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Joy In Repetition: Philip Glass Turns 75

At age 75, composer Philip Glass is as busy as ever.
Stewart Cohen
At age 75, composer Philip Glass is as busy as ever.

Philip Glass turns 75 tomorrow. Impossible, you say? Given his two dozen operas, reams of orchestral music, virtually uncountable film scores and scads of projects in every discipline, isn't he like 90 or 100 or 110? Or, judging by his kaleidoscopic connections and collaborators, isn't he somewhere between 20 and 50, hunkered down among hipsters and plotting his next move toward musical world domination?

Glass is celebrating his birthday with the premiere of his Ninth Symphony by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. It's the same ensemble that introduced his first mature orchestra piece, the sweetly lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1, 25 years ago. After Tuesday's festivities, life goes on as usual — an opera production in Norfolk, Va., that violin concerto in Bologna, Italy, orchestral music in Warwick, England. And that only takes us up to Saturday. He's touring throughout the year with Einstein on the Beach, the groundbreaking minimalist opera on a maximal scale he created with director Robert Wilson. (Here's a moving 2009 performance of the finale featuring the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.)

It's safe to say that no contemporary musician with classical ties has had Glass' reach or success. What other composer has been both commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and appeared as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live? But there are goals yet unreached, as in this exchange from The Simpsons:

Carl Carlsson to David Byrne (who has just walked into Moe's Tavern): David Byrne?

Bartender Moe Szyslak: Singer, artist, composer, director, Talking Head?

Byrne: And I used to wrestle under the name El Diablo.

Lenny Leonard: I thought that was Philip Glass.

Byrne: Yeah, he wishes.

No living composer has married music to a wider range of images and movement than Glass has. If you can judge a person by the company he keeps, consider that a very short sample of Glass' artistic partners includes Byrne, Paul Simon, Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Scorsese, Nobel literature laureate Doris Lessing, choreographer Twyla Tharp, playwright David Henry Hwang and filmmaker Errol Morris.

To get an idea of what makes Glass Glass, let's examine just one project, his score for the mesmerizing Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It's from 1985, when the former Baltimore child prodigy (University of Chicago at age 14) had completed his training (Juilliard and then Paris, with Copland's teacher Nadia Boulanger) and stints as a New York cabbie and plumber (he installed art critic Robert Hughes' dishwasher).

Mishima, like Einstein and the Gandhi opera Satyagraha, is built around a larger-than-life historical figure, a Japanese author whose ritual suicide is foreshadowed in the sweeping theme. The haunting score for string orchestra and percussion also has passages for the Kronos Quartet, which eventually became Glass' String Quartet No. 3. (Not only does his music resemble Vivaldi's in sound and quantity, but he also repurposes like his Baroque predecessors.)

In one memorable section of Mishima, the composer employs the sound of a surf-rock band that captures the anxious energy of postwar Japanese youth. In the slow section that follows, there's a passage that reappears time and time again as background music in This American Life, the radio show hosted and produced by Glass' cousin and fellow Baltimore native Ira Glass.

Mishima is but one moment from an international career that shows no signs of slowing down. Hear Mishima below, as well as a few other high points from Glass' catalog. What are your favorites? Have you seen him perform? Let us know in the comments section or Tweet @nprclassical.

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Mark Mobley