Essential Philip Glass: 6 pieces you need to know

The minimalist master is recieving the Glenn Gould Prize this weekend, and we're taking the opportunity to obsess.
Philip Glass is one of the most popular composers of the last half-century. (Raymond Meier)

Tomorrow at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Philip Glass will be awarded the Glenn Gould Prize — an honour given once every two years to a figure who has had a major impact on music. The list of previous recipients includes composer R. Murray Schafer, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and songwriter Leonard Cohen. So a major figure like Glass seems like a reasonable addition to the club.

Glass arrived as a force in American music in the '70s, and was grouped in with compatriots Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young as a "minimalist," though he has famously disavowed the term. Since then, he's become a more prominent figure in pop culture than maybe any other modern composer, thanks to deceptively simple music that makes frequent use of rock-like instrumentation and isn't afraid to stretch outside of the standard range of "classical" music reference points. His David Bowie symphonies and Leonard Cohen songs come to mind.

Here's a quick primer on the man of the hour: a selection of pieces that will demonstrate exactly why Philip Glass has come to be such a phenomenon.


This 1982 disc of shorter works by Glass is the classic way in. These pieces were specifically written to be recorded, as opposed to performed live, and they were intended to introduce Glass's music to a wider audience. But, accessibly packaged as it is, Glassworks doesn't cheapen Glass's aesthetic in the slightest. It still boasts Glass's favourite techniques: lots of arpeggios at varying speeds and figures that repeat over and over. It's a snapshot of Glass at his most immediate.

Music in Twelve Parts

This piece, completed in 1974, is Glass's definitive early work. It contains all of the hallmarks of Glass's most explicitly "minimalist" period: very little harmonic variety, simple melodies and countermelodies bouncing playfully off of each other, and the unmistakable sound of the Farfisa organ. Taken in its three-hour-plus entirety, it's a bit much. But in smaller chunks, Music in Twelve Parts is a classic of its time.


Glass's forays into film scoring are probably another reason why his name has become so familiar. Not all of his film music is instantly memorable, and certainly his music is a far cry from his more specialized contemporaries like John Williams or Howard Shore. But given the right images, Glass's music can produce movie magic. Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisquatsi: Life Out of Balance shares an aesthetic with the Philip Glass of the early '80s. It consists mainly of documentary footage shot in cities: closeups of interesting faces, aeriel shots of freeways and the launch of Apollo 11. Glass's music imparts a sense of gravitas to these images, which would be totally disjointed without the score to hold them together. On the other hand, the music works pretty well on its own.

String Quartet No. 5

Chamber music represents a fairly small portion of Glass's output, but like many composers before him, he's used the string quartet as a vehicle to refine his compositional methods down to their essentials. The fifth string quartet stands as a rejoinder to the occasional criticism that Glass is a composer-by-numbers, working with the same formulas again and again. It is immediately recognizable as Glass's music, but it's also genuinely surprising in its contrasts. The final movement in particular is alternately driving and lyrical, switching from mood to mood in a way that Glass sometimes hesitates to try.

'Heroes' Symphony

Classical music and popular music tend to be a bit more mutually permeable when you get near their margins. Neither David Bowie nor Philip Glass is a remotely marginal figure in their respective idioms, but both of them have a healthy disregard for the conventions of their genres. So, it makes sense that Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, made in collaboration with composer Brian Eno, should strike Glass as worth expanding on. Glass's first symphony was based on Bowie's Low, the first album of the trilogy. But it was with his fourth symphony, based on "Heroes", that Glass really succeeded in bringing out the elements of Bowie's music that are most compatible with his own. Most of its movements are fairly straightforward orchestrations of songs from "Heroes", with some of Glass's trademark arpeggios thrown in for good measure. (That works better than it sounds like it would.) But the first movement, based on the iconic title track, really takes Bowie and Eno's music in a new direction.

Einstein on the Beach

What people will tell you about Glass's most successful opera is that it is esoteric, plotless and willfully perverse. What they won't tell you is that the premiere recording of that opera is one of the most engrossing listening experiences you can have. It's less like an opera recording than like a rock concept album or the cast album of the weirdest off-Broadway musical in New York history. For anybody who likes to be taken on a long journey by music, whether your preferred journey is a Mahler symphony or a Pink Floyd album, this is a must.

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