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“Most people die with their music still locked up inside them.” ― Benjamin Disraeli

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Currently I have a wedding gig to prepare for for a friend. So I've been just anxious to getting back to composing, but it has to wait.  Meanwhile, if one would like to make the time, I would like to explain a little why I've always enjoyed the music of Philip Glass.  Reading some of the debates about his music were always a joy to read, and I remember handing sheet music over to a certain scholar of music only to come back the following week for them to admittedly say, "I just don't get it."

 

To understand Philip Glass’s music, we must go back to the start of his studies under Ravi Shankar in 1964 where his revelation came of his music:

    I was hired to be Ravi Shankar’s assistant on a film.  I didn’t know anything about Indian music...And I had to notate his music and I had to do it on the spot with 16 musicians waiting for the parts... I was writing down the music and I would play it back and he said, ‘No. The accents are wrong.’ And he kept saying, ‘All the beats are the same.’ ... I realized that if I looked at them in a certain way I could see that everything added up to 16.  Every phrase is 16.  Let me have a bar line... [at the beginning and end]... I got rid of all the other bar lines.  And then I played it for him, and he said, ‘Yes. That’s right.’  It was a moment when I understood what I was interested in.  I saw this was a door into another world of music.  I knew there was a music there to be written that had to do with combining two different languages–an intersection of Eastern and Western music that could become extremely productive. (Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts)

What Philip Glass was talking about was the difference between Western and Eastern music in rhythmic structure:

    In Western music we divide time.  In Indian music, you take small units, or ‘beats,’ and string them together to make up larger time values... Indian music was organized in large rhythmic cycles.  The interaction of melodic invention– or improvisation– with the rhythmic cycle provides the tension in Indian music, much as that between melody and harmony provides it in Western music. (Philip Glass, Pages 17-18)

After studying in Paris, Philip moved back to New York in 1967, and he put together an ensemble.  Within nine years of his return, he was at the Metropolitan Opera with Einstein on the Beach (Glass: A Portrait...).  The opera brought Glass immediate fame, and it preceded for him to be a successful career in theatre, film, and dance music (Edward Stickland).  Einstein on the Beach was the epitome of additive process and cyclic structures.  These two techniques allowed Philip Glass to shift the accents in his music:

    Additive process involves the expansion and contraction of tiny musical modules; a grouping of five notes might be played several times, followed by a group of six notes, similarly repeated, then by seven notes, and so on.  Thus a simple figure  can maintain the same general melodic configuration while taking on a very different rhythmic shape... Rhythmic cycles [is] the simultaneous repetition of two  or more different rhythmic patterns, which, depending on the length of the  pattern, will eventually arrive together back at the starting points, making for one complete cycle. (Tim Page)   

With this piece of work, Philip Glass would begin to gain the recognition from a distinct characteristic in his music that couldn’t be mistaken to have been written by anyone else.  With amusement Philip Glass said, “the result was I had the ability to write music that was so radical that I could be mistaken for an idiot.  And I was often.  I still am to this day” (Glass: A Portrait...). 

Works Cited

Edward Strickland. "Glass, Philip." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 1 May 2012

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Dir. Scott Hicks. Koch Lorber, 2007. DVD.

Philip Glass. Music by Philip Glass. 1987. New York, USA: Da Capo Press, 1995. Print 

Tim Page. "Einstein on the Beach." The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Ed. Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 1 May. 2012 

 

Okay well, after all that explaining on how his music came about, does that really help to explain why so many people, including myself, enjoy listening to this repetitive and bland style of writing? Of course it goes much deeper than that, but for now I can only give a personal analysis of one of his pieces.

Upon listening to Mad Rush–– the music of Philip Glass knows a fleeting life.  This is the theme which underlies his writing.  The music tries to slow the perception of time to make it feel as if it will never end, but the tone is conscious of its pathetic attempt as it is aware that time does eventually come to a halt.  And so it lives only in the moment.  It does not elaborate in melody, but rather plays with time through rhythm.  There is no sense of a progression towards a single climax.  It only progresses toward the silence of the end, and so it savors every moment as it fights for continuance.  This is the music that one would hear as their life flashes before their eyes!  Every moment replayed and seen only through a couple of minutes-- it is a supra-consciousness.  In lasting only minutes, I experience eternity.  It is music that dreams of being forever.

Can anybody guess what that common characteristic is that links all music together?  That one trait that is in every song?


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