As the 1970s were coming to a close, David Bowie hosted a radio show on which he played eleven pieces of the decade’s music which he considered important. Among them was “Trial/Prison,” from an opera called Einstein on the Beach. The artist/composer was Philip Glass – I had never heard of him, but was immediately transfixed. Although conceptually, the music wasn’t so alien to me – I’d read Paul McCartney’s thoughts on Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pete Townshend’s on Terry Riley – it really was unlike anything I’d heard before. This was not a rock song, it was something quite outside the realm of my experience, and I wanted more.
I went to Sidewinder, the local used record shop I’d been frequenting since before I was a teenager, and purchased my first Philip Glass record, North Star. I was hooked. It was a few years later when I finally found a copy of Einstein, the whole of which was a revelation to me. The music was mesmerizing, hypnotic, and not “operatic” in any sense that I understood. The idea one could make a “portrait opera” with no plot or character development to speak of, yet that was evocative and compelling, informed my thinking of a figurative art with no use of narrative which was nonetheless emotionally engaging. Of course, this concept was far from new, but as a young painter, one must often come to ideas via one’s own avenues of thought. Glass’ music helped open those avenues for me.
At the close of Einstein’s first run of performances in 1976 – 35 sold-out shows, two in NYC, the rest across Europe – Glass and dramatist Robert Wilson were $100,000 in the red. Staging an opera is not a money-making proposition; what Einstein did make for them both were careers. Two years later – not long before I heard “Trial/Prison” for the first time – Glass was able to quit his cab driver gig and write and perform music full time.
The first time I saw Philip Glass live was in 1986 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco; he and his ensemble played the Songs from Liquid Days song cycle in its entirety and A Descent into the Maelström. Over the years, I’ve seen him many times, including performances of Satyagraha, La Belle et la Bête, and Koyaanisqatsi. Perhaps most notably, in 2012, I saw Einstein on the Beach in its West Coast premiere run, which was one of the most affecting musical experiences of my life. At almost five hours long, Einstein immerses the audience in its aesthetic – not only the music, but Wilson’s imagery and the choreography of Lucinda Childs, plus the contributions of the rest of the creative team. Einstein is not the vision of one person, but Glass’ music is the unifying component which gives it the power which has not diminished with time. Experiencing it was as startling as hearing “Trial/Prison” for the first time, thirty-three years before. I had never seen anything like it, and I don’t imagine I ever will again – I feel fortunate to have been there.
Philip Glass is no longer seen as an avant-garde madman as he was in the 1970s; having composed the music for many mainstream films, he is now firmly in the popular culture. Although he still gets more than his share of abusive press, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential composers of the last half century. He turns eighty-four years old today.