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The widespread influence of Philip Glass

The modern era of cinema has been blessed with an array of celestial composers who have influenced no end of subsequent figures. Be it Aaron Copland, Steve Reich, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ennio Morricone or even John Carpenter, over the past 100 years or so, culture has witnessed a string of musical geniuses help to shape how we do things artistically, and without them, all facets of popular culture would be very different.

One composer to have such a wide-reaching impact has been American minimalist pioneer Philip Glass. A master of “music with repetitive structures”, he’s composed for operas, films and concertos, as well as many other collaborative projects, and has shown over his long and eminent career that there’s nothing he cannot do when it comes to penning music. Following on from this, to view him as solely minimalist would be hugely reductive. 

Glass was influenced by modern classical composers such as Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg, and from their influence, the composer would eventually develop an unmistakable style. Dissatisfied with what was deemed to be ‘modern’ music when he was a budding student of the craft, he moved to Europe. There, he was taught by legendary musician Nadia Boulanger, the woman behind greats such as Aaron Copland and Quincy Jones, which had a defining impact on him cultivating his fluid style. 

Some of the operas he’s composed have been performed constantly throughout the world’s leading houses for decades, and you’d be hard stretched to find a performance of his work that isn’t sold out. He’s penned works such as ‘Einstein on the Beach’, ‘Satyagraha’, ‘Akhnaten’, and ‘The Voyage’, among many others – and duly, in terms of modern composing, you don’t get any more lauded than he. 

Furthermore, the glacial power of his work has helped to augment some of the most memorable motion pictures ever released, including 2002’s The Hours, Scorsese’s Kundun and Godfrey Reggio’s experimental masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi

Glass’s nature as a musical polymath has really captured the imagination. His associations are manifold, and they range from the niche to some of the most iconic musicians out there. Indeed, his collaboration with playwright and director Robert Wilson is a well-known one, but his team efforts with a colourful mix of figures are what really marks Glass out, aside from his stellar work, of course.

Watch St. Vincent honour Philip Glass with her cover of ‘Osamu’s Theme’

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He can boast associations with Allen Ginsberg, Paul Schrader, Ravi Shankar, David Byrne, Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and even Twyla Tharp. The list of legends he’s helped create art with is truly endless, and each of them has been keen to stress his magnificence.

Glass has made an impact in the opera house, rave, rock festival and film, placing him in a category that is all of his own. It’s no coincidence that Dev Hynes, the mastermind behind Blood Orange, told NPR in 2017 that Glass’ work “seeps” through his own. 

“You listen to what he’s been doing, and it’s radically different,” said the performance artist Laurie Anderson to the Washington Post in 2018. A friend and collaborator of Glass’s for over 40 years, she explained: “Many people get a style, do the style, repeat the style, are known for the style. Phil never did that. That’s another thing I find so wild about his work. It changes in ways I don’t think other people’s does.”

This artistic dexterity is what has given Glass’s work the endurance that it does. For his work to be heard in the efforts of Radiohead and Aphex Twin, says it all. However, as we noted prior, his work goes much further than this, and permeates every facet of the creative arts. The most prominent contemporary film soundtrack composer, Hans Zimmer, was noted for paying a close homage to Glass’s work on Koyaanisqatsi for his work on 2014’s Interstellar. Something akin to how The Beatles changed popular music, Glass is an intellectual hue that colours contemporary culture. 

Glass makes a strong claim for being the most influential composer of the modern era, and if you were to wipe him from the collective data bank, life would look very different, which is a testament to just how deeply embedded his work is.

Listen to ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ below.