Minimalist receives major honor

Composer: Despite early slings and arrows, Philip Glass' music is now well-established and recognized.

May 27, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The first time Philip Glass arrived at Peabody Conservatory in the mid-1940s, he almost didn't get past the doorman. The young flute student didn't look as though he belonged. Perhaps it's because he was 8 years old.

The next time he showed up, in the mid-'80s, it was as a cutting-edge composer of a controversial style known as minimalism, a style frequently ridiculed in bastions of higher learning.

On Thursday, Glass returned to Peabody, this time as virtually a mainstream figure. During commencement ceremonies, he was honored with the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America.

Sitting in an office at the conservatory a few hours before receiving that award, Glass reflected animatedly on his formative years, unleashing a stream of memories nearly as hypnotic as his music. The Baltimore native, who was born in 1937 "not far from North Avenue" on a "street that isn't even there anymore," grew up in the Forest Park neighborhood and took the No. 32 streetcar to the Peabody Preparatory to study flute.

"Nobody thought anything of an 8-year-old riding a streetcar by himself for 40 minutes back then," he says. "I was told I was the youngest student at the school. It's amazing the things you think you'd have forgotten, but I still remember the winding staircase here, and the room where I studied. This school is where I was born musically."

Glass remained at the prep school until he was 15, when a yen for a more lively cultural scene led him to the Midwest, where he was admitted, despite his young age, to the University of Chicago.

"Chicago was a great place for jazz in the '50s," Glass says. "I got to hear Billie Holiday live, but I almost had to bribe my way in. And I would watch Charlie Parker through the window of a club where they wouldn't let me in."

After graduating from the university, where he majored in mathematics and philosophy (two fields later reflected in his music), it was on to New York and further studies at the Juilliard School. Baltimore would not figure in his career, except for that 1980s Peabody visit to collaborate with Indian music guru Ravi Shankar. "There wasn't much reason to come back, frankly," Glass says.

But the composer's early life in this city certainly left its mark.

"My father had a radio repair shop here that also sold records and had listening booths where you could play anything before buying it," he says.

"It was in the days of 78s. Nobody worried about scratching the records, because they were all scratchy. I heard everything there -- classical; all the popular music of the day; country music, which they called `hillbilly' then. Baltimore was a center for hillbilly music. I developed very catholic tastes."

He also learned to appreciate what other people did not.

"My father would bring home records that didn't sell to try to find out why," he says. "He would say, `Hey, kid' -- he always called me `kid' -- `What do you think of this?' It would be Bartok and Shostakovich -- modern music in 1945, '46. My father was a great teacher in a way. No one told me one type of music was better than another."

Glass, who worked for a time at his father's store as the record-buyer, picked up a good business sense there. It came in handy when he started his career as a composer. Minimalism -- simple, reiterated melodic riffs and tonal harmonies propelled by rock- and raga-influenced rhythms -- was a tough sell at first.

"I knew I could get it played on radio, but I had to have records," he says. "Then all my skills from the record shop were very useful. I would have fallen to the bottom of the pond without them. I started my own ... company to record my music. I gave away 1,000 records in 1970, '71."

Glass also formed his own performing ensemble, which further spread the word that a bold, new style was challenging the norm. Although audiences and publicity kept growing, Glass hardly had it made. He worked day jobs in New York until he was 41, driving a cab and moving furniture. Bit by bit, his music took hold in enough places to provide economic stability for him, and make him a fixture on the international scene -- to the dismay of his old teachers.

"I was a great disappointment to them," Glass says with a smile. "They were saddened by what had become of me."

The crime Glass and a few others (notably Steve Reich) had committed was to abandon the dissonant style that had been consid- ered the true path for composition students. Glass' music took a radical turn after he met Shankar and immersed himself in Eastern styles. The result was the polar opposite of the complexities first established by Arnold Schoenberg and subsequently embraced by a generation of atonal composers.

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