Top 10 Essential Philip Glass Recordings

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

'Glassworks' 'Glassworks' (Columbia Masterworks)

Philip Glass has been an extremely prolific composer, and has had long associations with two major record labels: Sony and Nonesuch. Both labels have released box sets meant to introduce listeners to Glass's music; the Nonesuch box is especially elaborate and is itself almost an objet d'art. But there's much more.

Glass has founded three different record labels during his career: Chatham Square in the 70s, Point Music in the 90s, and his current label, Orange Mountain Music. This latter enterprise has allowed Glass to release literally dozens of albums. But if you're just setting out, this can all seem pretty daunting. You probably don't want to start with the mammoth Music In Twelve Parts, and you'll want to work your way up to the sprawling, ambitious Symphony No. 5.

So what to do? Well, here are ten albums that will serve as a fine introduction to Philip Glass's hugely influential music:


Top 10 Essential Philip Glass Recordings



This collection of short, accessible pieces from 1982 was specifically made to introduce Glass to a wider audience, and sure enough, it remains one of his most popular recordings. It includes fine examples of both sides of Glass's art, from the lyricism of "Facades" to the kinetic energy of "Floe." The opening piano solo, called "Opening," reappears in a version for winds and keyboard at the end of the album (called "Closing," naturally), and, with its 3-against-2 rhythms, offers an appealing insight into how Glass's music works.

North Star

This collection of short works features the classic sound of the 1970s Philip Glass Ensemble: winds, female voices (used instrumentally, not singing texts), and keyboards - specifically, the slightly cheesy, hopelessly dated, and now irreplaceable Farfisa organs. Written for a documentary film about sculptor Mark Di Suvero (whose works gave the tracks their individual titles), these pieces are at once finely detailed and vaguely psychedelic (several were closely related to some music cues that Glass wrote for some surprisingly trippy geometry bits on the children's TV show Sesame Street). British rocker Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells fame) would go on to record a cover version of the title song, "North Star."


This was the first of three silent films by Godfrey Reggio with scores by Philip Glass. His ensemble, augmented to virtually orchestral size, and with a full chorus added, plays some of the most gripping, mesmerizing, and propulsive music Glass ever wrote. The film is available on DVD, and occasionally Glass will perform the score to a live screening of the movie; if you have a chance to experience the score in either of these ways, do it. Although widely perceived as a "head trip" when it first appeared in 1982, it is a deeply moving meditation on modern life (the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance"), landscapes, and the passage of time. (pssst, kids...  It's still a really cool head trip!)


The second part of the so-called Qatsi trilogy is probably the soundtrack that stands best on its own - because it is one of the most beguiling, exotically-colored scores that Glass ever wrote. The film looks at the clash of Western-style modernism and technology with the traditional cultures of South America, South Asia, and Africa. So Glass offers a riot of world music influences, adding Australian didjeridoo, West African kora, and truckloads of percussion from around the world. 

Einstein On The Beach

I put this here with a caveat: EOTB is Glass's watershed piece, a work done with dramatist Robert Wilson that forever changed the way we view the term "opera," and which altered the course of many careers (not least among them Glass's and Wilson's). In the opera house, at 5 hours long, with its creative tension between slow-moving images and fast-moving music, it is a singular experience. As a recorded work, it definitely benefited, in my humble and completely heretical opinion, from the editing that was forced on Glass back in 1979 when the piece was released as a set of LPs on the long-defunct Tomato Record label. That recording has been reissued by Sony. It is not nearly as polished a performance as the much later Nonesuch version, but I like its rough-and-ready sound, so reminiscent of the dangerous, gritty, punk-infected streets of late 70s New York.


The second of the three "portrait" operas (after Einstein and before Akhnaten, about the pharoah of that name) looks at Gandhi's years in South Africa, though you'd never know it from just listening: the text is a set of excerpts from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, and is sung in Sanskrit. The music is far more accessible than Einstein, as there are genuine arias, choral pieces, and a simple, glowing finale that is magical precisely because it is so utterly simple. But it's still a far cry from Puccini, with its churning organs and cycling rhythms. 

Songs From Liquid Days

A song cycle that inhabits a grey area between popular and classical music, with texts by some of Glass's musical friends: Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne. The ensemble is scaled back down here, but aided by the Kronos Quartet, the folk trio The Roches, singer Linda Ronstadt, and tenor Douglas Perry, who sang the role of Gandhi in Satyagraha and here delivers the cryptic but ecstatic "Open The Kingdom," with words by David Byrne. 


Another film score, this one for a Martin Scorsese movie about the 14th Dalai Lama. It is especially notable in its use of both live and sampled sounds of Tibetan Buddhist monks, whose impossibly deep, overtone-rich chants add to the score's otherworldly appeal. The occasional interplay of Western voices, Eastern voices, and sampled or electronic vocals provides some of the most intriguing moments, but there are also some epic musical cues that have a narrative arc all their own.  

The Low Symphony

David Bowie and producer Brian Eno made three albums in the mid-70s, their so-called Berlin trilogy, that broke the mold of a "rock album" and extended well into the territory that had been marked off by the classical avant-garde. Glass was a fan, and turned two of those albums, Low and "Heroes", into symphonies. Taking the thematic material of three songs from Low, Glass created a symphonic work that is clearly written in his own musical language; but if you're familiar with the Bowie record you will certainly recognize the melodies as they develop. 

