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Philip Glass is too busy to care about legacy
A performance of "Einstein on the Beach," Philip Glass' collaboration with the director and designer Robert Wilson, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Sept. 12, 2012. Glass' classic trilogy of the 1970s and ’80s has finally been surveyed at the Metropolitan Opera, his country’s pre-eminent opera house. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe

PALO ALTO (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A Joan Mitchell painting looms at the top of the grand staircase at the Anderson Collection, Stanford University’s modern art museum here. It’s a sweaty, emotive work, bright colors moodily smeared across a huge canvas.

On a recent Monday evening, Philip Glass sat at a piano placed between the painting and a few dozen potential donors to the Days and Nights Festival, his annual works-in-progress showcase south of Palo Alto. Glass, the master of musical minimalism, is known for the precision of his endlessly undulating arpeggios. When he plays his own pieces, though, they tend to blur and smear, like Mitchell’s brush strokes. Rhythms that in other hands are almost clinical in their regularity begin to smudge, the music newly volatile and feeling.

“This is called ‘Opening,’ ” he told the audience, by way of introducing a piece from his 1981 collection “Glassworks.”

“It’s sometimes called ‘Closing,’ if we do it at the end,” he added, a little sheepishly — to laughter that was perhaps inspired by Glass’ notorious willingness to repurpose his music.

There is another Glass opening upon us that is also a closing — of a circle in this composer’s 50-year career. His classic trilogy of the 1970s and ’80s has finally been surveyed at the Metropolitan Opera, his country’s preeminent opera house. “Einstein on the Beach,” Glass’ epochal epic, came to the Met in 1976, though it was a rental, and not produced by the company. A deliriously received Met production of “Satyagraha” opened in 2008, and his “Akhnaten” runs there through Dec. 7.

“I feel surprise,” he said a few weeks after the museum event, when asked whether he felt pride or even vindication at the belated milestone. “Really, truly surprise. I have a whole string of operas after that, some more successful, some less. I’ve certainly written a lot of them. I haven’t looked back that much. I’ve just kept going.”

At 82, Glass does remarkably little dwelling on the past. In fact, he is in the process of curtailing his busy touring schedule, so that he can focus on what is already a prodigious rate of composition — a level of productivity that has made him, depending on whom you ask, either the wonder or the punch line of modern music.

But the short-term result of announcing that you’re no longer concertizing is that everyone wants to book you — so Glass is, for the moment, traveling nearly as much as ever.

“I think people are saying, ‘Oh, 82: Better get that in,’” said Richard Guérin, who as director of Glass’ record label, Orange Mountain Music, helps oversee the dissemination — and therefore the future — of the torrent of Glassism.

“It’s like a rocket, a creative rocket hurling out of control,” he said. “It’s this never-ending cyclone of creativity. We’re not trying to shape it; we’re trying to wrangle it.”

At Lincoln Center, the symbol of the musical establishment by which Glass was long snubbed, he is well represented this fall: In addition to the “Akhnaten” production, his new “King Lear Overture” opened the season at the New York Philharmonic, which had not played a note of his music on a subscription program until 2017. (He contributed a string quartet score for the Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” earlier this year.)

But when it comes to talk of his legacy, and whether these prominent performances mean anything in terms of his acceptance into the canon, however that is defined, he demurs.

“I’m pragmatic,” Glass said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years. We don’t even get to know what’s going to happen after someone dies. We need to wait until everyone who knew them is dead, too.”

If that’s true, it won’t be until nearly 2100 when a full measure of Glass’ footprint will be possible. But some weighing can start now. The most instantly recognizable voice in contemporary music, he opened a new chapter in operatic history, pushing the bounds of duration and abstraction. At a time when the most lauded composers disdained overproduction, Glass wrote unashamedly for everyone and everything — and all stubbornly in the distinctive style he created, establishing a model for serious artists moving from the opera house to the concert hall to the film studio, garnering both Met commissions and Academy Award nominations.

But if the question is whether, a century from now, his operas will get new productions, his symphonies will circulate more frequently, or pianists will take on his études, Glass couldn’t care less.

“I won’t be around for all that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Glass was born, almost literally, into music: His father owned a record store in Baltimore, where the composer-to-be absorbed Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky — and, perhaps, an intrinsic connection between art and commerce. Over a few years in Paris, Nadia Boulanger was his composition teacher as he was exposed to the jittery-fly modernism of Boulez and Stockhausen. He didn’t hate them, but he didn’t want to compose like them, either.

His travels to India in the late 1960s were formative, leading him toward experimentation with vast fields of time built from small, slowly transforming cells of material, and when he returned, he was entranced by the repetitive, deceptively simple works of Steve Reich, a few months his elder. Played by the newly formed, loudly amplified Philip Glass Ensemble, works like “Music in Similar Motion” (1969), “Music With Changing Parts” (1970) and “Music in Twelve Parts” (1971-74) were neon-bright expanses of both flooding repetition and glacial change.

Those pieces culminated in “Einstein on the Beach,” a dreamlike meditation on scientific discovery, human relations and nuclear apocalypse that progressed in enigmatic episodes, austerely designed and directed by Robert Wilson and with swirling choreography by Lucinda Childs, the dancers representing atomic particles in ceaseless motion.

“When ‘Einstein’ opened,” Glass said, “we had never performed it straight through without stopping. We didn’t know how long it was. It turned out to be 5 1/2 hours.”

