Artist of the Month: Phillip Glass

-By William O’Connor

Chuck Close "Phillip Glass" 1969

If what you’re doing doesn’t require a new technique, than what you’re doing probably isn’t new.

-Phillip Glass

In my education as an artist the two art forms that helped inform me about art history throughout time and place it into its context has always been architecture and music. Its easier to understand Tiepolo if you see Baroque palaces and hear Handel’s music. Its easier to understand Romanticism with the accompaniment of Beethoven and Gothic Revival buildings. One of the great difficulties of understanding Modernism has been placing it in its context. For me there is no better soundtrack to Late Modernism than Phillip Glass (1937-)

Post-War American Modernism was the apex of The Modernist Experiment. Its often referred to as an Experiment because for the first time in history artists of all disciplines were working together to completely redefine art from anything that had come before, building upon one another’s discoveries like scientists. Artists intentionally detached themselves from any traditional history that had come before them. A new art for a new age. Writers like Joyce and Ginsberg experimented with doing away with the conventions of the English language reinventing vocabulary and grammar. Architects like Meis Van der Roe and La Corbusier eliminated any traditional forms of the past in buildings like arches and masonry to try to create a new kind of space from new materials. Painters too eliminated all ties to traditional craftsmanship, eliminating the perspective, draftsmanship and “Illusions” created in the Renaissance to create a new kind of picture making, to try to capture the pure essence of images.

Whether you enjoy Modern art or not is irrelevant, it was one of histories most earnest efforts to create a new and authentic art culture since the dawn of the Renaissance in the 15th century. For me the paintings and sculptures of the Modern movement are the least evocative medium of the era. For me the design, architecture and mostly, the music are the most informative works of this time, and Phillip Glass was the master of the movement. Glass’ early atonal work is definitive in its conception. Like the design, architecture and paintings of the period, Glass removes all the traditional structures of music that had preceded him in the Western tradition and strips music down to its barest basics of sound. Eliminating harmony, structure and tones, he composes raw sound,and uses new technology to create these revolutionary designs.

In Phillip Glass’ seminal 1976, 5 hour opera “Einstein on the Beach” he takes the highly refined form of opera and completely reinvents the medium. Taking his inspiration from the purely abstract methodology of theoretical physics and mathematics and translating its concepts into sound. Repetitive sequences, atonal phrases orbiting and swirling in seemingly random order, but if you listen carefully you start to see the patterns, the strings binding the music together, and what had seemed a simple repetitive phrase, becomes infinitely complex in its minute details.

Glass’ Minimalist works from this period were often as difficult to listen to as a dissertation on physics, but no less fascinating. Likewise the paintings of the time which were exploring similar themes can be equally daunting but equally rewarding. Looking at the paintings of Clifford Still, Josef Albers, Yves Klien and others can be greatly enhanced by listening to Glass simultaneously. It is a discipline that takes concentration and practice, but for the same aesthetic purpose of a zen garden, minimalism forces the viewer to look inward.

By the late eighties Phillip Glass (along with the entire art world) abandoned minimalism and to a greater extent Modernism. Glass evolved in the Post-Modernist period to re-embrace symphonic styles of music, but never loosing his unique sound producing award winning pieces for symphonies, opera and film such as his Bafta award winning score for The Hours (2002). Glass has become a ubiquitous and prolific composer in all mediums collaborating with pop musicians, film scores, television and art installation and today is considered one of the most important artists of this century. Today as we all grapple with new techniques and new concepts in new media that were hardly imaginable just decades ago, I find it fascinating, and I find inspiration, in an artist who plunged himself entirely into a technological, scientific world and came out with art.

Enjoy,
WOC

Documentary:
Glass: A Portrait of Phillip in Twelve Parts


Documentary:
Einstein on theBeach


Album:
Einstein on the Beach:


Robert Motherwell

Josef Albers

Marc Rothko

Cy Twombly "Untitled" 1968

Clifford Still