Philip Glass: The Perennial Lighting Rod

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anonymous_color.jpgThe French have this great saying, entre chien et loup. Literally, “between a dog and a wolf,” but of course it’s much more poetic than that – it is used to describe that time of day when the light is fading but it’s not yet dark, and things have a kind of eerie hue to them. (And thus, you can’t tell a dog from a wolf.) More generally it can mean something which is not quite this, not quite that.

I mention this phrase because while Philip Glass has had many things said about him – glowing, reverential tributes and some of the most outrageously outraged reviews you’ll ever read – I wonder if anyone’s ever said that about him. Glass is a unique figure in modern music. When Soundcheck kicked off WNYC’s Leonard Bernstein Festival last week, we wondered on-air whether there could ever be someone like Lenny, who was a major classical music figure but also an iconic figure of popular culture. In a fragmented media landscape, our guests all agreed that it was highly unlikely. But Philip Glass comes close. At this point, he has been an answer on Jeopardy, dragged willy-nilly into the animated world of South Park (the Christmas show from their first season), collaborated with Paul Simon, David Bowie, David Byrne, and many others, and has become one of the most easily identifiable composers of film scores anywhere. This last bit is no mean feat, given that his style is constantly being copied by others. He is very much a figure of American popular culture.

In fact, this is not a new phenomenon. Glass was entre chien et loup from the beginning. With his DIY approach, his amplified band, and his insistent, rhythmic, tonal music (at a time when “classical” music was largely atonal and cerebral) all set him apart. When I first heard his album Dance in the mid-70s, it seemed to me to be akin to some of the so-called Krautrock that was coming from progressive rock circles in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In fact, it was about a year after starting my college radio rock show that someone finally pointed out to me that Philip Glass wasn’t actually rock music. “Why do you play that classical composer on a rock show?” this colleague asked. I believe he was complaining, actually. Which a lot of people have done about Glass’s music over the years - about 40 of them, in fact.

So Glass remains a lightning rod of controversy in the music world. Many who previously loathed his work now love it, and some of his strongest proponents now claim he’s just rehashing old ideas in recent years. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it, that after 40 years in the public eye, he’s still somewhere between a dog and a wolf.

Now, a new 10-cd set offers one view of what his musical legacy will be… what do YOU think? What is his place in the music world, and what is his legacy likely to be? Leave a comment.