The first time I heard Philip Glass’s music I thought he’d been dead for at least a century, like every other classical composer I’d heard of. This was early spring in 1999; Glass was 62, I was 14. It was a month or so after I’d been 86'd from eighth grade, the third time I’d been expelled in two years. My father had not taken the news well. There had been long, moody silences in the weeks since my expulsion, but on this day he came rushing into the house after arriving home from a dentist appointment with urgent glee.
“You’ve got to hear this,” he said, unwrapping Glass’s 1982 composition Glassworks. On the way to the dentist my dad heard Glass’s score for Dracula on public radio. He was dumbstruck. He ended up circling the parking lot in dizzying loops until the music was over, and after his teeth cleaning he went straight to a record store.
This was not the first time my father tried to bludgeon me with his enthusiasm for classical music. In the late '60s, right around the time Glass was driving a cab in New York and working on the music that would become the experimental and influential opera Einstein on the Beach, my father had renounced rock and roll. He was sick of it. If guitar was the primary instrument and the lyrics were about women named Jesse, Amanda, or Eleanor Rigby, he wasn’t interested.
I’d been force-fed so much classical music by 1999 that I was disgusted by it. Many of my childhood memories are befouled by the likes of Schubert and Chopin. The tentative sound of woodwinds and big, dramatic violin flourishes made me long for death.
I assumed all classical composers died of rickets or distemper or whatever before the automobile was invented, so it surprised me when I looked at the CD jacket and saw the music was recorded in 1982. My father showed me a picture of Glass: he wasn’t wearing a long powdered wig. He sported a shock of curly hair and a button-down shirt.
When the fourth movement of Glassworks hit, everything changed.
It was loud, brash, beautiful–like most of my favorite pieces of art, it grabbed me by the throat and forced me to bear witness. There was something accessible in the urgency of Glass’s music that even my teenage brain couldn’t dismiss. Listening to the relentless sprint of the woodwinds matching the pace of the synthesizers filled me with riotous, unbridled joy. I felt blindsided, totally consumed by it.
I was 14 at the time; admitting to my father that I loved anything, let alone some classical music, was a step too terrifying to consider. Yet, this was the first time I was absolutely confident that my feelings about this music were real, that this was truly a beautiful thing. We sat in silence, my father and I, turning to one another a few times only to smile and nod. There we were, finally enjoying something together.
The thought of playing this music in front of my friends was a prospect more embarrassing than walking in on my parents 69-ing, so I kept my love for Glass’s music private. I went back to enduring songs by Godsmack, Staind, Powerman 5000. I wore red baseball caps backwards like Fred Durst and made fun of kids who played woodwinds in school.
Still, Glass’s music became the language through which my dad and I would speak. We were becoming more alien to one another the more I got into trouble, but we could always find a way through a few uncomfortable minutes discussing Glass.
Philip Glass’s body of work is staggering. He’s composed numerous operas, symphonies, and pieces of piano music. He’s made several days’ worth of experimental music, but most non-classical musicians know him for his film and television scores.
He has over 50 scores to his name, including Mishima, Kundun, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, The Hours, and most inexplicably, The Fantastic Four. Known for its repetition and minimalism, Glass’s music has the ability to hypnotize, to convince you to feel any emotion at will. He is America’s best composer. The nerds will shriek that it’s the Star Wars guy, but they will be wrong.
Glass grew up in his father’s record store in Baltimore, Maryland, listening to everything. His father had no formal education in music; all he knew was that he loved it. Glass, despite his Julliard education, Fulbright scholarship, and parade of awards, has carried on his father’s unpretentious love for music. An example: in a 2017 interview with the musician Dev Hynes for NPR, Glass called Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton “Really great,” without a hint of sarcasm, a thing I wouldn’t admit even under threat of public hanging.
It’s this sincere appreciation of a wide variety of genres that’s made him a truly unique composer, one that’s been able to bridge avant garde with popular music, and produce and collaborate with musicians like Paul Simon, Beck, Aphex Twin, and David Byrne. Glass’s Low Symphony was inspired by David Bowie’s album of the same name.
