Philip Glass is one of the only living classical composers, if not the only one, to have achieved any kind of popular celebrity. For people who "don't listen to classical music," his name still evokes his instantly recognizable musical signature, the repeated arpeggios that cycle like gears in so many of his scores. Perhaps no composer in the past half-century has done more to invent a new sentimental lingua franca, aped or outright pinched for pop songs, TV commercials and movie scores.
But what his many imitators — and detractors — fail to realize is that Philip Glass's music is more than just a style, but a whole language painstakingly built from scratch over his long and prolific career. Before he became a cultural force, he was a very well-schooled composer, following his studies at Juilliard with rigorous training from the legendary Nadia Boulanger. His simple music only works because its simple components are so well made, and so seamlessly joined.
Those infamous arpeggios are only the most elegant expression of his musical ideas, simultaneously conveying to an uninitiated listener the constant shifts in time and harmony that disturb the otherwise perfect repetitions. Even before he began to arpeggiate, Glass was interested in the expansion and contraction of meter, inspired by a fruitful adaptation of Indian classical music. The earliest works in his mature, repetitive style — Two Pages, for example — consist of a single melody built by "additive process," gradually adding one note, then another, then another, to a rapidly repeating figure, then subtracting them.
Even after he began to add more and more layers to the equation, his early music could be a hard listen. The huge Music in Twelve Parts is dizzyingly, exhilaratingly busy, but still a stiff draught. He and his peers demanded a new, more patient kind of listening — that early work invites the audience to fully digest and comprehend what's happening in the music at every moment before it moves forward again.
From this musical base, Glass then proceeded to conquer every arena of classical music. His first opera, the highly oblique Einstein on the Beach, became a cultural touchstone, as Glass's music and Robert Wilson's stagecraft defied audiences to derive any simple meaning from the work; his work has since been commissioned and revived by the Metropolitan Opera and by opera houses around the world. Director Godfrey Reggio had to persuade him to write his first film score, Koyanisqaatsi; his subsequent film projects have earned him three Oscar nominations and a legion of admirers.
More recently, with pieces like the Eighth Symphony and Second Violin Concerto, "The American Four Seasons," his music has doubled down on the neoclassical sensibility one might expect from a Boulanger student — sophisticated enough, and easy enough on the ear, to charm the fustiest Mozart lover — just in time for the classical establishment to accept him, however reluctantly, as a major composer as well as a cultural force. Carnegie Hall commissioned a Ninth Symphony to celebrate his 75th birthday in January 2012.