By Mary Abowd
As a 15-year-old student in the College, Philip Glass, AB’56, spent evenings in Harper Memorial Library scrutinizing musical scores. And it was there, amid the library’s vaulted splendor, that Glass—now one of the most celebrated and performed composers of all time—first tried his own hand at composition.
“I studied Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, and Copland,” Glass recalled. “Then I said, ‘Let me see if I can do this,’ and I began writing.”
Sixty years since his graduation from the University of Chicago, Glass journeyed back to campus last month for a three-day residency organized by the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts as a Presidential Arts Fellow. He engaged in public conversations about his life and music, dialogued with composition students, and played a Friday evening University of Chicago Presents concert in Mandel Hall—all of it resonant with memories of a time and place that inevitably shaped him.
“The insight into my fate, that insight took place here,” Glass said. “It was like an omen, really, of what I was going to do.”
Originally from Baltimore, Glass entered the University at a time when it admitted talented high school students who could pass an entrance exam. He said his years in the College studying the broad liberal arts curriculum emphasized by President Robert Maynard Hutchins provided a “deep cultural landscape” that was critical to informing his artistic work—his landmark opera Einstein on the Beach (1976) is just one example.
“You could study the Odyssey. You could study Freud, Darwin, or Einstein,” said Glass, who studied mathematics and philosophy at UChicago. “You could read Marx and Engel. Everything that was intellectually authentic was available. I don’t remember anything being off limits. I never heard anyone say, ‘No, we can’t do that here.’”
Glass went on to pursue composition at the Juilliard School in New York, then underwent rigorous musical training in Paris with pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and traveled to India to study with sitar player Ravi Shankar. By the late 1960s, back in New York, he had launched what would become a prolific music career, with hundreds of works spanning chamber music to opera, symphonies to award-winning scores for film and theater, and characterized by a stunning array of collaborations with artists ranging from Twyla Tharp to Woody Allen to Yo-Yo Ma.
Glass’s residency began Feb. 17 at the Logan Center for the Arts with a screening of the 1985 film Mishima, for which he wrote the score. The following day, he engaged in a lively public dialogue with Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition in Music and the College. Thomas, who referred to Glass as “an absolute stellar superstar in the universe of music,” said she spent months preparing for his residency by reading Glass’s memoir and other writings, listening to everything he has ever composed and studying his scores, which filled her office in giant stacks.
The fact of that musical output still astonishes Glass. “I never thought I was going to be a great, successful composer,” he told the Logan Center audience. “The whole thing has been a surprise from day one until now. I was writing music for people in lofts downtown in New York. They came and put a few dollars in a hat. I thought that was it.”
In a private master class with Thomas and graduate composition students, Glass, now 79, described his creative process during the decades since sketching out his first musical ideas in Harper Library. “What happens in the act of composing music is an abandoning of that part of your personality that is watching what you’re doing and allowing the imagination to take over,” he told students. “It’s a voyage of the imagination,” he added, “when we get to that place where music is true dreaming, when we’ve left the dock and we’re out in the sea, and there’s nothing but us and the water and the open sky.”
Glass said he is so absorbed by those voyages that he generally has no memory of them. As an example, he cited his piano Etudes, some of which he performed during the Friday night concert that marked the conclusion of his residency. “When I look at Etude No. 15, I don’t remember writing it,” he said, “because I wasn’t there when I wrote it.”
Glass continues to stretch himself artistically. He described one of his more recent collaborations with two musicians from rural Mexico. “One of them plays something they call the violin, and another plays something resembling a guitar,” Glass said. “None of these instruments follow any tuning that I could recognize, and when I first heard them playing, I couldn’t figure out what they were playing or how to listen to it.” Glass made a recording with the two and plans to return to Mexico this summer to embark on a second one.
“I really admire the fact that Glass has collaborated with so many different kinds of people, whether it’s a small band in the mountains of Mexico or a rock star like David Bowie,” Thomas said. “He is able to understand their music making, their traditions, their history, their sound world and, in his own very personal way, merge it with his.”
Many of the composition students in the room noted Glass’s voracious curiosity and willingness to take risks. “Glass is still evolving and changing as an artist,” said third-year doctoral student Pierce Gradone. “It was so inspiring to see that you don’t necessarily hit a plane of stasis in your development but that you can continue to develop, as Glass has, throughout a lifetime.”
For Glass, the musical horizon remains ever vast. “What I’m discovering,” he told students, “is there are continents of ideas that we have not even tried yet.”
Originally published on March 21, 2016.