Philip Glass turns 70 today. I've been trying without success to remember when I first became aware of his music. Unlike Steve Reich — who came into my life unforgettably through my first exposure to Music for 18 Musicians — Glass seemed to have always been there. It's an illusion, of course, and probably an accident of historical timing — a function of having begun to pay serious attention to new music just after the Big Bang of Einstein on the Beach, so that Glass's expanding musical universe was the one I was already living in.
What I do remember, though, is the U.S. premiere of Satyagraha — still my nomination for Glass's profoundest and most beautiful work — at BAM in 1981. The idea that these distinctive musical techniques could be put in the service of a spectacle that was (unlike Einstein) narrative without being conventionally dramatic, expressive without being emotional, and simultaneously repetitive and developmental, felt earth-shaking. Years later, after all the operas and quasi-operas and film scores, it still does.
What's been interesting too is to watch the progress of Glass's name as a cultural signifier, from obscurity through the phase of stupid knock-knock jokes and out the other side again. It's unfortunate that that last stage has had a lot to do with his involvement with Hollywood; but that's the world we live in, and it's better than nothing. As Mr. Satyagraha almost said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they give you an Oscar.
Happy birthday, Philip.