Philip Glass has been called the greatest American composer of the late 20th century. His structurally sparse music, using few chord changes and many repetitions, fascinates some people and puzzles others. The composer recently attended a Washington D.C. premiere of his new Symphony No. 5, at a concert dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks.
Symphony No. 5 is a 12-movement choral work, almost two hours long. The text combines sacred and traditional verses of cultures from all over the world.
"I wanted a text that was woven together from really the great wisdom traditions from everywhere," says Philip Glass. "So there are texts from Africa, from Asia, from South America. Of course, there is the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, there are Buddhist texts, there are Hindu texts, American Indian texts."
The twelve movements tell the story of the world, starting before Creation and ending in Paradise. The last movement, Dedication, is looking into the future. It is set to a passage from an 8th century guide to the Buddhist way of life. Its message, originally written in Sanskrit, is one of peace: "May the rains of lava, blazing stones and weapons become a rain of flowers." And of goodness: "May every single being abandon all forms of evil and forever engage in virtue."
Although the pieces of the text for Glass's symphony come from such diverse cultures, the composer says they are carefully chosen to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
"We sing it in English," he says. "And if you read through the text and you don't look to see where the text came from, after a while you forget to look and they all seem like they were written by the same person, which is - maybe they were."
Glass's latest symphony, subtitled Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya, was commissioned for the 1999 Salzburg Festival to celebrate the past millennium. At the Washington premiere, it was offered as a tribute to the victims of terrorist violence. The composer says the work is suitable for both occasions because it is conceived as a bridge between past and future, moving from the Requiem - signifying death - to Bardo, an "in-between" world and finally to enlightened rebirth or Nirmanakaya.
Philip Glass is most famous for his 1976 opera Einstein at the Beach, which he created together with stage director and dramatist Bob Wilson. The five-hour epic, in no way reminiscent of classical operas with a story line and melodic arias, is considered a landmark in 20th century music theater. The text consists mostly of numbers and music expressions and the course of the opera revolves around a few dream-like images. One of them is the image of Einstein with a spaceship, which represents a potential for liberation unleashed by the scientist's work.
Philip Glass is currently working on an opera about another famous scientist: Italian Renaissance astronomer, physicist and mathematician Galileo Galilei.
"Galileo was one of the most astonishing and interesting people who ever lived," he says. "We are talking about 400 years ago, and, you know we are talking about a man who was also deeply religious - so the whole question of science and religion, which is something we still talk about today - they became embodied in him. And [he was] a man of great genius, of great devotion and who lived a brilliant, but somewhat troubled, life."
Galieo Galilei will premiere at Chicago's Ivar Goodman Theater next June.
Most people have heard Glass's music in the movies such as Martin Scorsese's Kundun and Peter Weir's The Truman Show. He also wrote music for the renewed version of the 1931 horror classic Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.
Philip Glass says when he is not composing, he is performing with his Philip Glass Ensemble. The composer, who breaks away from convention whenever he can, likes to recall that Mozart, Paganini, Listz, Berlioz and other great composers made their living playing music.