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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

A touring production of Philip Glass’s monumental “Einstein on the Beach,” one of a great many tributes that kicked off this year in honor of the 75th birthday of the world’s most famous living composer, arrives this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Glass and his collaborator, avant-garde director and playwright Robert Wilson, called the sprawling work an opera because it shares certain superficial attributes — dancers, a pit orchestra, a proscenium arch — with the traditional form. But as the audience for the piece’s 1976 premiere in the United States at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House must have realized right away, the similarities end there.

Instead of words, the chorus sings numbers and solfege syllables (like do-re-mi, representing the different notes of the scale). Text spoken throughout the piece was written by choreographer Lucinda Childs, an autistic 14-year-old poet named Christopher Knowles and Samuel L. Johnson, an amateur actor who auditioned for a role in the show. Various images and ideas from Albert Einstein’s life and work — trains, clocks, gyroscopes, a violin, an outstretched tongue, a spaceship — appear and reappear in various combinations, amounting to no discernible plot. Small musical fragments undergo subtle variations as they repeat, seeming to distort the passage of time itself. The opera’s ecstatic final act, which many have interpreted as a poetic vision of the nuclear holocaust, centers on a shifty, five-chord pattern that, looping back on itself, is as sublime as it is unsettling.

“Einstein” marked a point of transition from Glass’s earlier works, which eschewed harmonic motion in favor of strict organization by rhythmic variation, toward pieces that married these strict “minimalist” principles with traces of functional harmony. The rest — from “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten,” the two operas that followed, to the film score for “The Hours” — is history.

Here, in honor of the prolific composer’s achievements in music for stage and screen, is a quiz about the minutiae of Glass’s life and work — assembled (how else?) in modular parts.

I. MINIMALIST EXPERIMENTS AND THE BIRTH OF GLASS’S ‘INTENTIONLESS MUSIC’

Philip Glass, who is generally regarded as a polite, mild-mannered fellow, once punched a man. What for?

Climbing onstage and trying to play along on the keyboard at a performance of “Two Pages” in Amsterdam in 1969. Hecklers were common among audiences first hearing Glass’s loud, repetitive experimental music. At another performance, in Central Park, a schoolteacher started yelling that the musicians didn’t know how to play their instruments. That time, the police intervened.

What exactly was Glass smoking in the 1960s?

Nothing — maybe. Producer Kurt Munkacsi claims that in those early days performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble in downtown art galleries and lofts, everyone but Glass did drugs. Can this possibly be true? Glass’s solo violin piece “Strung Out” (1967) was ostensibly named for the way its 20-page manuscript was meant to be unfolded and hung up on the walls of a performance venue, though Glass also allows for the possibility that the title could refer to the expression meaning “to be at the end of one’s tether.” In interviews, he has often rejected the claim that his minimalist compositions were designed for meditation (chemically assisted or not), insisting that his music, like most, is meant to be listened to.

Which Philip Glass work did the U.S. Copyright Office refuse to register?

“1+1” (1967) — a piece in which the performer, tapping his or her hands against a tabletop, is instructed to combine two basic rhythmic “building blocks” into “continuous, regular arithmetic progressions.” The squares at the copyright office said it was a “theoretical model” rather than a true composition.

II. THE EUROPEAN AVANT-GARDE

In 1964, Glass traveled to Paris to study counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary taskmaster and teacher of 20th-century American greats like Aaron Copland. While abroad, Glass also:

(A) got married.

(B) studied Indian music with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

(C) became interested in experimental theater, especially plays by Samuel Beckett.

(D) wrote his first piece for the theater, a soprano saxophone duet to accompany Beckett’s “Play.”

(E) attended a couple of Pierre Boulez concerts and decided they weren’t for him.

(F) began thinking about additive and cyclical rhythms.

(G) all of the above.

Answer: G — and then some.

What did actresses JoAnne Akalaitis and Ruth Maleczech do in performances of Glass’s 1960s concert work “Music for Woodwind Quartet and Two Actresses”?

Declaimed a soufflé recipe over the music. Tragically, the work has been lost.

III. WHY MAKING MONEY IS DIFFERENT FROM SELLING OUT

Which two rock musicians attended a performance of Glass’s “Music With Changing Parts” (1970) at London’s Royal College of Art in 1971?

David Bowie and Brian Eno. Glass’s influence found its way into their work, and in 1992 Glass brought things full circle with his Symphony No. 1, which was loosely based around three themes from their 1977 album, “Low.”

For which film did Glass win the Golden Globe Award for best original score?

“The Truman Show” (1998). His scores for “The Hours” (2002) and “Kundun” (1997) also snagged Golden Globe nominations and, along with the score for “Notes on a Scandal” (2006), were nominated for Oscars. Other notable works for the big screen include the score for Errol Morris’s documentary “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) and the spooky piece Glass wrote for the Kronos Quartet on the occasion of the rerelease of “Dracula” (1931) in 1999.

Who wrote the lyrics for Glass’s pop-ish album “Songs From Liquid Days” (1986)?

Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. “Everybody was hoping that somehow, accidentally, I would write a hit song,” Glass later said of the project. He didn’t.

Philip Glass’s likeness was used to advertise which product?

Cutty Sark Scots Whisky, in a 1982 advertisement in Newsweek under the banner “Here’s to those who can make history out of the same 12 notes.”

IV. PERSONAL LIFE

True or false: Philip Glass is a Jew-Bu (Jewish Buddhist).

A trick question, really — but probably false, given his distaste for labels. Glass was born to Jews, and these days he studies with a Qigong teacher and Taoist spiritual adviser, a Toltec shaman and a Tibetan Buddhist lama. He has met the Dalai Lama on several occasions, and his fifth symphony, “Requiem, Bardo,” borrows sacred texts from Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Zuni, Tibetan and Muslim sources, among others. The unsuspecting journalist who asks Glass about his Buddhist practice is sure to be met with the composer’s insistence that he doesn’t adhere to any one particular faith. “You might say I’m a Taoist, I’m a Hindu, I’m Jewish, I’m Christian,” he told one reporter. In another interview, he remarked, “No particular culture seems to have a copyright on profound ideas about the world.”

Philip Glass hates which of the following?

(A) clutter

(B) overhead lighting

(C) miniature figurines of bugs and frogs playing instruments

Answer: (B). His East Village townhouse is filled with lamps. He collects (C), according to his fourth wife, Holly Critchlow, and has been known to amass a certain amount of (A), especially on the top of his piano, when he’s working on a big piece.

Where is Glass’s summer home?

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. He bought it with his first wife, JoAnn Akalaitis. (Akalaitis, who later went on to serve as artistic director of The Public Theater, named her first experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines, after a village near the house.) Today the place consists of a main house, a farmhouse and a hermitage, where Glass writes. There are also 11 little cabins, where friends and family stay. Visit, and you’re likely to find, say, Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor responsible for many of Glass’s orchestral commissions, lounging in a hammock.

Who is Glass’s most famous relative?

Either Ira Glass, whose dad is his first cousin, or Al Jolson, who was Glass’s father’s uncle. Another uncle played drums for the Marx Brothers.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.