Introduction of Philip Glass to the Class of 2000
Commencement 2000, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
The Chicago Theater, May 20, 2000

Peter Gena

[a recording of Glass' music is playing in the hall as the podium is approached]

It was the Summer of 1972. I was still a graduate student composer when I attended the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt for the first time. This well-known annual summer course for new music had been established in 1949 in an attempt to reconstruct the contemporary musical environment in post World War II Germany and Europe. It has long been a haven for students and composers alike to learn and share the latest ideas. In those days, the cream of the European crop of avant-garde composers could be found lecturing and giving concerts. That summer brought, under one roof, Hungarian, György Ligeti; Greek-born French composer, Iannis Xenakis; Argentinean-born German, Mauricio Kagel; German, Karlheinz Stockhausen; and American, Christian Wolff among many others.

I fondly remember basking in the sights and sounds of these luminaries during those three weeks. However, my most profound musical memory, came not from any of the numerous live concerts, not from the myriad of examples performed at lectures, but rather from a recording of an excerpt from one piece by a composer who wasn't even present in Darmstadt—it was a record that Christian Wolff played during his first public lecture. The piece was what you just heard, Music with Changing Parts, by Philip Glass, an ensemble work for electronic organs, violin, voices and winds. [to the sound booth] Let's hear a little of that again [sound fades after 20 seconds]. While the whole of Darmstadt was still in the throes of modernist post-expressionism, (or at best, a few of us were experimenting with the more conceptual tenets of minimalism), this traditional motif on a C-minor chord, repeated and developed for just over an hour, turned my musical world on its ear. Philip immediately became my favorite among those composers who shared my initials. In subsequent years, it has been my pleasure to see him performing in venues ranging from the most grass roots clubs to the New York State Opera house. In all instances, he has been most gracious and humble, often agreeing to visit my classes or give a talk on a moment’s notice.

Clearly Philip's work, with its basic harmonies and additive rhythms, not only pointed to a fresh approach that began to narrow the schism that existed between "so-called, serious music" and popular music —a phenomenon in place since the time of Mozart—but it represented a new way of weaving everyday triads—chords so painstakingly avoided by the avant garde—into the fabric of new music. It was after hearing Philip's music that I finally understood what painter Willem de Kooning meant when he said, “history doesn't influence me, I influence it!” I was now able to listen to J. S. Bach's wonderful counterpoint in a new, fresh way. The inner lines jumped at me more than ever, after I had experienced the slowly unfolding patterns that emerged from Philip's music.

Originally from Baltimore, Philip Glass studied flute from an early age. During his second year in high school, he applied to the University of Chicago and got in, graduating with a liberal arts degree at age 19! Resolute to become a composer, he moved to New York and attended the Juilliard School, showing less interest in the serial composers who dominated academia, but preferring American Composers like Aaron Copland and the then president of Juilliard, William Schuman. Like Copland, he subsequently moved to Paris where he studied with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger; and later discovered Indian music, which permanently changed his aesthetic. In the seventies, he provided music as one of the co-founders for Mabou Mines, and formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, culminating with the 3 hour long Music in 12 Parts. In 1976, Philip went on to produce with Robert Wilson what is generally regarded as the most important operatic work of the 20th century, Einstein on the Beach. He subsequently composed many more operas (including Satyagraha, which was done at the Chicago Lyric), some seven film scores, including the award-winning Scorsese film Kundun, and original music for The Truman Show, which won a Golden Globe award in 1999. His output also includes theater, dance (with Twyla Tharp and Lucinda Childs), chamber, and symphonic works too abundant to mention. There are also numerous recordings on Columbia, Nonesuch, and his own label Point Music. Philip’s wide range appeal was further evinced by his appearances on the Letterman Show, Saturday Night Live, Charlie Rose, Regis and Kathy Lee, Showtime, The Simpsons (as a dentist), South Park, People Magazine, and (my favorite) his own Dewer’s Scotch profile.

The cliché “imitation is the best form of flattery” is all too generic. Over the years, we've all heard Glass knock-off music created by his followers in many venues including concerts and advertising. But, speaking of influencing history, what about the case of a composer being imitated by his predecessors—influencing history? You've probably heard about the black sheep of the Bach family, P.D.Q. Bach (who lived roughly from 1807 to 1742), a prolific tonmeister unearthed only a few decades ago by composer and musicologist Peter Schickele. Schickele had discovered many memorable works of PDQ Bach, including the operas The Stoned Guest, Iphigenia in Brooklyn, The Abduction of Figaro, and Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice. But, it wasn't until after Philip’s Einstein on the Beach, that Schickele uncovered PDQ Bach’s last and greatest opus entitled, Einstein on the Fritz!

In addition to the pleasure of expounding on Philip’s importance to new music, I was given the difficult task of introducing him to you, the class of 2000. I say that, because you in fact already know him so well. I'm reminded of what Charles Asnavour said to a Paris audience when he introduced Frank Sinatra at a concert in the 60s. He remarked (and I'll spare you the French), “I was asked to introduce Frank Sinatra to you, but you know him all too well... instead I would like to present you to Frank Sinatra.”

So accordingly….Philip Glass, please allow me to introduce to you the Class of 2000!

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