Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Glass: String Quartet No. 2 ("Company")

One of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century, if not the most “popular,” is Philip Glass (b. 1937), a descendant of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe (as were Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein).

At age 78, Glass has been a prolific composer since about 1960, and has created works in a tremendous variety of forms and styles. Often summed up as “minimalist” composer, he prefers to describe his style as “music with repetitive structures,” and even that does not apply sufficiently to his entire catalog of work which is still growing after 55 years.

Glass has often collaborated with artists of every non-musical genre, as well as with musicians working along the edges of popular music like Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne. His first string quartet was written in 1966 after he worked on an experimental film score with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. Exposure to the “additive rhythms” of Indian music would become the most powerful and definitive influence on his music for the next three decades.

The four movements of the String Quartet No. 2 were written for the theatrical production of Company (1983) by Samuel Beckett. At first, Glass considered it incidental music (“like salt and pepper ... just something for the table”), but published it in 1986 as a string quartet and an arrangement for string orchestra.

Just as his minimalist phase gave way to his characteristic non-narrative rhythmic style, his art continued to evolve to encompass choral works, opera, and symphonies. In later years, Glass found renewed interest in historical forms, lyricism, and conventional melody. In his 2015 memoir Words Without Music, Glass says his favorite composer was Franz Schubert, with whom he shares the same birthday.

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