A Three-Part Suite with Philip Glass at the Chicago Humanities Festival

When Philip Glass sat down at the piano bench at the Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall, he began playing “Metamorphosis II.” His repetitive yet meditative playing placed the audience under his hypnotic spell.

He arpeggiated the composition’s main chords with his left hand before splashing color using his right in a higher register. He would also cross his right hand over his left to play low notes. The tranquil composition was built on an ostinato reminiscent of impressionistic pianists like Chopin or Satie.

This is just one piece in a five-song suite he composed in the late ‘80s. And it is among the works that best illustrate “minimalism,” a musical style that he said is “music with repetitive structures” and that is almost synonymous with his very name.

Like Bob Dylan, Glass is another music artist who won a literary prize this year. The Tribune declared Glass as the winner of the 2016 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize last August for his memoir Words Without Music.

When he ended the composition, he stood up and we broke out of his trance. He then sat in a chair at center stage to chat with Tribune arts critic Howard Reich. As part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Glass reflected on his life and on his music in discussion with Howard Reich last Wednesday.

In the spirit of his Metamorphosis suite, here is a three-part suite on his stories of change over the course of his life.


1. His first job was to break records with his brother.

Glass’s dad owned a mom and pop record store in Baltimore. When his father couldn’t sell any gramophone records, which were made of shellac then, he would break them up and send them to the manufacturers for a dime. Glass’s dad dug them from crates at other stores for a nickel.

Both Glass and his brother did the smashing.

His dad ended up listening to many of the records that they didn’t sell to try to understand why they didn’t sell. And he ended up liking them, anyway.

And for a young Philip Glass, working in his dad’s store exposed him to lots of different music. “I learned working in my father's record store is that there's no classical music or jazz music,” he said.

2. Although he learned about classical composition in class, he also studied pop and jazz on his free time.

While studying at the University of Chicago as a teenager, Glass would go to the clubs on 55th street to see the jazz players like Bud Powell.

And at Juliard, he and his classmates would “take a Beatles song and sing it in four-part harmony, or to dissect a John Coltrane piece,” which he said helped him in “understanding the language of music.”

Later on, he worked with artists such as Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, David Byrne, and Aphex Twin.

Glass told Reich that there’s “just good music and bad music.”

3. He stuck to his day job as a cab driver.

For a while, Glass didn’t quit his day job. Instead, he enjoyed working as a cab driver until the late evening when he would write music. “I wanted to be independent. That was the most important thing to me,” Glass said. He sought freelance jobs that he said he could work “whenever I wanted to” and then go on tour for several weeks.

Still, it takes time to make a living as an artist, he admitted. “The first years for artists can be like this.” But at the same time, he said he found inspiration as he got to know the Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other neighborhoods. In fact, he came up with the idea to write “Einstein on the Beach” as he drove.

There’s a lot more ground Glass covered in his fairly freeform responses to Reich's questions. He mused about the musicality of language and the language of music. He was happy to see mistakes in Mozart’s journal while he visited Italy. He smiled when he recounted the headline a writer published in a newspaper: “Glass invents new sonic torture.” But most of all, Glass talked calmly and with good humor.

He admitted that he doesn’t try to follow the footsteps of Bach and Beethoven because “they were giants.” Instead, “I leaped after them because their footsteps were too big.”

When he was asked if and how people will remember his music, he said that, in general, “if the quality in music is there, it can be discovered.”

Though the event was in part to celebrate Glass and his award, there were words without music and there was music without words. But most of all, there was a rich lifetime of work and stories to draw from. Glass will celebrate his 80th birthday this January, and the world will celebrate with him.

Photos courtesy of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.