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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin
“Crossover”: Who's on Top?

fig. 8-5 Scene from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

Yet not even Music for 18 Musicians marked the crest of the minimalist wave. That decisive moment came on Sunday, 21 November 1976, seven months after the premiere of 18, when Einstein on the Beach, a four-act opera by Philip Glass (b. 1937), composed in collaboration with the avant-garde theater director and stage designer Robert Wilson (b. 1941), played to a packed Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The wildly enthusiastic audience, perhaps needless to say, did not consist of Met subscribers. Instead, it was as if the “downtown” New York arts scene—painters, conceptual artists, experimental theater hands, art-rockers and their fans, along with a scattering of curious “classical” musicians who felt distinctly like onlookers—had migrated northward and invaded the precincts of high art for a night. “Who are these people?”43 one of the opera house administrators supposedly asked Glass. “I've never seen them here before.” As Glass tells the story, “I remember replying very candidly, ‘Well, you'd better find out who they are, because if this place expects to be running in twenty-five years, that's your audience out there.’”

It has not turned out that way. As of the year 2000, the Metropolitan Opera was still running on its traditional repertoire, leavened by only the occasional premiere, and was still supported by its traditional, if noticeably aging, audience. If anything, the crossover phenomenon has worked the other way over the long haul; the one Glass opera to play the Met since Einstein on the Beach (The Voyage, an actual Metropolitan Opera commission performed in 1992 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the New World) is decidedly tamer, more “mainstream” than his works of the seventies. Like Reich, and like many musical radicals, Glass has been mellowed by success. But the Einstein performance was nonetheless a watershed.

Glass's development paralleled Reich's in many ways, though with some significant variations. His early training in his native Baltimore was entirely conventional, as were his fledgling years as a composer. Unlike Reich, Glass majored in music at the University of Chicago, where he matriculated at the precocious age of fifteen. He then went on to Juilliard and studied with the same teachers, Bergsma and Persichetti, as Reich. They were initially more successful in instilling in Glass the neoclassical and public-spirited values of the preserial American academy. On his graduation with a master's degree in 1961, Glass received a Ford Foundation grant to become composer-in-residence to the Pittsburgh public schools, for which he turned out a quantity of simple functional music, some of it (including choral settings of poetry by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg) in a somewhat “Americanist” idiom. Glass's music of this early period, almost all of it subsequently withdrawn by the composer, has been compared to the work of Hindemith and Copland.

In 1963, Glass applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to follow in Copland's footsteps as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, then still teaching at the American Academy at Fontainebleau near Paris. He spent two years in France, and this is where he had his musical epiphany. It did not come from Boulanger; like Reich, Glass found his voice as a result of an unforeseen brush with non-European music. He took a job with the famous Indian musician Ravi Shankar (b. 1920), notating from recordings the music Shankar had composed at his sitar to accompany a documentary film. From this task Glass learned, as he put it, “how music may be structured by rhythmic patterning rather than by harmonic progression.” From Paris he went to India to study at its source the music by which he now wanted to be influenced.

“Crossover”: Who's on Top?

fig. 8-6 Ravi Shankar performing on the sitar.

Like Reich, who had learned similar lessons from African and Indonesian musics, Glass quickly realized that he would have to make his own performance opportunities. He thus joined in what, in retrospect at least, seems the signal “convergence” in the mid-to-late 1960s between rock performers who, unusually, wrote their own material and classically trained composers who, unusually, performed their own material. Like Reich, Glass adopted the amplified instruments of rock, putting the electric organ at the center of his sound world, and in 1968 he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble to perform the works he was composing in a style he initially referred to as “music with repetitive structures.”44 For a while Reich and Glass, who had known each other slightly at Juilliard, were eager collaborators. Glass reencountered his old acquaintance shortly after his return from India, at a gallery concert in March 1967 at which Reich's Piano Phase was performed in a luxurious four-piano arrangement, and was immediately moved to emulate it by stripping down his style even further. He rigorously excreted the last trappings of dissonance and chromaticism from his music, these being the badges of Western harmonically driven modernism, and rid his textures of all reference to conservatory-style counterpoint or part-writing. Like Reich, he explored subtactile pulses at fast tempos and steady loud volumes. For two years each performed in the other's ensemble, and each egged the other on toward ever more rigorous systematization of the single musical dimension—rhythm and duration—they now thought worthy of development. For a while their creative exchange resembled the one a few years earlier between Riley and Reich on the opposite coast. They even collaborated for a while on a subsistence occupation: Chelsea Light Moving, consisting of two composers with strong backs and a van.

But their partnership quickly became a purist rivalry, as each tried to outstrip the other's commitment to rigor and system, showing that the competitive modernist spirit, though under challenge, was still alive and well. To match Reich's achievement yet maintain his creative individuality, Glass came up with a processual method, distinct from Reich's “phase” procedure, that reflected his involvement with Indian classical music. In place of Reich's progressive canons, which introduced a form of “Western” contrapuntal complexity into the texture, Glass concentrated on what he called “additive structure” (shrewdly rechristened “additive and subtractive”45 by the critic K. Robert Schwarz), which could be applied to single musical lines played by solo instruments or by ensembles employing unison doubling or rudimentary homorhythmic textures in parallel or similar motion, something prohibited by the conservatory rulebook and therefore that much more radical in concept.