Glass became a maestro of excruciatingly delayed gratification. “I have no idea what Philip was thinking when he wrote ‘Satyagraha,’” Guérin said of that 1980 opera, a highly stylized but (compared with “Einstein”) more traditionally plotted story about Gandhi’s early ventures into nonviolent protest in South Africa. “The third act is 45 minutes long, and has just two harmonies. But when it explodes into pure Phrygian scale in the final aria, it’s, like, oh, this totally makes sense.”

When it came to “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten” (1983), Glass said, “many people were waiting for the son of ‘Einstein.’ They liked that experience of that throbbing, relentless ensemble playing that we did. Of course I wasn’t going to do that. Why would I do that? I had just done it. So I did something completely different, and it was much too lyrical for some people.”

The bronzed character of the “Akhnaten” score emerged through necessity. The company in Stuttgart, Germany, that commissioned the work was renovating its theater, so the performances took place in a space with a much smaller pit.

“So I said,” Glass recalled, “and it was a crazy thing to say, ‘Get rid of the first and second violins.’ And then we were fine. It wasn’t a masterpiece of orchestration. I just didn’t have any room.”

With the violas now taking the place of the violins, the sound shifted down an octave, its burnished sheen given body with brasses and punctuated by sometimes raucous percussion. As for the title character, the Egyptian pharaoh who is said to have pioneered monotheism — and to have had all traces of him erased for that blasphemy — Glass put him onstage from almost the beginning, but tantalizingly delayed his first musical entrance.

“How do I introduce him to the audience so that the first time they hear him, they understand he is a completely radical, unforgivable event in the Egyptians’ history, and they have to destroy him?” Glass recalled asking himself. “I’ll make him a countertenor, to sound not unnatural, but radical. Radical can be natural. He just was who he was.”

Glass, too, stayed what he was, though his style grew lusher, toggling between brooding melancholy and triumphal achievement for an overall impression of persevered-through struggle. His energetic rhythms made him a favorite of dance troupes; his scores for films like “The Truman Show” (1998), “The Hours” (2002) and “Notes on a Scandal” (2006) made him omnipresent.

“The world had caught up with his music,” Guérin said. “The Philip Glass sound became digestible to mass audiences. If you had told the people in New York that the composer of ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ would be able to maintain his musical language and score major Hollywood pictures, they wouldn’t have believed you. But he got to be himself.”

He — and a host of imitators — spawned a thousand TV advertisements. (Guérin said that Glass refuses to spend more than two hours on such projects.)

“I’ve done football commercials; I’ve done everything,” Glass said. “Commercial and noncommercial: My attitude has been that they’re both the same. Why is it better to get a check every week from a university than to get royalties? Of course I’m a sellout. What else would I be?”

His eventual reputation may well, in the end, be founded on his early works for his ensemble — their intensity an unlikely, still-bracing mixture of gaudy and spartan, bare yet glowing — and the early operas.

Nearly 30 operas followed the initial trilogy, depending on how you count. It’s a horde, naturally with ups and downs; the highlights — like the somber “Kepler” (2009) and the sardonic “The Perfect American” (2013), a vivisection of the Walt Disney legend — balance soggier efforts like “Appomattox” (2007). This year’s Days and Nights Festival, last month, brought the premiere of a darkly comic, slyly poignant short opera — for just three singers, keyboard and harp — to the text of an absurdist play by María Irene Fornés.

Glass’ solo piano music shows perhaps the most staying power, popping up on recitals and recordings. His first piano sonata, written for Maki Namekawa, premiered in July. “We have talked about it being in the tradition of Joseph Haydn’s monumental E-flat Major sonata,” Namekawa wrote in an email, “written late in his life, after he had abandoned the symphony.”

But Glass has hardly abandoned the symphony — with 12 and counting, starting in the early 1990s, including three based on David Bowie albums. Orchestras have been the most recalcitrant in embracing his music: Major ensembles have depressingly little room for living composers in general, and beyond conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who commissioned many of his large-scale works, Glass has lacked influential music-director champions.

And with some reason: While the Eighth unfolds with doleful sweetness, his other symphonies can be chuggingly listless. The “King Lear Overture” was a scattered 10 minutes.

Glass’ famous name and recognizable style, though, may eventually lead to more converts, as the New York Philharmonic’s late embrace demonstrates. He has an unmistakable personal brand, in a culture that values that ever more dearly. And he has retained ownership of almost all his intellectual property, putting no middlemen between him and the potential profits.

“I was writing pieces ahead of their time, in the sense that audiences and boards of directors and conductors weren’t ready,” Glass said. “But it’s changing. I can tell from the ASCAP and BMI” — the major music licensing agencies — “I can tell from what happens, you can just — pardon me, but you can just look at the money.”

Guérin and the rest of Glass’ team are focused on putting out as much of the music on record as possible, sending it into the cultural bloodstream. They are also trying to subtly influence its reception and programming. (If an orchestra is playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony — the “Eroica” — they might suggest pairing it with Glass’ Fourth, subtitled “Heroes,” after Bowie.)

The team gets more frustrated than the boss about the holdouts. “I get angry that these orchestras are stuck,” Guérin said. “But Philip says: ‘You can’t get upset about this stuff. You don’t defeat your enemies, you just wait until they die.’”

But surely a composer must care, or at least wonder, about the fate of his works? Even just a little?

Glass smiled.

“I’m not going to be here,” he said.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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