A warning, in advance, that what follows is a sentimental wallow.
I first came to know the music of Philip Glass in 1983, when – as an ambitious 17-year-old autodidact subscriber to the classical-music division of the RCA Music Club – I forgot to send back the "ship nothing" reply card one fateful month, and thus found myself in possession of the newest album by a living composer I'd never heard of. Truthfully, I doubt that I could have named another living composer then, let alone one whose idiom was so far afield of the Copland, Stravinsky, and Varèse I was devouring at the time.
Which is how I acquired my first Glass recording: The Photographer. On cassette.
I found the music instantly fascinating – the two longer pieces, Act II and Act III, especially – even if I lacked the technical acumen to explain how and why they worked. The response was visceral… it quite simply was.
But I can't say I fell deeply in love with Glass's music until a month or so later, when I ventured to acquire another tape…
Glassworks was a nakedly commercial venture: a set of appealing pieces, and succinct ones by Glass's standard, intended to introduce lay listeners to his language gently. It worked. And to this day, I pull Glassworks out (or, more likely, stream it somewhere) on a regular basis.
And then came the plunge into the Real Deal…
I still recall the pride I felt in using Christmas money from my grandparents to purchase a recording of A Complete Opera—and a weird contemporary one, to boot. (For some reason I was oddly certain they'd be impressed; I don't know that they were, actually.) This was the original Tomato version of Einstein on the Beach, re-pressed on four vinyl LPs by CBS Masterworks.
Truthfully, I'd had a taste of Einstein already: an absolutely roof-raising live recording of "Building" was included on The Nova Convention, a two-cassette release from Giorno Poetry Systems, which I'd acquired principally because it featured Frank Zappa (forgive me) and William S. Burroughs. This would have been one of my earliest encounters with Laurie Anderson, too.
Sadly, the Nova Convention "Building" hasn't been ripped and posted, near as I can tell. But the original one is fierce, too, and it paved my way toward Glass's more conventional subsequent operas.
I can't and won't claim to have heard every single note that Glass has composed or recorded—I mean, who has, apart from Glass himself? But I've heard a lot, and I continue to listen… and I still believe that "Hymn to the Aten" (or "Hymn to the Sun," if you prefer) from Akhnaten is the single most beautiful thing Glass has composed, to date.
Having waited for decades, I finally heard Akhnaten and the "Hymn" performed live on opening night of the Metropolitan Opera run last year. To be perfectly honest, I had serious reservations about aspects of the production; maybe you noticed I never reviewed it formally, or even posted much about it on social media. But the performance was magnificent, convincing me that Akhnaten actually is a better piece than I'd thought it was, these past 30-plus years… and time stood still when Anthony Roth Costanzo sang the "Hymn."
Glass turns 83 today, and he's still going strong: writing new music, touring the world, earning standing ovations in Big Cultural Institutions that once shunned him. (The ovation he received at Akhnaten was thunderous.) In the coming weeks here in New York City, the current manifestation of his long-running Philip Glass Ensemble will play the watershed composition Music in 12 Parts at Le Poisson Rouge – without Glass – spread across two nights and four sets on Feb. 16 and 17, while his newest music-theater project, Mud/Drowning, a collaboration with director JoAnne Akalaitis, opens on Feb. 21 at Mabou Mines, running through March 7.
But for the record, Glass remains worthy of more and better attention. His symphonies are solid pieces, deserving wider circulation; at least a few merit repertory status. And while it's been wonderful to experience Glass's great "Portrait Trilogy" operas among audibly appreciative sold-out crowds in New York over the last decade and change, I'd still love to see some of his stronger subsequent operas mounted here. I surmise that the revised Appomattox suits that description, to read my friend and colleague Anne Midgette's review, and I strongly believe that Waiting for the Barbarians – which I reviewed for The New York Times in its U.S. premiere at Austin Lyric Opera – also merits production—especially in the present political moment.
I'm grateful to have lived with Glass's music all these years, and glad as well to have had numerous professional intersections with him over the decades. Glass actually was one of my first-ever interviews, back when I was a undergraduate reporter writing for the campus newspaper. (Some day I'll locate that article and decide whether it's worth scanning or transcribing.) Twenty years later, I had the distinct pleasure – and challenge! – of tailing Glass, tape recorder in hand, while he chased his two youngest sons, then aged 5 and 3, around a Houston Street playground, and documenting his impressively composed train of thought for a New York Times feature about having old and new operas appearing on both coasts, more or less at once.
A decade after that, I shared the National Sawdust stage with Glass, John Zorn, and my present employer, Paola Prestini, leading a conversation about influence, lineage, and legacy. However calm and professional I might have appeared on that occasion, inner me was utter Wayne and Garth.
Happy birthday, Mr. Glass. And for all these decades of inspiration and joy: profound thanks.