Philip Glass reflects on his compositions

Kresge Theatre was abuzz on Friday afternoon in anticipation of a special guest talk. The last time this guest was in Pittsburgh, it was 1964, not long before his works began to gain popularity. Since the 1960s, this man has been a major figure in propelling classical music to an entirely new world.

Musical celebrity Philip Glass shuffled on stage a few minutes late to tumultuous applause. He walked with the slow ease of a man in his later years, and greeted the audience with the familiarity of a musician who is no stranger to the stage. His casual mannerisms and modest attire did not indicate his fame for composing beloved compositions such as Einstein on the Beach, 10 symphonies, and a series of operas, nor that he’d won a Golden Globe and has been nominated for several Academy Awards for his film scores.

Richard Randall, assistant professor of music theory and researcher in the College of Fine Arts, followed the composer on stage and began the conversation. Glass was witty, comfortable, and likably straightforward in his answers. He admitted how he changed concentrations at The Juilliard School from flute to composition because, frankly, he was better at the latter. He insisted that, although some of his most famous works contain electronics, he still adheres to a pencil and paper for composing.

When speaking about hearing one of his early pieces on the radio whilst in Pittsburgh, he casually remarked, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.” Glass continued to display remarkable modesty throughout the interview, most notably when Randall acknowledged his role in creating the tonal, repetitive, and easily accessible genre of classical music called minimalism. Rather than accepting this credit, Glass argued that he was not the only composer moving toward something new at the time, and that it was the culture as a whole that demanded classical music move to a new place.

Regardless of what Glass claimed he did, the effect he has had on classical music is enormous. Even Pittsburgh has felt his influence: Nancy Galbraith, composer and professor of composition at Carnegie Mellon, writes music tinged with recurring motifs and crystalline harmonies reminiscent of Glass’s style, and the Carnegie Library has more early Glass scores than virtually any other library in the world.

As the interview continued, Glass revealed a knack for dropping unexpectedly wise advice in such a nonchalant way that one could easily miss it. On the subject of never turning down opportunities to work, he commented, “You don’t get anything from saying ‘no.’ It didn’t hurt Bach, it won’t hurt you.” He exhibited awareness of the legacy he will leave — as well as a sensible understanding, acquired from a lifetime of composing — that “very few things live beyond the maturity of the artist.” In his opinion, composers will always find their distinct sound. “Losing your voice is the hard part,” he said. “You’ll be working on that for the rest of your life.”

Witnessing a cherished composer speak of his own music in an era that acknowledges him for his contribution is a rare and precious occasion. It was especially relevant to the performers in attendance, who were able to get a firsthand understanding of what exactly the composer wanted. Glass described how separating notes into their respective measures can get in the way of the music-making; he sees his music as grouped into twos and threes instead. He explained how rhythmic structure is the ultimate driving factor in his compositions. His compositions often don’t contain any clear melody. Content is not Glass’s strength (or perhaps content is simply not his point), but rather it is the overall form and the progression of one section to the next that he focuses on, causing the listener to feel like they’ve gone on some sort of ambiguous journey.

The audience had a chance to experience this journey firsthand as the interview portion drew to a close and the Matisse String Quartet, the School of Music’s honors string quartet, took the stage. Made up of graduate and postgraduate students, they played a clear, engaging rendition of “Glass String Quartet No. 5,” one of the gems of Glass’s chamber music repertoire. The piece is bookended by an elegy-like theme and filled in with walls of lively harmony driven forward by perpetual rhythms. It is head-bobbing music, but with subtle changes here and there that make it impossible to predict when the head should bob.

Needless to say, Kresge Theatre was swept along for the ride as the student ensemble deftly and artfully executed the piece. The cellist, master’s student in cello performance Marlene Ballena, and violist, master’s student in viola performance Si Yu, were the soul of this performance. They played synonymously in articulation and color, and weren’t afraid to drive the quartet forward. While the upper strings didn’t quite achieve the same blended sound as their counterparts, there was no mistaking the brilliance of their performance.

The audience was quick to enthusiastially applaud. The defining moment occurred when Glass himself walked onto the stage to shake the hands of the students, smiling widely. He seemed immensely pleased with their performance. Seeing the five of them bow together offered a rare and special moment of unity between a renowned composer and student performers.