From Brian Eno to Daft Punk to Hans Zimmer, it’s difficult to find a recording artist or producer who hasn’t been influenced by Philip Glass in some way.
Over his career, the Golden Globe-winning, Grammy-winning composer has penned more than 40 film scores and 20 operas, recruiting die-hard fans from American movie theaters to European opera houses.
Today, many view Glass as a musical maverick and the founding father of the American minimalist movement, which first emerged in the mid-1960s and counted composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley as its vanguards.
With its trademark harmonic loops and undulating arpeggios, Glass's music is simultaneously familiar, energizing and hypnotic.
As music critic John Rockwell described a performance of Glass’s "Music With Changing Parts" on a spring night in SoHo in 1973:
“The music danced and pulsed with a special life, its motoric rhythms, burbling… across the street, silhouetted high up in a window, a lone saxophone player improvised in silent accompaniment like some faded postcard of fifties Greenwich Village Bohemia. It was a good night to be in New York City.”
On Saturday, Feb. 11, the group that Rockwell first heard 50 years ago—the Philip Glass Ensemble, formed by the composer in 1967 as a touring group for his music—will perform selections of his best-known works at The Argyros. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.; tickets cost $30-$80.
While Glass, now 86, still consults with the group's eight musicians regularly, he does not perform with them on keyboard anymore, according to ensemble director and longtime Glass collaborator Michael Riesman.
Riesman added that the group’s international tour this year is its first series of live performances in three years.
“All of our work that’s happened since 2019, most of it had been cancelled due to the pandemic,” he said.
After stopping in Denver and Ketchum this week, the Philip Glass Ensemble will return to New York City for a performance at Carnegie Hall. After that, the group is off to Montreal, and Paris later in the fall.
A 'breath of fresh air'
Riesman first met Philip Glass in 1974 after taking a bit of a career detour.
The conductor-arranger, 79, recalled their fateful meeting over a Zoom call last week, speaking from his home studio in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Riesman said after he finished his studies with American composers Leon Kirchner and Roger Sessions at Harvard University, he figured he’d become a music professor himself. But one year into teaching at SUNY-Purchase, he realized academia wasn't for him.
“Basically, at the end of the first year [at SUNY] I said, 'I don’t need this. I don’t want this.’ I needed to make myself available to do exciting new things,’” he said. “I knew that I wasn't interested in grading compositions, having students bring me their work and then, you know, having to say something nice about a bad piece. I’d rather just make music with people and coach them.”
Riesman left the university and “kicked around New York for a while,” taking piano gigs and playing solo shows to pay the bills.
It so happened that Dickie Landry, a saxophonist with the Philip Glass Ensemble, was at one of Riesman's solo shows. Landry was on the lookout for a new keyboardist to join the ensemble after their only other keyboardist in addition to Glass dropped out, leaving the group in a lurch just three weeks before their planned European tour.
Riesman's phone rang the next day.
“I got a call out of the blue from Phil in the morning asking me to audition for this tour coming up, so I meet with him down at his studio on Reade Street and we read through some of his music. He said ‘OK, you can come and do this tour’—but without making any promises going forward,” Riesman said.
“There was basically no rehearsal before [tour]. We just jumped right in. It was kind of scary, and I felt out of my depth learning these new repetitions and modulations, but Philip gave me moral support,” he said. “I’ve been with him ever since.”
Riesman recalled being struck by how different Glass’s music sounded from the dissonant, random-sounding “twelve-tone music” that Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and other so-called "modern composers" were writing at the time.
Unlike Schoenberg and Webern, Glass gravitated towards long, cyclical strings of notes called “talas” found in Indian classical music—a style the composer adopted while doing transcription work for Indian classical composer Ravi Shankar in Paris.
“It was a radical departure from the Western-European atonal period, which I considered the dead end of music," Riesman explained. "I studied [twelve-tone] music in school, but I didn’t really get much pleasure out of that. Philip Glass was a radical change, a breath of fresh air. It was different. I was attracted to it right from the start.”
Riesman, Glass share collaborative spirit
Since 1974, Riesman has dedicated his life’s work to conducting, recording and arranging his colleague’s music.
Over Zoom, he spoke unassumingly about his career, outlining his accomplishments with a quiet sincerity.
There are many: As a conductor, Riesman has appeared with the New York Philharmonic and L.A. Philharmonic and conducted nearly every Glass soundtrack, garnering two Grammy nominations. As a pianist, he's appeared in front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was the featured soloist on Glass’s Academy Award-nominated soundtrack for the 2002 drama “The Hours," starring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.
He's also a decorated composer in his own right, having released his own album, "Formal Abandon," on the Rizzoli label. His film scores include "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1983, starring Kevin Bacon), and Christian Blackwood's documentary "Signed: Lino Brocka" (1987).
On paper, Riesman and Glass share a lot of common ground in terms of their musical influences and educational backgrounds.
Glass was born in Baltimore, where he hung out in his father’s record store listening to everything from Elvis Presley to Schubert. Riesman was born in New York City, where he sat in with various folk and rock bands.
Each studied composition with French composer Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Music Festival (Milhaud “mostly liked to tell stories, which was a great pleasure, but not all that insightful,” Riesman said) and studied at the University of Chicago before continuing on to conservatories in New York—Glass to Juilliard, Riesman to the Mannes College of Music.
Each also won a Fulbright scholarship to take their studies abroad—Glass to Paris to study with renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, Riesman to Austria to study with composer Gottfried von Einem.
Riesman also said Glass has always preferred performing over teaching.
