would grit my teeth, and the audience would give a low grunt of annoyance. As I left the hall, I heard almost everyone commenting on this irritating habit. I heard at least six blue-rinse ladies say that if he did it one more time, they were going to scream. It was supremely irritating and it made most people concentrate on his hands, and that certainly detracted from the music.

I left the concert in despair. All I could think of as I left the hall was wondering if Glass knew he was a fraud or if was just deluding himself as well as us. It was a bad moment and I was terribly disillusioned. I kept thinking about Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, and her claim that somewhere along the track a group of American art critics had deliberately set out to destroy the good in art, and promote the mediocre, and that the end result of that campaign was Philip Glass and Solo Piano.

Replaying Solo Piano at the Opera House


March 1996

During the next week, I didn't listen to much music. And then the ABC replayed their recording of that concert. And this time, I enjoyed it a lot. It sounded great. Because I didn't have to watch the silly performance (especially that annoying right hand crossing over to far left to give that silly dunggggg), I could concentrate on how it sounded, and it sounded good. Even that irritating deep note had its place and you could hear how it fitted, how it was necessary for the music. But it looked so completely stupid and irritating yet it needed to be there. That was when I realised that Solo Piano needed to be heard and shouldn't be watched. If you watch it, you want to strangle Philip Glass. If you listen to it, you can enjoy and appreciate the music.

Then I started to think about the music and the different ways I appreciated it. I break Glass' music into four distinct areas, each characterised by how I listen to it.

  • Music to be listened to These are the pieces that I like up-front like Powaqqatsi, Songs From Liquid Days, and the three "operas". I can listen to them and concentrate on the music and enjoy them as is. The music is the prime purpose.
  • Music for the background These are the repetitive, minimalist works like Glassworks and Music In Twelve Parts that I use to help my programming. I play them through earphones, and they filter out the rest of the world, and set up a rhythmic trance state so I can concentrate very hard and get a lot of work done.
  • Music as accompaniment These are the dance pieces like In The Upper Room, that by themselves aren't very exciting, but when you watch the actual dance with the music, you get the full appreciation of the music.
  • Music for the elevator These are the soundtracks and miscellaneous pieces that are listenable if you are doing other things, but sound pretty silly if you concentrate on them.

But that's just my opinion. Most people I know can't stand his music or find it very boring. I've observed people who think the sun shines out of his arse and every piece is perfect and wonderful. I'm in-between. I like most of his music, in various ways, and some of it I'm not impressed by. Each to his own.

Philip Glass Lists


I've made a few lists of the CDs and LPs that I have, and that I want. The list isn't extensive, but it helps me manage my collection.

Other Links


Try these other links for more/better information about Philip Glass and his music.