By Dennis Polkow
Composer Philip Glass is coming home. Well, sort of. The high priest of Minimalism, a term Glass has always loathed, will be in residence at the University of Chicago this month. Although it is not the first time Glass has been back to his Hyde Park alma mater, where he was once a mathematics and philosophy major, this is his first official residency there as a Presidential Arts Fellow.
Glass’ residency will include a University of Chicago Presents concert where he and others will perform his Piano Etudes, a screening of the film “Mishima” which Glass scored and will discuss, a free public talk on artistic collaboration and various conversations with students and faculty from across the university.
Chicago was where Glass originally realized—while practicing piano pieces of Charles Ives and Anton Webern—that he wanted to become a composer, although he would head to Juilliard to begin to accomplish that goal.
Upon graduation, Glass felt he still had not found his own compositional voice, and went to Paris to study with legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Although Glass has always credited Boulanger for opening his ears and teaching him how to hear music from the inside out, it was his encounter with Indian music while he was in Paris that brought about a total transformation of his music.
Asked to transcribe film music written by Indian music master and sitar player Ravi Shankar to Western notation, for French musicians to perform, Glass became obsessed with Indian notions of musical form and rhythm, and began incorporating these ideas into his own pieces when he returned to New York. Having renounced his previous atonal works and the then-academic fascination with twelve-tone music, Glass formed the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1968 to begin performing his new style of reductive and tonal music.
“It’s a problem,” Glass admitted to me back in 1989. “The first problem any composer has is finding a voice, and the second problem is getting rid of it. You often hear from people, ‘Oh Glass, he always sounds the same.’ It doesn’t really, but you have to make a big effort for it not to sound the same. It’s very hard to do that because it’s like trying to look at yourself in the mirror and ponder, ‘Okay, what do I really look like? What is my style of dressing?’ You can’t possibly be objective about it, and yet you can’t just trust what the papers say or what your friends tell you.”
Glass’ music has been nothing if not controversial throughout his career. The recent passing of David Bowie, a Glass friend and collaborator for forty-five years and upon whose music Glass based his “Low” Symphony, is reminiscent of the flak Glass took at the time. “People are saying to me, ‘Gee, that’s a great work,’ ” Glass told me in 1993, “ ‘but when are you going to write your own symphony? Well, this is my own symphony. Composers from Haydn to Gershwin have incorporated folk material and popular tunes into their works. Sure, popular music has come to mean something different today than it did fifty years ago, but that will always be changing. I’m really not doing anything different than Dvorák did in his ‘New World’ Symphony.”
One of the ironies in Glass returning to Chicago, where he once labored intensively over complex piano scores of others, is that he will be performing some of his own solo piano music in concert, albeit far simpler music.
“It is a very simple way for me to keep in touch with performance,” Glass told me when he began performing solo recitals. “It ends up being very intimate, I kept down the size of the halls to about five-to-six-hundred seats. That way it’s like playing in a big living room and the feeling I get is almost the same as when I’m playing for a few friends at home. What I try to do is to get rid of the imaginary plexiglass that exists between the audience and the performer in most concert situations. I just come out and say ‘hello,’ and it’s really quite amazing. Once you tear down that wall, the emphasis becomes the music itself and playing the music in a very personal way.”
Glass decided almost immediately that he would limit his repertoire to his own pieces. “It would be silly for me to play Mozart or Chopin because there are other people who play that music much better than I could. Let’s face it: this is not Horowitz or Rubinstein, this is a composer playing his music, and there’s no reason to pretend that it’s anything else. But as the composer, I can do that unique thing that the performer is not really in a position to do: namely, talk about the pieces—not much, but just enough to invite the audience to relate to the music in a very direct way.”
Rediscovering the piano has been a joy for Glass, now seventy-nine, in the autumn of his career, although it took some time for him to build up technique and finger strength and to adjust to rigorous practicing. “It’s such a sensitive instrument, and it has so many colors, even compared to synthesizers. You have much more immediate control over the piano. And besides, after trucking around the world with three tons of equipment and ten guys all the time, there’s something really nice about showing up someplace with an overnight bag all by myself.
“People are quite surprised at the free way that I play my own pieces, much more freely than Michael Riesman [the leader of the Philip Glass Ensemble], but then the ensemble tends to be very high-precision level playing because it’s very tight chamber music. I go for something much more organic and play with much more rubato than I hear from other performers. It really changes some perceptions about how this music is supposed to sound.”
February 17, 7pm and February 18, 6pm, at Logan Center, 915 East 60th, (773)702-2787; February 19, 7:30pm at Mandel Hall, 1131 East 57th, (773)702-8068.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org