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Philip Glass and His Minimal Music

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 7 (1561 words)
Categories: Art, Music
Downloads: 36
Views: 496

Philip Glass, an American composer and performer of new music, has been widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the late 20th century. Along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young, he is a principal figure in the establishment of minimal music in the 1960s, and has since become one of the most commercially successful and critically reviled composers of his generation. In this paper, I would love to explore into his musical style and will discuss one of his most important compositions.

But before understanding his music, it is important to gain certain knowledge of how he is raised and educated, and how he finally ‘creates’ minimal music with other great contemporary musicians.

Glass was born in Maryland in 1937 and is raised in a family of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania. His father was the owner of a record store and his mother was a librarian who aided Jewish Holocaust survivors at the end of the World War II.

And he had a sister who works as a member of the International Rescue Committee. Glass developed his appreciation of music from his father and his father’s side of the family which had many musicians. Furthermore, his family’s relationship to Al Johnson, an American singer, comedian and actor of stage and film, also brought him influence toward music. Glass began to study the violin when he was six, then at eight he studied the flute with Britton Johnson at the Peabody Conservatory. He started composing at twelve, while taking harmony lessons with Louis Cheslock and working in his father’s record shops after school. Later, at age fifteen, he went to the University of Chicago under their early entrance program. In Chicago it was the first time that he got introduced to the 12-tone technique by his piano teacher Marcus Rasking. He adopted this technique at school but then abandoned it by graduation. Leaving Chicago, he then performed as an excellent student at the Julliard School of Music and at the summer school of the Aspen Music Festival. In these years he studied music, he had developed strong composing skills and once won the BMI Foundation’s BMI Student Composer Awards in 1959. And from 1962, after he moved to Pittsburgh, he started to focus on composing various choral, chamber and orchestral music.

In 1964, on a Fulbright scholarship he moved to Paris to study what he regarded as a ‘re-education in the elements of music’ for two years. There he listened to Pierre Boulez’s new music concerts yet he was ‘unimpressed’ by such avant-garde establishment. On the contrary, he found a great interest in the additive processes and cyclic structures of Indian music when he was hired as a music director and composer for the film Chappaqua directed by Conrad Rooks in 1966 with Ravi Shanker and Alla Rakha. Being inspired by such musical thinking, Glass began to compose pieces based on repetitive structures of Indian music, and thus his minimalist style was now beginning to emerge. Since the late 1960s, Glass had developed his wholly distinctive minimal music which was described as ‘highly amplified, diatonic, harmonically static, additive and subtractive cycles in mechanical rhythms and initially in simple unison – a music more evocative of rock than any classical Western style, much less the serialism and late modernism of the period.’

Before concluding Glass’s musical background and digging into his music, there is an interesting story about his inspiration toward composing that makes his music even more special. When he was asked what influenced him toward music in the interview with William Duckworth, he gave the answer of ‘a calling, a religious calling.’ He said: ‘It’s (the calling is) a vocation. I think it happens before we know it’s going to happen.’ Honestly, I am a bit surprised when he implies his motivation to composing is given by a spiritual ‘calling’. After the establishment, minimal music has been nowadays conventionally marked as a kind of progressing music with a non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational conception, so it may be less possible for people to relate it to religious or spiritual ideas. However, Glass adds a different thinking to it. In an interview with Dimitri Ehrlich, Glass said he did meditation practice every day. Ehrlich wrote in his later chapters that besides helping composers to ‘calm minds’ and ‘retrain minds’, meditation also builds a tight relationship with creativity. ‘The tranquility and clarity that meditation provides are essential to his (Glass’s) life as a composer.’ Indeed, Glass gets creativity from meditation and reflects it in his works. For example, by using the steady repetitive motion, Glass creates a very similar ‘calming-minds’ effect with the effect meditation creates mentioned in Ehrlich’s article. In addition, the long-stayed and long-repeated motives resembles the slow progression when people explores minds during the meditation practice. Therefore, after relating his music to the meditation practice, his motivation to composing given by meditation may sound no longer surprising.

After learning how Glass and his minimal music ‘grew up’, it is time to take a real look to his compositions. In his whole composer career, he has composed a great amount of works for different sorts of music, including the ensemble music for the Philip Glass Ensemble established by himself, opera, chamber opera, solo instrument, string quartet, chamber music other than string quartet and so on. Many works bring him great same, such as the opera Einstein on the Beach (1975-1976), the ensemble piece 600 Lines (1967) and Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974), the solo piano piece The Olympian (1984) and the electric organ piece Music in Contrary Motion (1969). Among these highly popular works, I am particularly interested in the ensemble piece Music in Twelve Parts.

Music in Twelve Parts is a set of 12 pieces for the Philip Glass Ensemble written from 1971 to 1974. Each movement of it lasts between 15 and 20 minutes, making a total performance time of more than four hours with suitable intervals. A work of such length offers considerable scope not only for structural and other kinds of technical variety but also for a significant and progressive extension of Glass’s musical language and expression. The entire piece is very repetitive and sounds mechanically. Each part of it only features one or several aspects of a common musical language and then develops and varies them either in predictable or random ways.

For the countless times of its performance, it has given a deep impression and influence to a lot of other contemporary-music composers. English composer Christopher Fox publishes an article talking about the experience of listening to Glass’s concert in 1975 when Glass was not famous yet. The concert presented and only presented the whole set of Music in Twelve Part. The concert was ‘desolate’, which perhaps had just a dozen or even fewer people in the audience. Even worse, maybe because minimal music was not that well spread at that time, the concert became even smaller when some audience left in the middle of it. ‘I tried to persuade the two friends I’d dragged along that they ought to stay for the second half. They agreed, but when we took our seats for more of the Twelve Parts (Music in Twelve Part), we discovered that the original dozen of the audience had shrunk to a handful.’ However, this small concert changed Fox’s mind of music. He described Glass’s music as both abrasive and smooth: ‘abrasive because it was loud; smooth because the amplification blended the sounds of keyboards, voice and saxophone, and because the surface of the music was a fast-flowing stream of note.’ And he praised the music by saying: ‘At a time when most new music was neither even nor fast-flowing, it was important to be reminded of how powerful and effective these qualities could be.’

Today, people who understand and appreciate minimal music are still a minority. Except musical professionals and scholars, most people (like Fox’s friend and the other audience at Glass’s concert I mentioned above) may still be much more comfortable with tonal music than with post-tonal works, such as minimal works of Glass. As a matter of fact, there are still a large amount of people, especially those who do not study music, are trapped in the impression that ‘only melodious tunes are called music.’ However, as the evolution of music is always progressing, we as listeners should also refresh our minds, and truly learn the esthetics of the new music. In this sense, Philip Glass, as a milestone-like figure of new music, not only gives us a completely new view of music but also helps us to discover its potentiality, and finally, pushes music as well as our minds toward music to develop continuously.


Duckworth, William. ‘Philip Glass (b. Nice, France, 1934).’ In Talking Music: conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and five generations of American experimental composers/William Duckworth. London: Prentice-Hall International, 1995.

Ehrlich, Dimitri. ‘Philip Glass: A Question of Motivation.’ In Inside the music: conversations with contemporary musicians about spirituality, creativity, and consciousness. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

Fox, Christopher. ‘Glass’s Music in 12 Parts – but the audience was just as small.’ Guardian, Fotter, Keith. ‘Mature minimalist compositions.’ In Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte

Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Strickland, Edward. ‘Glass, Philip.’ Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press,

Cite this essay

Philip Glass and His Minimal Music. (2019, Nov 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/philip-glass-and-his-minimal-music-essay

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