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Philip Glass: Minimal Minimalism 

click to enlarge Philip Glass performs “Mad Rush” at the Garrison Institute’s Satyagraha Project, held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, April 11-13, 2008. Glass will perform at the Garrison Institute on July 19.
  • Philip Glass performs “Mad Rush” at the Garrison Institute’s Satyagraha Project, held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, April 11-13, 2008. Glass will perform at the Garrison Institute on July 19.

If you hopped in a New York taxi back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, your driver may well have been Philip Glass. During the same era, you may have encountered him if you were contending with a backed-up toilet, as he also worked as a plumber, or needed to schlep your furniture across town and hired the moving company he ran with fellow composer Steve Reich. The figure recognized as one of the most influential composers of the last 100 years, who will perform in a benefit concert at progressive interfaith organization the Garrison Institute on July 19, once worked all of these jobs as he developed the mesmerizing music known as minimalism. Did such overly routine work impact his famously repetitive early compositions?

“That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer it,” says Glass. “I guess the real reason I did all of those jobs, rather than just work as a music teacher, was to be very clear with myself as to what my true vocation—my calling—really was. I could do these freelance jobs and then compose in my off hours and know just where I stood with myself. People in Europe don’t always get the way things work over here, and they say to me, ‘You are a plumber who became a composer!’ But I tell them, ‘No, even back then I was a composer. Being a plumber is just something I did until I didn’t have to do anything except be a composer.’”

Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore. He studied flute at the Peabody Conservatory of Music before entering, at age 15, an accelerated academic program at the University of Chicago, enrolling at Julliard (Reich was a classmate), and studying under Darius Milhaud in Colorado. A Fulbright Scholarship took him to Paris, where he studied with preeminent educator Nadia Boulanger and worked with Ravi Shankar, immersing himself in the music of the Indian sitar legend’s homeland.

After returning to New York, Glass formed an ensemble to play his music in lofts and galleries. The early minimalism of Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley, and a love of loud rock, led him through a “rigorously minimal” period before his work grew more complex. His 1974 opera Einstein on the Beach is one of the 20th century’s landmark works, a haunting, five-hour “metaphorical look at Albert Einstein.” To many, Glass—a cousin of “This American Life” host Ira Glass—is best known for 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, 2003’s The Fog of War, and other film scores. This month’s concert promises a solo performance by the composer and a recital of his vocal work (with texts by Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, and others) by Trevor Gureckis and Tara Hugo. Work from his minimalist era will be kept to a, well, minimum.

“‘Mad Rush,’ which was first performed for the Dali Lama in 1979, is the only piece from that period that will be played,” says Glass, a Buddhist and former Hudson resident. “All the selections relate to Buddhism, which is key to the institute’s pursuits.”

Philip Glass will perform at the Garrison Institute in Garrison on July 19 at 6:30pm. Tickets are $50 (general seating), $150 (preferred seating), and $25 (students).
(845) 424-4800; Garrisoninstitute.org.

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