Lifestyle

Phillip Glass

Phillip Glass

Whether it’s standing in a crowd watching your favourite band play at a festival or listening to a song that reminds you of the past, we’ve all been affected by the emotional powers of music. Of course, music isn’t always about feelings of euphoria or sadness; listening to music can also be a source of calming support when we’re feeling stressed, low or anxious. Below, we explore the American composer Philip Glass (b. 1937), whose minimalist compositions have long been associated with soothing and focusing the mind – all part of the philosophy at anatomē, we hope to introduce you to another way to lift your mood.

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It’s 1952, and fifteen-year old Philip Glass is travelling to Chicago on a sleeper train from Baltimore. While the night-time trip marked the beginning of Glass’s higher education, who was moving to the Mid-West to start courses at the University of Chicago, it was also a significant leap forward on his musical journey. Writing in his memoir, Words Without Music (2015), Glass remembers the way “the sounds on the track made endless patterns, and I was caught up in it all at once”.[1] Now considered one of the foremost composers of the late-twentieth century, Glass could not then have anticipated just how central the motifs of repetition and simple patterns would become to his musical vocabulary and aesthetic.

Throughout his life, Glass appears in the right place at the right time—after graduating from Chicago University in 1956, the budding composer began classes at Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts conservatory in New York. Living on Fulton Street in the late ’50s, Glass was part of a growing community of artists and musicians, including Yoko Ono and La Monte Young, who were co-habiting cheap-rented, unheated downtown lofts and using them as studios. This innovative cultural landscape, filled with happenings, Fluxus performance and action painting, paved the way for the radicalism to come, and after stints abroad in Paris and India, Glass returned to New York in 1967, picking up where he left off in the downtown music scene. It was now, armed with fresh knowledge of Indian music, its forms and its disciplines, that the composer played a leading role in a revolutionary cultural movement: Minimalism.

While Glass isn’t keen on using the label ‘minimal’ to describe his own music – preferring instead the phrase ‘music with repetitive structures’ – the term is nonetheless helpful in connecting Glass to his musical contemporaries, including Terry Riley and Steve Reich, as well as the art scene at the time. Aesthetically, minimalism reduced artwork to its most essential components – form, colour and line – offering an overall sense of order, harmony and simplicity. Artists such as Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Agnes Martin, amongst many others, relied on single or repeated geometric patterns, shapes and colours, and their works are essays in purified beauty and clarified space. But what did this mean for music, and how might this relate to the mind?

Written by Glass between 1971 and 1974, Music in Twelve Parts is a masterpiece of musical minimalism. Almost four hours in length, the work can be described as a series of hypnotic patterns of change, in which soft, varying textures of music develop slowly over time. This was a method of composing Glass had been developing since 1966, in which simple rhythms, melodies, or chords are repeated, with progressive elemental differences. As Glass writes, plain repetition is “exactly what I don’t do”.[2] Relating this common mistake to what he terms as the “psychology of listening”, Glass emphasises that minimalist music demands, and improves, concentration. “When you get to that level of attention,” he says, we “allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, [and] the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level”.[3] Calling his work “a sort of sonic weather”, Glass’s compositions are designed to create all-encompassing spaces of focus and calm reflection.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Glass has practiced yoga and meditation since his early twenties. A self-professed child of the Beat Generation, Glass has discussed the influence of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on his spiritual outlook, crediting them as the inspiration for seeking a yoga teacher in 1950s New York. In his yoga lessons, mantric repetition and meditative practices focused on bringing the mind to a point of clarity and steadiness—qualities that undoubtedly find echoes in his music. On the links between his composition work and his yoga teachings, Glass reflects: “I can’t even say which comes first…they nourish and support each other”.[4]

Over twenty years since Philip Glass caught the night-train from Baltimore to Chicago, he composed the piece of music that was to make him famous. Einstein on the Beach (1975) is a plotless opera in four acts, and it provides a musical portrait of the iconic scientist through pure form. In the second act, the music moves into a scene entitled ‘Night Train’, accompanied by shifting layers of vocals and an electric organ. Like the teenage Glass, who experienced a kind of sonic revelation travelling by night to a new city, the listener is washed in music that recalls the noises of a train-track, making endless patterns. To notice the sounds of subtle movement, change and progression demands awareness and concentration. Listening to Philip Glass draws you in to the present, and ultimately, it can be an act of meditation in itself. So, whether it is meditation or yoga that you use to unwind, explore Phillip’s back catalogue and be transported.  

[1] Philip Glass, Words Without Music (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), p. 22.

[2] Glass, Words Without Music, p. 220.

[3] Glass, Words Without Music, p. 221.

[4] Glass, Words Without Music, p. 197.