His openness to change meant he could make anything.
Years after my introduction to Glass, I found myself back in my hometown smoking opium in the passenger seat of my friend Jon’s 1992 Chrysler New Yorker. I spent the 11th grade in a halfway house in rural Louisiana. I hadn’t been back for long, but I was already back to disappointing everybody.
On the radio was something terrible: ”She Hates Me” by Puddle of Mudd. I hadn’t been at my house for several days and there was a warrant for my arrest that was causing me some mild angst, but none of this was unusual. My friend Dusty was laid out in the backseat like a corpse and Jon was somehow still upright, driving down Highway 93. For some reason, I couldn’t take another moment of shitty rock for lonely teenage boys. I needed a change. I hit the scan button and it landed on a silence that very slowly gave way to quiet violins. A cello started reverberating through the calm. A moment later, a swell of fast, dramatic notes rang out over that soft bed of pulsing violin.
I recognized it. It was from the Mishima score, which my father had sent to me while I was away. It was a piece titled “Temple of the Golden Pavilion (‘Like Some Enormous Music’).”
The song was moving quickly now–the quiet was over, we were speeding towards a thunderous climax. At that moment, I pictured myself suddenly turning my life around. Perhaps I’d return to my parents’ house and ask them for help. I could finish high school, maybe learn a trade. As the symphony swelled one final time, I imagined myself as a different person, the type who could operate a remote gas station somewhere, maybe by a ski slope. Maybe I’d meet a downhill skier and we’d get married and raise a brood of mountain children. Or maybe I’d take a bus to somewhere vast and strange, someplace like London, Sydney, or Spokane. I could become a bookkeeper or a welder or join–and you can really taste my desperation in entertaining this fantasy–an improv group. Just do something–anything, the music seemed to be telling me. Is this the moment, I wondered. Is this where I change? I wanted to so desperately.
Just then, Dusty launched himself from the back seat and crashed onto the middle console. “Wake up, Jon,” he slurred. “Everyone’s mad at us.”
Jon, who had slumped over to the window, sat upright. I glanced over at the speedometer; we were going about 13 miles an hour on the highway. Bearing down on us was a blurry parade of cars honking, flashing their lights at us, demanding we do something.
About six months later, I called my dad from a payphone outside the IGA and asked him for help. He and my mother showed up 10 minutes later and drove me to Missoula to a rehab center for homeless youth. There was too much to say, so instead of talking, we listened to Glass’s Dracula.
Twenty or so years into Glass’s career, he had the opportunity to write a violin concerto. For years he’d made a name for himself writing experimental music; he didn’t know how to make the transition to more popular music. What inspired him, though, was his father.
“By the time I got the commission to do a violin concerto, my father had been dead for 10 years,” Glass said in an interview last year. “I decided I would write a piece he would’ve liked. That meant it would have to be a popular piece. He wasn’t interested in experimental music; he liked what he liked.”
At 38, I now feel impossibly old. I’ve been sober for 17 years. I am often bewildered by the fact that I have a family, a house, and am simply still alive to enjoy it all. My friend Jon has been in prison for the past several years. Dusty killed himself in 2020.
I have two wild boys under the age of five, and it is my solemn duty to prepare pancakes for them every Saturday morning. During this time and this time only, I am permitted to select our kitchen soundtrack. The last several weeks in May, I revisited Mishima, which my oldest called “horse music” for reasons that elude me. The boys galloped around the kitchen island as the music played, neighing and shrieking as they collapsed into each other.
Last year, my parents moved in with our family. My dad is now 83–just three years younger than Glass. He has scoliosis, heart issues, hearing loss, and a myriad of other physical indignities, as he calls them, that happen when you’re still alive at his age.
Most days, my father puts on a set of headphones you’d see on an airport worker to avoid the cacophony of our family’s routine. But on Saturday mornings he often greets us from the upstairs landing, taking some time to enjoy the family chaos. If I’m playing Glass, he’ll say, “Now that’s beautiful music.”
Illustration by Liubov Edwards