Songs and Poems for Solo Cello

The most recent album on this list is mostly a collection of solo pieces for cello, inspired both by the cello suites of Bach and by the particular cellist involved, Wendy Sutter.  He was exploring new sonic territory in his symphonies at the time, and - in a very different way and on a very different scale - in these intimate cello works too. The record was a huge surprise when it first came out in 2008 - the almost universal reaction was "that's Philip Glass?" For a composer whose style has become so well-known, and so often imitated, this was a kind of statement of intent: it was as if, at 70, Glass was saying "you can take the fork out of me - I'm not done yet." 


Click on each album cover for purchase information. 


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Comments [16]

Steve Pushor from Alexandria va

Happy Birthday Phillip Glass! I have been a fan ever since the early days and love this marathon.

I have had the privilege of attending about three or four Glass concerts in my life including a live orchestra and movie screening of Powaqqatsi on NYC in the 80’s. In DC I saw the knock out “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8” is a full-scale multi media opera by Philip Glass with a libretto by Doris Lessing based on her novel of the same name, first performed in 1988. It took me a week to recover from this massive sound and video barrage.

And yet my Phillip story is not over. I recently saw the famous composer at the opening of the Washington National Gallery of Art East Building in which he spoke in a Q and A and played some piano. When I entered the museum, the line was around the corner. The auditorium was packed. I was in the last row. After the event was over I moseyed around the museum for about an hour or so and then came out of the entrance and there sat Phillip Glass. He was on the phone. I sat 6 feet away from him. I wanted to meet him; but somebody else came up. When I was about to make my move Mr. Glass' taxicab arrived and I saw him whisked away.

Jan. 31 2017 02:29 PM

Good list, but it leaves out the Piano Concertos which I think are beautiful

Aug. 30 2016 08:30 PM

I'd add the collaboration between Glass and Ravi Shankar on "Passages".

Sep. 03 2015 09:18 AM

The best besides The Hours for me is Symphony #9.

Nov. 06 2012 02:20 PM
Steve Glassfan from The Glass Zone

The Photographer- greatest CD of all time!!!!
Monsters of Grace
Symphony No. 9
Einstein on the Beach
Music in Twelve Parts
Another Look at Harmony, Part IV
The Passion of Ramakrishna


Sep. 07 2012 08:34 PM
Hannah from Minneapolis

My introduction to Phillip Glass was hearing Brooklyn Rider play a concert of his string quartets. It was one of the most moving, transcendent and captivating musical experiences I've had. I'd have to include their complete recording of his string quartets.

Sep. 07 2012 12:44 PM
don from New York, NY

OK, Einstein on the Beach, Koyaanisqatsi, and Songs for Liquid days YES
but Solo Piano and The Hours should be up there!

No disrespect to John Schaefer, you literally wrote the book on music that falls between the cracks of genre definitions: New Sounds: A Listener's Guide to New Music, in 1987 no less!

Sep. 06 2012 11:40 AM
Mike from Johns Creek, GA

I didn't "Discover" Philip until a few years ago. For me, he rivals the three "B"s. What simplicity and beauty! Thanks for posting your top 10!

Sep. 06 2012 10:48 AM

"Einstein On The Beach" work is unsurpassed in the twentieth century.
I've seen it 2 times (in 1976 at Paris and in 2012 on March at Montpellier).
In 2 cases it was a delight.

Sep. 06 2012 07:26 AM
John Reiner from NYC

"The Voyage," an opera staged by the Met, is a rarely mentioned work of genius and belongs on the short list. I regret I missed seeing it live but have listened to a fine disk recorded by Deutsche Gramaphone.

Sep. 05 2012 10:00 PM
Mike from McLean, VA

Thank you for the list! I wasn't aware of some of these albums. Mr. Glass's score for "The Hours" continues to be my favorite. It's simply incredible.

Sep. 05 2012 09:46 PM
James Wallis Martin from Christchurch, New Zealand

Although with so many works it is hard to narrow down a top 10 list, because do you try and reflect the wide variety of Philip Glass or try and match it based on defining Philip Glass? The list is very good in showing the diversity, but as far as essential, I would pick stronger works even if they are similar (so "Solo Piano", "Heroes" and "Naqoyqatsi" would have made the list and "Northstar", "Kundun", and "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello" would have come off the list.)

Sep. 05 2012 08:07 PM
Seanna from New York

What about the Aguas da Amazonia collaboration with Uakti?! That was the album that first introduced me to Glass and is still my favorite.

Sep. 05 2012 07:59 PM
Nick from Vancouver, Canada

Rebecca, I couldn't agree more! I saw it performed at the English National Opera in London and was mezmerized from the start. It was the beginning of my love affair with Philip Glass's music. I have seen him perform twice recently on solo piano and will continue to see him whenever the opportunity arises.

Sep. 05 2012 06:57 PM
SD Mittelsteadt from Phoenix, AZ

Great list!! Hard for me to argue any of these selections, and yet there are so many that could be added. Why don't we put all the other recording as a tie for #10?

Koyaanisqatsi is my all-time favorite that I still listen to in its entirety about every couple weeks. It still grabs me as much today as the first time I heard/saw it. I also love Fog of War and the symphonies.

Sep. 05 2012 06:57 PM

AKHNATEN is the best Opera Philip Glass ever composed........its hardly ever mentioned but will be my favourite for eternity!!!!

Sep. 05 2012 06:49 PM

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