By Anne Midgette / The Washington Post
NEW YORK — Philip Glass is hard to pin down. Not that he has airs; on the contrary, he’s one of the most straightforward composers you’re likely to meet. In conversation, he asks your opinion about things, and when he chuckles at one of his own punchlines, he looks at you hopefully, waiting for a laugh.
Yet he’s still hard to pin down, because there have been many different Philip Glasses over the composer’s 81 years. If you think you know who Philip Glass is, you probably don’t.
You’ll know the outlines, of course. Glass is one of the most popular and prolific composers alive. His output is veritably Bach-like in its range and quantity. To some people, Glass is “Koyaanisqatsi,” the pulsing, mind-bending film in which Glass’s music and Godfrey Reggio’s images play equal parts. To some, he’s “Einstein on the Beach,” the breakout avant-garde opera he created with director Robert Wilson in 1976. Some would name the symphonies he wrote based on the albums David Bowie recorded in Berlin in the late 1970s, “Heroes” and “Low.” (He’s currently working on a symphony — his 12th — based on Bowie’s third Berlin album, “Lodger.”)
In the new-music world, some hail his masterpiece as “Music in 12 Parts,” the four-plus-hour work he wrote in the early 1970s as a summation of his distinctive musical language. Operagoers might name the 2016 revision of “Appomattox,” covering a century of American history, from the Civil War to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And “a lot of people like ‘The Hours,’” Glass says, referring to the score of the 2002 film with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, one of three of his film scores nominated for an Oscar. “Why not? Beautiful women, and a nice story, and all that.”
All of these works are Glass, and none of them are. Glass is mercurial: constantly changing, shifting, reinventing himself. A practicing Buddhist, he seems to embrace the idea that nothing is permanent.
The classical music world has long viewed Glass as an outsider. Glass isn’t a composer who is offered teaching gigs, although he’s been a mentor to scores of young musicians. And this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, which he will receive Sunday, is one of only a handful of major awards he’s received, all late in his career.
“My first big award was the Praemium Imperiale,” the Japanese international arts award founded in 1988, he says. “I was 75. I had long ago given up any thought of getting any.”
In 2015, this was followed by Canada’s Glenn Gould Prize and the National Medal of the Arts, bestowed by President Barack Obama.
Usually, he’d be working — something he does 10 to 12 hours a day.
The result of this steady output is evident in more than 30,000 manuscript pages of music 27 operas, 11 symphonies, 8 string quartets, 20 piano études and 50-odd films, among many other works.
As for his award, “the good thing about this is that we’re going to have art music now at the Kennedy Center” Honors, he says. “The Kennedy Center – I think it was supposed to be the fount of popular culture. But it doesn’t have to be. I mean, why not have other culture, too?”
But surely Glass knows that for some in the classical world, his music is pop culture?
“Well, that’s … ” he says, momentarily at a loss for words. But he’s amused, not angry. He finally finds what he wants to say. “That’s pathetic.”