Good Tunes: The Political Economy of Philip Glass

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/31/2010 12:03:00 AM
It shouldn't surprise anybody that I am an avid Philip Glass fan. While I generally disdain low American strip mall, subprime, and SUV culture, his work is of a higher standard. Known almost to all, Glass is arguably the finest living American composer. At a time when popular awareness of classical music is approaching nil, he bravely carries the torch. Of course, it helps his international reputation that Glass bashes widespread American atrocities such as the invasion of Iraq in the name of freedom and growth. (It may sound funny but the artistic reputation of Yanks who enjoy bashing their own is generally higher abroad.) In particular, I enjoyed his play Waiting for the Barbarians in which he dwells on the themes of state-sponsored torture and repression.

While listening to yet another addition to his extensive discography featuring the Glass Chamber Players fronted by his girlfriend Wendy Sutter, I was taken by the informative liner notes that suggest American cultural depravity and the compositional flourishes of Glass may be related after all. As it turns out, Philip Glass's father became an initially reluctant listener to modern composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, and Dmitri Shostakovich (who I do listen to, by the way). Ben Glass had trouble selling their records at his music store. To investigate why, he took these records home:
In another story, Glass would tell of the “return privilege” which was part of the record industry in which retailers were allowed to return a certain percentage of the records if they were damaged. In order to exercise this privilege, Philip and his brother Marty would go down into the basement and break the records that had not sold. This was the first job that Philip Glass ever held in the music industry.

Such an action was a logical answer to a problem: what to do with the records that didn’t sell? Being a very practical guy, as we saw with the evolution of his businesses, Ben Glass had another idea. He would take the records home and listen to them to try to find out why people weren’t buying them. It just so happens that the music which was not selling was classical and 20th century chamber music by composers like Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Bartok. It was in this way that the Glass home record collection of 78s grew and that a very big part of Philip Glass’ artistic sensibilities were first cultivated. The soundtrack of Philip Glass’ youth had been created.

It is important to the history of music is that Philip Glass spent time as a young person at home with his father listening to chamber music records. Ben Glass was not an educated musician, but he was a music lover in best sense. In the process of listening to these records to “find out what was wrong with them,” he became a sophisticated listener and developed a taste for chamber music. Father Glass would bring Philip in to the room and simply say to the future composer, “Here kid, listen to this.” Years later, after his father’s death, Glass composed his first concert-work as a mature composer, his Violin Concerto No.1 in 1987. He composed it as a piece that he hoped his father would have liked in the tradition of the great concertos by such composers as Mendelssohn, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky concertos.
And so the young Philip Glass was well on his way to becoming what he is today. Not bad for a onetime taxi driver. It's strange but true: American cultural ignoramuses defined the formative years of Philip Glass. I guess that's something to be thankful for as we contemplate the idiosyncrasies of Einstein at the Beach.