It's hard to overestimate the impact Philip Glass has had on classical music. Apart from being (arguably) the world's greatest living composer, Glass almost single handedly brought minimalism into contemporary popular culture -- influencing legions of rock and electronic artists while simultaneously introducing classical music to a generation of otherwise uninterested listeners. The composer/performer's recorded output displays a staggering variety, sprawling over a massive collection of works, including everything from dance pieces and film scores to large-scale operas and symphonies.
It was during a working relationship with famed Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar that Glass developed his melodically cyclical trademark, an Eastern-steeped approach that has not only defined the composer's career, but in a very real sense changed the course of music. Philip Glass, the legend himself, has a date at the Winspear Opera House today. Thus, in celebration of the artist's highly influential career, as well as his upcoming local performance, we present the five best Philip Glass recordings (in reverse order).
5. Glassworks (1982)
Glassworks always deserves to chart on lists like this, for the simple fact that it's largely responsible for manufacturing Philip Glass the pop figure -- a classical musician who could sell records for the car, while sacrificing none of his integrity. It's not his strongest music, granted, but it was never meant to be: "Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then." However, one never gets the sense, when listening, that Glassworks contains watered down or otherwise compromised compositions. They're every bit as reflective of the man's genius as the rest of his repertoire. The six pieces here are direct and hauntingly melodic, ranging from the gorgeous -- cascading arpeggio synth patterns -- to the jostling unexpected floods of Glassian cell repetition (they also happen to pay considerable homage to Erik Satie). If you've never been exposed to Glass this is a great place to start.
4. Solo Music (1975)
Recorded in New York City in 1975 and released on the highly collectible and deliciously hip Shandar label, Solo Music consists of only two pieces: "Contrary Motion" and "Two Pages." For reasons beyond me, this release is often ignored (even by Glass fanatics). The pixilated, Gothic tones drawn throughout these compositions bring to mind Glass' future soundtrack work (especially Dracula); thus, instilling moods that are at once futuristic and tastefully archaic. While the colors are relatively unvaried, Solo Music finds Glass toying with texture unlike anywhere else in his discography, building sonic depths uniquely suited to twilight rumination.
3. Music with Changing Parts (1971)
Released on his own press, Chatham Square Productions, Music with Changing Parts was Glass' first recorded work. Furthermore, in what was an unusual move for classical music at the time, Glass played the role of both performer and composer here. To this day, it remains one of Glass' most maddeningly monochromatic releases. In fact, many ardent fans will argue that this the artist's finest offering. Agree or disagree, there is something to be said about the purity of Music with Changing Parts; it feels seminal and unadulterated in a way that none of his other sets do. Here you get to see Glass before age, popularity and academic concerns caught up to him, when his linear ferocity and unwavering intensity made him one the most radical up-and-comers in all of classical music.
2. Einstein on the Beach (1979)
Einstein on the Beach, the first segment of Glass' "portrait opera" trilogy, is a non-plot, abstract affair indirectly inspired by the life of Albert Einstein. A theatrical collaboration with avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson, Glass' first opera inspired a documentary (The Changing Image of Opera), and has been described as "one of the seminal artworks of the century." The scope of this thing is daunting: five intermission-less hours of merciless instrumental energy and vocal focus that's as mesmerizing as it is extensive. Without question, it's worth every minute. The music here sees Glass' famed aesthetic expand and evolve, incorporating not only the required dramatic intent of the opera form, but also a more enriched palette complete with a comparatively fuller classicist bent. Einstein on the Beach is Glass' most daring large-scale triumph, and, in my opinion, one of the most dazzling experiences you can have with headphones.
1. Music in Twelve Parts (1974, 1988)
Within these 12 utterly flooring movements, written over the course of three years, you see it all: Glass at his most hypnotic, Glass at his most inventive, Glass at his most challenging, Glass at his most perfect. Whether on first exposure or after countless revisits, Music in Twelve Parts never ceases to amaze. The effect of its fragmentary, perma-evolving structures is strikingly disorienting, yet intensely euphoric. Music in Twelve Parts' four-hour deluge of minutely shifting additive and subtractive processes is a delight in aural observation -- an endless stream of fascination can be had in trying to unwind its elegant strands. In light of this achievement, it's no wonder Glass is so feverishly revered outside of classical circles. This work is more punk than punk rock, more kaleidoscopic than psychedelic music, more infectious than pop, more out-of-body than new age, and more browbeating than the most hellish of heavy-metal. Even Glass understood the weight of his accomplishment, famously stating afterward that, for him, Music in Twelve Parts represented "the end of minimalism."
Note: Though an abridged disc came out in 1974, the full set would not see a release until 1988.
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Passages (with Ravi Shankar)
Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass