Philip Glass

Times of social change have always been fertile moments for innovation in the arts and sciences.

The years before World War I were such a time. Profound discomfort in the body politic and society in general were perfectly in sync with innovation in science, Einstein, Bohr – and in social and personal psychology, Freud and Jung. In music, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Picasso and Braque in painting and so on.

Likewise in the 1950s in America, with the political convolutions attending the neo-Nazi of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were perfectly timed to coordinate with the Beat movement led by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And that in time led to huge social revolutions in everything from art, music, film to food.

I’m not suggesting a causal relationship between the eruption that occurs when the “right and left” boil over. In fact, to do so would be to trivialize a complex and profound historical phenomena. So, let’s leave the cause/effect or chicken/egg question alone.

More interesting is that we are clearly in exactly such a moment again. At the same moment that we have the Tea Party, libertarianism and Occupy Wall Street running amok, we have wild experiments in theater, art, music and film.

I love it and think it’s great. And in my lifetime I have seen it twice. First in the ’50s and ’60s and now in the first decade of the 21st century – 50 years later.

Perhaps the fact that I witnessed it 50 years ago (I was born in 1937) makes the present-day version both more immediate and absolutely real to me.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that when society seems on the verge of coming unhinged, and as the inevitable fear and unease become simply the texture of our lives – no more, no less – then it is that the arts and science find a new voice that’s original, vital and compelling.

I am finding large communities of composers, dancers, poets, filmmakers and young theater people making new things happen.

My advice? There is not a thing you can do to make the confusion and creativity go away. Just sit back and enjoy it.

And there is plenty to enjoy. Look at the young ones – the ones in their 20s and early 30s. No, they all won’t be geniuses. But I am finding large communities of composers, dancers, poets, filmmakers and young theater people making new things happen.

And, by the way, they don’t need our approval or praise. They really don’t care what we think. Among them will be fools and geniuses, and (very young) businessman and women and even some going for deep social change. The issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion and simple human happiness and joy are all on the table again. What could be better?

PHILIP GLASS is an American composer and founder of the Philip Glass Ensemble. He is planning to build his Philip Glass Center for the Arts, Science and the Environment in Big Sur.

Philip Glass Facts:

• Philip Glass first came to Big Sur as a young man riding on a motorcycle, hoping to meet Henry Miller. “That’s what one did in those days,” he says. Many decades later, the Philip Glass Center for the Arts, Science and the Environment he hopes to build at Big Sur’s Brazil Ranch is to serve as a legacy for the 76-year-old roaming composer.

• Philip Glass has composed nine ballets, 41 chamber works, 12 choral works, 14 concertos, 47 film scores, 21 keyboard works, 26 operas, 27 orchestral works, 13 Philip Glass Ensemble works, five solo pieces, seven songs, 10 symphonies, 18 theater works and five world music works.

• Though his breakout decade was the ‘70s, Glass’ most prolific was the decade of 2000-2009, in which he composed more than 50 new works, including the opera Appomattox, the Leonard Cohen collaboration Book of Longing, A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close and film scores for the Robert S. McNamara documentary The Fog of War, the Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett drama Notes on a Scandal and the Golden Globe – and Academy Award-nominated The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Ed Harris.

• There have been 13 books written about Glass and his music, including 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and Writings on Glass, and six documentaries, including Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.

• Some of his contemporaries include Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage, John Adams and Michael Nyman. He’s reluctant to ascribe to the “minimalist” music label, instead preferring “theater music” or “art music” or “music with repetitive structures.”

• Some of his many collaborations include Aphex Twin, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Richard Serra, Allen Ginsberg, Foday Musa Suso, Patti Smith, Woody Allen, Ravi Shankar, David Byrne, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, Twyla Tharp… it goes on.

• IBM programmed what’s dubbed “Glass Engine” software to allow people to navigate Glass’ music easily, with settings that allow one to navigate by tempo or levels of joy in a piece.  

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