Looking through Glass

Sixty years after graduating UChicago, Philip Glass (A.B. '56) returns to talk about his time at the College and its influence on his music
Philip Glass
Photo by: 
Michael Zhao, Visual Media Editor, Class of 2016
Coming [to UChicago] was like walking into a living encyclopedia
Philip Glass

In a school best known for its economics department, it’s almost difficult to imagine Philip Glass (A.B. ’56), one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century, getting his start here at the University of Chicago. He, like many of the other thousands of College students that have passed through this campus, often locked himself in his dorm room late into the night to focus on his studies. A  philosophy and mathematics double major, Glass definitely had a lot on his plate.

And yet he still found the time to compose his first three-tone string trio in his room in Coulter House, Burton-Judson. What was once a hobby during his College years soon became his life’s work, and he went on to compose 18 operas, 10 symphonies, 11 concertos, and 37 film scores. He became known for a minimalist, repetitive style that revolutionized the way musicians have approached their own work. Now, 60 years after graduating from UChicago, at the ripe age of 79, Glass has returned to his humble beginnings for a three-day residency as a Presidential Arts Fellow, to both talk about and perform his music.

Glass’s residency began Wednesday February 17th, with a screening of the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Based on the life and work of the extremely controversial author and political activist Yukio Mishima, the film blends the line between fact and fiction by interweaving episodes from his life with dramatizations of his novels. The score, composed by Glass, differs with each chapter, and aims to reflect both the content and the visual style. For instance the black-and-white flashbacks are accompanied by a string quartet; the story of Mishima's last day uses a string orchestra and percussion; and the scenes depicting his novels use a large symphonic orchestra.

After the screening, Glass sat down for a discussion with Associate Professor of Music Berthold Hoeckner, in which he explained his creative process: “[The] first thing I did was immerse myself in [Mishima’s] world. I read everything I could. My personal method is the same way people learn a language—I immerse myself in the world.”

That is a perfectly UChicago type of answer.

When it comes to composing—whether for a film, play, or opera—Glass will begin by researching the subject matter at hand, often spending hours looking through books or journal articles. He owes a lot of his methodology to the education he received here, calling his college years the “most formative years” of his life.

“What Chicago provided me,” said Glass, “was a deep and broad cultural basis. Frankly, I couldn’t have become an opera composer without the training [from UChicago]. Because I knew how to read, I knew how to use the library, I knew how to research a project….Coming here was like walking into a living encyclopedia.”

But how did Glass end up here in the first place? Desperate to leave his small town in Maryland, he decided to start applying to colleges at the age of 14. Arriving at UChicago at 15, he was by far one of the youngest members of the College at the time. Despite his age, he seemed to be welcomed with open arms. “It’s like I had a whole class of older brothers and sisters—they really looked after us. [I was] welcomed there, taken care of, [and was] not left alone,” he said.

Glass really took the “life of the mind” mentality to heart. To him, collaboration is more than just working with other artists. It’s about working with different ideas, philosophies, and even scientific journals. It’s about immersing yourself in the history of what you’re writing about, consulting source material and history textbooks. His broad interests and love of learning drew him to UChicago’s curriculum, which introduced him to a variety of different subjects and taught him how to think critically. He would even audit extra humanities classes that had nothing to do with his major. “That kind of education—,” says Glass, “I don’t know where you would have found it elsewhere.”

His thirst for knowledge and his love of research served him well once he left the College. According to him, the lessons he learned from the Core gave him the edge over other musicians: “When I got involved in the arts, I got involved with collaborations with dancers and writers and scientists. The idea of reading science books wasn’t foreign to me [like it was to other musicians].”

Although obviously interested in math and philosophy during his College years, music was Glass’s true calling. Although we have what Glass calls a “small, tiny little music school,” he made the most of his experience in Hyde Park by utilizing what, to him, was UChicago’s greatest asset—the library. “[In the library,] I found scores…I found recordings, [and] I began to study music. I began to write music there. And [it was there that] the thought eventually began forming in my mind that I might eventually become a musician.”

Calling Glass just a musician seems almost an understatement. “His name is mythical in the music world,” said third-year Peter Xu, who waited in line for almost five hours for last-minute student tickets for the last event of Glass’s residency, a performance of his complete piano etudes.Philip Glass UChicago Student ID

The sold-out concert brought students, alumni, and Chicago-residents alike into the beautiful Mandel Hall. Glass himself was one of five musicians to perform; the others included jazz pianist Aaron Diehl and classical musicians Lisa Kaplan, Maki Namekawa, and Timo Andres. Each breathed a different spirit into the etudes and made the audience think about Glass’s music in new ways.

“It was amazing hearing the progression of Glass's harmonic ideas over the course of the etudes, which spanned most of his career,” said Xu. (Glass began composing the etudes in 1991 and wrote the last one—number 20—in 2012.)

To see one of the most influential musicians in recent times not only talk about but also play his music is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At the end of his residency, his UChicago community was certainly sad to see Glass leave for New York, where he is currently composing a score for the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Although the three days felt like they passed by in mere seconds, we were grateful for the time we had and showed it at his final concert with a roaring standing ovation that lasted almost five minutes.

Given his history with the College, Glass’s homecoming was especially meaningful for our campus and for members of his former house in Burton-Judson. Rivka Arbetter, third-year and member of Coulter House, actually attended his concert in part because of Glass’s lasting influence on her house’s culture. “As the most famous alum of our house, we would celebrate his birthday in the Burton-Judson library by playing his compositions, listening [to his music], and watching a slideshow our RH had prepared about his time in Coulter,” she said.

And, we’re not only learning from him, but he’s learning from us. “This generation of kids are extremely interesting,” says Glass after a master-class with UChicago composition students on the second day of his residency. “They’re not even writing music the way we write music. But I love to hear it because it sounds like something I could never write. And what could be better than that? If you’re a composer hearing music you could never write—isn’t that great?”