As usual, the first embodiment of the process, Strung Out (1967) for solo amplified violin, was the most rigorous and radical. A twenty-minute barrage of relentless eighth-notes employing only five pitches, it consisted of a pentatonic module that was subjected to variations by increasing or decreasing its length by one note at a time. Each modification became a repetitive module in turn, so that the overall impression was one of constantly expanding and contracting phrases, a rigorously maintained undifferentiated (isochronous) rhythm that was continually and subtly reinterpreted metrically. Even further reduced was 1 + 1 (1968), in which the sound was produced not by a standard instrument, but by tapping a tabletop—an anticipation of Reich's Clapping Music.

Two Pages for Steve Reich (1968) was the first piece composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble. It applies the additive-subtractive technique at its purest and most radical to a variable unison ensemble of electric keyboards and amplified wind instruments. Its 107 modules are each repeated an indefinite number of times, so that the piece is of variable duration. The rigorous process that relates each module to its predecessor and successor is self-evident to anyone glancing at the score. Like Reich, Glass did not keep any secrets of structure. On the contrary, he delighted in calling attention to the process, equating it with the musical content. Long stretches of vocal music in Einstein on the Beach have no other text than the counting of the notes in the modules.

In 1969, the title of Two Pages for Steve Reich became Two Pages. The rivalry had turned unfriendly, and remained so. Reich has attributed the falling-out to Glass's unwillingness to acknowledge his creative debts, but the younger composer's attraction to the theater and his greater affinity for the rock scene were bound to separate them eventually, leading Glass out of Reich's immediate orbit and ultimately toward the operas that made him famous. Those operas, in turn, had a strong and openly acknowledged influence on the art-rock of the 1970s and 1980s.

Less openly acknowledged, indeed often finessed or even deliberately clouded, is the question of rock's influence on the development of Glass's music. That Glass, of all the pioneering minimalists, had the strongest ties to Anglo-American pop music has always been clear. His music, while it avoids the most obvious rock instruments (electric guitars and trap-set percussion), is often amplified to the earsplitting level typical of rock bands. It is far more often played in rock clubs than Reich's. Beginning in 1977, recordings of Glass's music were issued by rock labels, and he began writing pieces that conformed in length and shape to the specifications of a rock single. By the 1980s he was collaborating as closely with rock musicians like David Byrne (of the Talking Heads) and Paul Simon as he ever had collaborated with Reich. He even served for a while as producer for a rock band. And beginning in 1970, one of the regular members of his ensemble, along with the actual singers and players, has been a “sound designer” (audio engineer and mixer) named Kurt Munkacsi, who had started his career as an electric bass player in a rock band and had previously worked alongside George Martin for the Beatles, and whose key role in producing (or “cranking up”) the Philip Glass sound was standard in pop but unprecedented in classical music. By the 1990s, Glass was repaying the compliment rock musicians had paid him with works like his Low Symphony (1992), based on thematic material derived from a rock album, Low (1977), by Brian Eno and David Bowie—“symphonic rock” to recall or parallel the “symphonic jazz” of the 1920s.

But was there a rock input in Glass's style, beyond mere “sonic” or technological matters like instrumentation and amplification, to counterbalance the later influence and homage? Glass himself has been coy when asked. In an interview with the rock and jazz critic Robert Palmer (1945–97) following the spectacular Met performance of Einstein on the Beach, Glass responded to a question about “crossover” in a way that surprised his interlocutor. Though willing to be described as a standard-bearer for “the era of the serious composer as performing musician and pop hero,”46 Glass insisted that there was still “one important distinction between pop and concert music,” adding, “I think it's the only important distinction.” Asked to elaborate, he continued:

When you talk about concert musicians, you're talking about people who actually invent language. They create values, a value being a unit of meaning that is new and different. Pop musicians package language. I don't think there's anything wrong with packaging language; some of that can be very good music. I realized long ago that people were going to make money off my ideas in a way that I'm not capable of or interested in doing. It doesn't bother me; the two kinds of music are just different. One thing these English and German groups have done, though, they've taken the language of our music and made it much more accessible. It's been helpful. If people had heard only Fleetwood Mac [i.e., an “ordinary” American rock group] this music would sound like music from outer space.47

These are precisely the “late, late romantic” distinctions—between creator and disseminator, innovator and imitator, art and commerce (or “culture industry”)—that had stood previously in the way of “crossover” by denying its possibility, or at least its legitimacy. Glass had effectively reinstated the old hierarchy of high and low. Within such a model influence can flow only one way (since if it flowed the other way it would be not influence but debasement). The only concession Glass is willing to make beyond what Schoenberg or Adorno would have allowed is that “packaged language” is not intrinsically corrupt or dehumanizing. But the squeamishness is palpable; to admit to an influence from popular culture beyond the borrowing of its hardware would have compromised Glass's status as a serious artist—in his own eyes.


(43) Philip Glass, Music by Philip Glass, ed. Robert T. Jones (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 53.

(44) Quoted in Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 107.

(45) Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 120.

(46) Robert Palmer, liner note to Glass, Einstein on the Beach (Tomato Records TOM-4-2901 [1976]), p. 5.

(47) Philip Glass, quoted in Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008010.xml