“Philip would rather drive a taxi or do plumbing. He took those kinds of jobs when he came to New York and needed to get by,” Riesman said. “He liked driving a cab, actually, because he could think about writing a piece of music while he was driving.
"That way he didn’t have anyone leaning on him, or pushing on him or making him going one way or another.”
Glass finds fame with 'Einstein on the Beach'
By the time Glass invited Riesman on tour with the Glass Ensemble, the group was already performing in museums, galleries and artists' lofts in SoHo, attracting a small but growing group of patrons.
“At that time, the leanest periods were over, although we did have some pretty sad concerts here and there where something wasn’t promoted well,” Riesman said.
In those earlier days, Riesman said the composer was mostly writing music for friends and “whoever happened to be around”— “not for [a set number] of instruments, but open score, meaning anyone could play and take a part appropriate for their instrument.”
“There was no orchestration. There was just music, and you’d assemble a group that was capable of playing it,” he said.
As Glass began to write increasingly more complicated music, the Philip Glass Ensemble developed into a regular group with a fixed makeup: two keyboards, three winds and a singer. More hands— another keyboardist, and horn and trombone parts— were added to cover the score.
In 1976, Glass needed someone to conduct his five-hour-long opera “Einstein on the Beach.” Riesman, possessing those skills, was subsequently named the group’s musical director.
That same year, under Riesman’s baton, “Einstein on the Beach” found critical success across the globe. It premiered at the Théâtre Municipal in Avignon, France, as part of the 1976 Avignon Festival. Months later, the Glass Ensemble returned to New York for two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House before an audience of 3,500.
“That was basically Philip’s big breakout, his claim to fame, where he landed in the major media,” Riesman said. “It was a big deal. They managed to do [the load-in process] twice, and right up to the curtain.”
Propelled by the popularity of “Einstein on the Beach,” the ensemble began recording on the CBS Masterworks label in the early 80s.
The debut record on the label was the 40-minute, six-part ”Glassworks,” which Glass wrote in 1981 to introduce his music “to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then.” The album tripled sales projections. It was clear by then that the audience had an appetite for Glass’s music.
“He was taking music somewhere else,” Riesman said.
Riesman on the power of reinvention
According to Riesman, Glass’ “minimalist” phase—which the composer didn’t identify with, preferring to call his early works "music with repetitive structures”—only lasted from 1965 through 1975.
In time, the composer’s primitive, single-celled motifs began to evolve into a more harmonically complex, dramatic structure.
Glass’s chamber opera, “The Photographer,” marked a new phase of evolution. Based around the life of English photographer and acquitted murderer Eadweard Muybridge, the work premiered in Amsterdam in 1981 and soon found success in the states.
“By the time Philip started writing ‘The Photographer,’ he still had some of the signature rhythmic things, arpeggios running through the music. But I wouldn’t consider it really ‘minimalist’ anymore. It had melodies,” Riesman said.
“The [minimalist phase] had really started to disappear by the time ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was performed. As soon as you take rigorous rhythmic cells and subtle changes, and put a melody on top of it, it’s really not the same thing anymore.”
In 1999, Glass finished a new soundtrack for the 1931 dialogue-only film Dracula, which he scored for two pianos plus the Kronos String Quartet.
“’Dracula’ is emotional, romantic music, no question. That’s not saying it could’ve been written in the late 19th century, but it does draw from the harmonic language from people from Debussy,” Riesman said.
The same can be said for the film score Glass wrote for Godfrey Reggio’s cult-classic experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982). Hopi for “life out of balance,” “Koyaanisqatsi” features striking timelapses of clouds moving over skyscrapers, subway passengers and commuters in crosswalks—all brought to life with Glass’s saxophone, synthesizer, viola and cello lines.
Riesman said the score was so popular that he and Glass decided to “tour the hell out of it,” performing the score live with the film. (One soundtrack number, “Pruit Igoe," can even be heard in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.)
“We were actually the pioneers of the live-music-with-film evening,” Riesman said.
The format has since been used by orchestras across the world in their “night at the movie” programs.
The group’s innovation didn’t stop there.
Riesman gestured to the studio he sat in: grand piano, stepstool and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind him, all filled with thick scores.
It’s this room where the conductor-arranger spent most of his time during the pandemic arranging Glass’s works for solo piano and producing the Philip Glass Ensemble’s 2020 “Music in Eight Parts” album, he said.
The original “Music in Eight Parts” score had been lost from 1970 until 2017, when it resurfaced at an auction house in New York City and sold for over $43,000. Riesman said that he was inspired to “jazz up” the long-lost score during the pandemic after hearing a somewhat underwhelming recording of the original piece. Glass agreed to the arrangement.
So, while in isolation, each member of the Glass Ensemble recorded their own part of Riesman’s arrangement and sent it to Riesman, who pieced together the work in his studio.
The new version “doesn’t sound much like the original at all,” he noted, even approaching jazz at times.
“It starts out with its same limited keyboard range and simple repetition for the first third of the way, then picks up tempo, going double time. It’s the same music, the same notes on the page, but I discovered ways to make it sound more modern,” Riesman said.
This summer, Riesman will bring his new arrangement of Glass’s “Mishima” film score to audiences in Germany. The score, written for Paul Schrader’s 1985 biographical drama of the same name, was reformatted by Riesman into a piano concerto.
“It was a good solid month of work,” he said. “Recently, one thing I haven’t done so much of is composing, because I’ve been so busy performing and arranging and recording things.
“But, what I like about how my life has worked out is I’m always doing something different, something new. It’s never the same thing, day after day.”
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Ms. Jones, what a well-written, interesting story. Bravo!
Welcome to the discussion.