In 1976 Philip Glass was an unknown composer — almost pushing 40, and driving a taxi to make ends meet — when he got his break: a new work performed at New York’s echt-prestigious Metropolitan Opera. “Einstein on the Beach” was directed by Robert Wilson, a key figure in the avant-garde; it was four and a half hours long, had no plot anybody could follow and drove a lot of listeners crazy. But almost overnight, it turned Glass into a household name.
More than four decades later, Glass is one of the most influential composers working today, with a huge body of symphonies, operas and chamber music; he redefined the sound of television advertising and movie scores. That work ethic has served him well. "I had to work so hard that I didn’t have any time to think about slowing down," Glass says.
Glass credits two teachers he had in the mid-1960s with shaping his signature sound: pianist and composer Nadia Boulanger, and the sitar player Ravi Shankar. "I was with them at the same time," he says. With Boulanger, Glass studied composition and harmony; he absorbed the binary rhythmic structure of Indian music from Shankar. "Instead of ones and zeros, [in Indian music] they use twos and threes," Glass says. “‘Einstein’ came ten years after I completed my studies with them, and I spent ten years developing a language which integrated this binary way of thinking with traditional harmony."
In 2011 Glass created a new opera about another visionary, this time a quintessential American: Walt Disney. It explores the "immortality of the art and mortality of the artist," but Glass doesn't want to whitewash Disney's life and legacy. "When we elevate our artists and geniuses beyond the human level we lose something. Opera, above all, is poetry."
Bonus Track: An extended conversation with Philip Glass
Highlights from the full conversation:
(Originally aired September 14, 2012)