A Pop Quiz on Philip Glass

Everything About 'Einstein on the Beach' Composer

Glass Works: Kate Moran, Helga Davis and Charles Williams perform in the revival of Philip Glass’s seminal 1976 opera, ‘Einstein on the Beach.’
Lucie Jansch
Glass Works: Kate Moran, Helga Davis and Charles Williams perform in the revival of Philip Glass’s seminal 1976 opera, ‘Einstein on the Beach.’

By Eileen Reynolds

Published September 18, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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V. HOW TO SUCCEED

What did Glass study in college?

Mathematics and philosophy, at the University of Chicago, where he enrolled at the age of 15 and graduated three years later. That was after studying music at the Peabody Conservatory from the age of 8, and before he entered The Juilliard School’s composition program. His parents, the offspring of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Belarussia, thought he was going to be a doctor. Oy.

Philip Glass never held which of the following jobs?

(A) crane operator

(B) furniture mover

(C) insurance agent

Answer: (C). That was Charles Ives. The crane operating gig (A), at Bethlehem Steel in Glass’s native Baltimore, helped pay his Juilliard tuition. Later, in New York City, he formed the company Chelsea Light Moving (B) with his cousin, sculptor Jene Highstein, to support their downtown art habit.

How much did it cost Glass and Wilson to mount “Einstein on the Beach” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976?

$900,000 — and to make matters worse, they lost $10,000 on each sold-out performance. To raise money to cover $90,000 of outstanding debt at the end of the run, Wilson sold his drawings and Glass sold his score and famously worked shifts as a cab driver and plumber. It was a $20,000 commission from the City of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, to write a “real opera” (the piece that would become “Satyagraha,” about the life of Gandhi), combined with a $10,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, that finally enabled Glass to make the switch to composing full time.

How much did the Metropolitan Opera pay when it commissioned Glass to write “The Voyage” (1992), an opera about Christopher Columbus?

$325,000 — at that time, the largest commission in the history of the opera house. Tastes change.

What was Glass able to provide to the members of his ensemble, beginning in the mid-1970s?

Unemployment insurance. Health insurance followed a few years later. In addition to driving taxi cabs, Glass guaranteed the financial security of his group by carefully guarding the performance rights to his music. Rock bands made money performing their own music on tour, so why should the Philip Glass Ensemble be any different? To this day, Glass’s publishing company, Dunvagen Music Publishers, still has final say over where and by whom his music is played, and Glass himself continues to perform.

Which hotshot young contemporary composer worked for Glass from 1999 to 2008?

Nico Muhly. He got the job when he was a sophomore at Columbia University. Working at the composer’s studio in SoHo, Muhly took Glass’s handwritten manuscripts and used an electronic keyboard to “play them in” to a computer program that could play back the full orchestrations on synthesizers. As many as three pieces were in the Glass pipeline at any given time.

What did Glass do, unannounced, on his 75th birthday on January 31, before the American premiere of his ninth symphony at Carnegie Hall that evening?

Put a previous recording of the symphony, from its world premiere a month earlier by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, up for sale on iTunes. By February 2 it had reached No. 15 on the iTunes top-100 albums chart.

Of course, by then, work on the 10th symphony was well under way.

Eileen Reynolds has written about the arts for publications including The Believer and newyorker.com.


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