b. 31 January 1937, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Glass was educated at the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School of Music before going to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger between 1963 and 1965. By this time he knew that ‘playing second fiddle to Stockhausen didn’t seem like a lot of fun.... There didn’t seem to be any need to write any more of that kind of music. The only thing to do was to start somewhere else...’ He did not know where that point was until he was hired to work on an Ornette Coleman film score. He did not want to change the music so Ravi Shankar was asked to write additional material which Glass orchestrated. As he struggled with the problem of writing this music down, Glass came to see that there was another way that music could be organized. It could be structured by rhythm. Instead of dividing the music up as he had been trying to do to write it down, the Indian musicians added to rhythmic phrases and let the music expand. With Ravi Shankar he had now also worked with a composer who was a performer. Glass travelled to North Africa and Asia before returning to New York in 1967 where he studied with the tabla player Alla Rakha.
In 1968 Glass formed the ensemble he needed to perform the music he was now writing. This was the period of the purest minimalism with extending and contracting rhythmic figures in a stable diatonic framework performed at the kind of volume more often associated with rock music. Glass later described it as music which ‘must be listened to as a pure sound event, an act without any dramatic structure.’ It did not stay in that abstract world of pure sound for very long. In 1975 he had no record contract and began work with Robert Wilson on Einstein On The Beach which turned out to be the first of three operas on ‘historical figures who changed the course of world events through the wisdom and strength of their inner vision’. Einstein On The Beach was premiered in Europe and reached the Metropolitan on 21 November 1976. He was signed by CBS Records in 1982 and produced the successful Glassworks. In 1970 he had been joined by Kurt Munkacsi, sound designer, mixer and engineer and the two explored all the potential studios and new technology on offer. The operas were produced in the studio first so that others could work with them and their final recordings were enhanced by the capabilities of the studio: ‘We don’t hang a mike in front of an orchestra.... Almost every section is extended electronically.’
Although Glass’ music has stayed close to the method he established in the early 70s, from Einstein On The Beach onwards the harmony has been richer and he has been willing to explore orchestral colour because ‘the most important thing is that the music provides an emotional framework or context. It literally tells you what to feel about what you’re seeing.’ Much of his work since has been either for the stage or for film. This includes the two operas Satyagraha (1980) and Ahknaten (1984) and two visually striking films with Godfrey Reggio - Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988). In the late 80s and early 90s Glass also wrote film scores for The Thin Blue Line, Hamburger Hill, Candyman, and Compassion In Exile: The Life Of The 14th Dalai Lama. Glass co-operated with Brian Eno on an reappraisal of the latter’s Low project for David Bowie and repeated the formula with Heroes in 1997. At the start of 1998 he gained an Oscar nomination for the score of Martin Scorcese’s Kundun. In 1999, he created a new musical score for the 1931 screen version of Dracula, which was performed by the Kronos Quartet. His opera White Raven opened in New York in 2001.
Glass is the first composer to encompass a wide audience through movie soundtracks, opera, classical, and popular music.