Philip Glass: A True Master of Minimalist Composition

As a music composer myself, I’m always so impressed to hear how much can be done with so little. Minimalism in music is something that it’s so deceptively difficult. It might seem easy to just play a few selections of simple notes or suspended chords on the surface. However, mastering the art of creating sparse yet rich compositions is something it took me a lifetime to master, and there’s always enough room to keep growing. 

When speaking about minimalism in music, it’s impossible not to mention Philip Glass. This iconic composer has a unique creative range, and he was inspired by classical music, as well as avant-garde, and even the pop and rock acts of his youth to inform a broad sonic palette. From Beethoven to La Monte Young and Stockhausen, anything goes. Yet, Glass managed to develop a very distinctive sound that is instantly easy to recognize and connect with on a deeper metaphysical and emotional level. I have been a fan of his work for a long time, and I think he is one of the most gifted and innovative composers in modern music. As it happens, I am certainly not the only one thinking that, considering that Glass made music that is still incredibly influential. 

It is not surprising that he is often hailed as one of the most influential musicians in the 20th century. Some say that modern composition might not even be the same without the influence of Philip Glass and his creative contributions. However, others with a more traditional view of composition have controversial opinions about his worth as a composer. Like it often happens with the best and most honest art, you can’t please everyone at once! 

Some of his most touching and memorable music is based on the concept of repetitiveness. By insisting on a simple motif or on a set of notes that keep looping, he is able to create some stunning textures. The listening experience is so rewarding because the repetitive patterns in the music are not static. Create a sense of motion, a unique way to let the music evolve, almost spontaneously. This is something that I love! 

One of the most notable compositions written by Philip Glass is probably “Metamorphosis”. The flow of the music maintains a relatively understated tone. The piano chords and arpeggiated patterns vary in terms of dynamics and intensity, leading to an emotional climax. However, the composition is not progressive in nature, as in there is no conscious effort to move from point A to point B, to point C, and so on. This idea of composition is really all about the idea of a central theme. This is what makes “Metamorphosis” such a powerful work. The concept was actually inspired by Kafka’s story of the same name, which is pretty fitting with this compositional technique! Back in the 80s, when this song was composed, the idea of minimalistic compositions was quite groundbreaking. Minimalistic music was considered on the fringe, but Glass elevated the concept and ushered in the sound to a much broader audience. Parts of the composition also appeared on a classic TV show, Battlestar Galactica, which gave it even more of a broader audience. Even the band Pearl Jam uses parts of this composition as an opening theme for their shows! There is a cyclical, theme-centric approach in Glass’s music. Because of this, it’s easy to see why these compositions have become so popular with filmmakers. This style suits visual storytelling in a really unique way! 

Glass also went on to inspire other major modern composers, including Hans Zimmer or Denny Elfman, among others.

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