Music Philip Glass
Ryan Ebright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0249


Philip Glass (b. 1937) is one of the key American composers and performers associated with musical minimalism, alongside Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young. His output includes more than twenty-five operas, eleven symphonies, fourteen concertos, seven string quartets, and more than forty film scores, as well as music for solo instruments, choruses, chamber music, and incidental music. A Baltimore native, Glass trained at the Peabody Conservatory and Juilliard before embarking in 1964 on a transformative sojourn aboard. Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where he also was exposed to two key influences: classical Indian music and experimental theater. Both spurred his interest in repetition and rhythm as a structural device. In the late 1960s, Glass established himself in the downtown New York arts scene, developing his musical style in conjunction with an ensemble devoted to playing his music, the Philip Glass Ensemble. From 1968 to 1975, Glass’s music evolved from an austere focus on exploring additive rhythms and cycles in pieces such as 1+1 (1969) and Two Pages (1969) to expansive works that reincorporated more traditional music devices such as harmonic progressions (Music in Twelve Parts [1971–1974], Another Look at Harmony [1975–1977]). Glass achieved significant acclaim for his first collaboration with the avant-garde director Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1976). This set Glass on a career path defined in large part by compositions for opera, theater, dance, and film, as well as a willingness to pursue unusual collaborations. His follow-up operas, Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984), as well as his score for director Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and his CBS Records album Glassworks (1982), cemented Glass’s status as the rare composer who can appeal to nonclassical music audiences. Glass continued composing music for the stage in the late 1980s and 1990s (The Voyage and Cocteau Trilogy are prominent examples), even as he began writing for more conventional ensembles, such as the string quartet and symphony orchestra. He has achieved an international reputation, and many of his operas and symphonies have premiered abroad. Glass’s particular style of post-Einstein repetitive music, sometimes called post-minimalist or neo-Romantic, has substantially influenced film and television scoring. His career reflects not only developments in late-20th-century musical languages, but also transformations in classical music culture. In addition to being a prolific composer, Glass is a savvy businessman, strictly controlling the performance, publication, and recording of his music.

General Overviews and Biographies

Most overviews of Glass’s music and career have appeared as parts of larger studies of minimalism’s development, as seen through the works of the four canonical minimalists. As a result, many accounts of Glass’s music and career end in the mid-1970s (Strickland 1993, Potter 2000; see also Mertens 1983 and Suzuki 1991, both cited under Studies of Minimalism as Style and Aesthetic). Maycock 2002, Schwarz 1996, and Strickland 2001 are exceptions, offering some coverage of Glass’s output in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Maycock, Robert. Glass: A Portrait. London: Sanctuary, 2002.

    One of the few English-language books devoted solely to Glass, it is aimed at a general readership. Although lacking a critical framework or substantive musical analyses, this nonlinear biography does have the benefit of addressing Glass’s orchestral and film works, as well as operas composed after Akhnaten. The book relies heavily on the author’s conversations with Glass, to the extent that significant portions are simply interview transcriptions.

  • Potter, Keith. Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    The last section of the book contains one of the most important musicological studies of Glass’s compositional development up to Einstein on the Beach (pp. 251–341). It incorporates biographical background and some discussion of the influence of experimental theater, Indian classical music, and the downtown arts scene on Glass, but the most valuable aspects of this overview are detailed musical analyses of Glass’s early works.

  • Schwarz, K. Robert. Minimalists. London: Phaidon, 1996.

    Aimed at a general public, this book features two chapters on Glass. The first (pp. 107–28) surveys his development up through Music in Twelve Parts. Schwarz frames Glass’s music thereafter as “maximalist” (pp. 108–168), plotting a creative trajectory that peaks with Satyagraha and then diminishes as Glass embraces musical conventions and ensembles while writing for a broader public. Contains one of the few overviews of Glass’s music in the 1990s.

  • Strickland, Edward. Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    In this larger study of minimalism’s formation in painting and music, Glass and his music receive a relatively brief overview (pp. 203–219, 228–253), compared to the attention given to Young, Riley, and Reich. It does, however, convey useful information (locations, dates, ensemble members, repertoire) about early performances of Glass’s music and its critical reception.

  • Strickland, Edward. “Philip Glass.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    After short sections on Glass’s childhood and training and his subsequent role in emergent minimalism, this summary of Glass’s career through 2002 traces his trajectory through his work with the Philip Glass Ensemble, his first three dramatic works, and further collaborations. Rightly emphasizes the importance of collaborators in Glass’s output. Available online by subscription.

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