Ten things you might not know about… Philip Glass

This article is from 2013

Ten things you might not know about . . . Philip Glass

Learn more about the greatly talented US composer in town for the EIF

Before he performs a Ginsberg tribute with Patti Smith, and scores a black and white film of La Belle et La Bete in the EIF, we remind ourselves of the many reasons why we love US composer Philip Glass. Just don't call him a minimalist

1. He was a gifted child
Glass took up the violin at the age of six. At just 14 he was accepted into the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics and philosophy – subjects that would remain at the core of his work throughout his career.

2. He's surprisingly handy
A former wrestler, Glass could certainly look after himself. In 1970, when the Philip Glass Ensemble performed in Amsterdam, an enthusiastic fan (or perhaps a sarcastic situationist critic) invaded the stage and tried to join in. Glass's response? 'I punched him, of which I'm not proud.' Not only that, he kept playing with his non-punching hand.

3… . but as a Buddhist, he's unlikely to attack you

Glass became a student of Tibetan Buddhism in 1966. In the same year, he travelled thousands of miles to study with Swami Satchidananda in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival, he found a note from the guru inviting Glass to his newly opened ashram in New York. Presumably this was a valuable lesson in patience and humility.

4. He wrote music for Sesame Street
In 1979, Glass provided a creepy and spectral accompaniment to a short geometric animation for Jim Henson's timeless, educational and occasionally psychedelic TV show. (It's on YouTube if you want a watch.)

5… . and Swatch
In the 1990s, Glass was commissioned to write a melody for the Swatch MusiCall wristwatch. At just four seconds long, this is by some distance his shortest-ever composition.

6… . and advertised whisky
A 1982 magazine ad features a painted and fairly louche-looking Glass gripping a handful of musical notes while a disembodied hand offers him a tumbler of Scotch on the rocks. 'Success hasn't made Glass any less of a maverick,' reads the drunken blurb. 'But for all the traditions he breaks, there's one he respects. At the end of the day, he enjoys a Cutty Sark.'

7. He's a Phil of all trades
Even celebrated contemporary composers have to pay the rent. During much of the 70s, Glass still worked day jobs, including being a cab driver and plumber.

One day, Glass was installing a dishwasher in a SoHo loft: 'I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. "But you're Philip Glass! What are you doing here?" It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished.'

8. He's no minimalist

Along with Reich, Riley and Young, Glass is rightly considered one of the founders of minimalism. However, for most of his career – indeed, almost the last forty years – he has described himself as a classicist, and his music is more informed by the romanticism of Schubert and Bach than by the pared-back severity of his 1960s and early 70s experiments. This rarely stops the M-word being used as lazy shorthand.

9… . in fact, he's written more operas than Wagner

Glass's numerous operatic adventures include epic, impressionistic and surreal semi-biographical works about Einstein, Columbus, Gandhi, Akhenaten and the Manson Family (featuring the non-traditional tenor of one Iggy Pop), as well as adaptations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Allen Ginsberg and a sci-fi tale by Doris Lessing (The Making of the Representative for Planet 8).

10… . and even recorded a pop album. Sort of.
Glass moved away from concert halls and opera houses for the oddly fascinating 1986 curio Songs for Liquid Days, which features lyrics by Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Originally proposed by CBS in order to fund one of Glass's operas, the album's six tracks were just too otherworldly – not to mention too long – for the pop charts.

La Belle et la Bête, Edinburgh Playhouse, 10 –11 Aug, 8pm, £12–£35; Conversations: Philip Glass and Patti Smith, The Hub, 13 Aug, 12pm, £6. SOLD OUT; The Poet Speaks, Edinburgh Playhouse, 13 Aug, 8.30pm, £12–£35. All tickets: 0131 473 2000

Philip Glass - Sesame Street - Geometry of Circles

La Belle et la Bête

  • 1946
  • France
  • 1h 36min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Jean Cocteau
  • Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély

The story of a young girl who takes her father's place as prisoner to a wealthy beast. With the original soundtrack (including dialogue) stripped and replaced with music from Philip Glass.