Philip Glass: A Life in Music, and in the East Village

World-renowned composer and East Village denizen Philip Glass was born on January 31, 1937  in Baltimore.  The child of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, his mother aided Holocaust survivors and recent arrivals to America by allowing them to stay at their home until they could find a job and a place to live. In 1964, Glass was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and studied in Paris. He first came to New York City in the 1950s, and made it his permanent home in March, 1967.

[Philip Glass, Kiev Restaurant, 2nd Ave & East 7th St., New York City, June 10, 1993. Photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.]

Glass’s compositions have been described as minimal music, similar to other “minimalist” composers. But he has described himself instead as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”, which he has helped evolve. Glass founded the Philip Glass Ensemble, with which he still performs on keyboards. He has written numerous operas and musical theatre works, eleven concertos, seven string quartets, and various other pieces of chamber music and film scores. Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards. 

He had his first concert at the Anthology Film Archives space thanks to another local legend, Jonas Mekas, who had moved his Cinematheque 80 from Wooster Street to the now-landmarked building on Second Avenue. In an interview with NPR Glass wryly remarked on the agitated response his early avant-garde work sometimes garnered:  “If they threw an egg, that wasn’t so bad because the eggs would just break.  There was no danger from egg throwing, unless they boiled the eggs first, which they sometimes did.”

Swedish-born American Pop artist Claes Oldenburg (left) and composer Philip Glass (center) talk together at the Kress Art Fair, New York, New York, January 24, 1974. Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. Used with permission.

Glass’ life and career followed an unconventional path.  After the U.S. premiere of his opera Einstein on the Beach at the Met in 1976, he was still driving a cab.  His first appearance in the Village Voice was not in the review sections but in the classifieds, with an ad for his services as a mover.  He told Steven Thrasher in a revealing 2012 interview, “So these kinds of jobs were around, and they still are, but you can’t work three days a week and make a living anymore. So that’s much more difficult in coming to New York.” But, he notes, “people still do, and they manage. They get together, find lofts and apartments, but they don’t find the privacy and the space.”

His memoirs, published in 2015.

Philip Glass is one of a number of famous East Village fixtures in this cool map by Ephemera Press with all artwork by James Romberger & Marguerite Van Cook.  A real local, Glass’ children have attended local schools, including the 3rd Street Music School.

Ephemera Press and the artists James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook , http://ephemerapress.com/east-village.html

On his 75th birthday, Glass told the Village Voice, “I’m not down in Florida playing golf. I’m still in the East Village. Things haven’t changed that much for me.” Glass holds the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2017-2018 season. Highlights will include performances by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra with Anoushka Shankar, the Louisiana Philharmonic, Nico Muhly, the Philip Glass Ensemble and the American Composers Orchestra.  So stay tuned for a world with music from Phillip Glass for a long time to come.  You can also follow him on Facebook, and read more about his work here.

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