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Philip Glass Does the Minimum

Philip Glass is a leading member of the minimalist school of music. Wikipedia defines minimalism as having “a steady pulse” with consonant harmonies and oft-repeated musical phrases or smaller units.  The units are “figures, motifs and cells.” An expert quoted in the description says that minimalism uses gradually changing common chords that support lyrical melodies in “long, arching phrases.”

Essentially, it seems that Wikipedia is pointing to hypnotic music that takes a long time to play itself out. Indeed, one glass piece — “Music in Twelve Parts” – takes four hours to perform. It seems that minimalism is the type of music that you either love or hate. Personally, I liked “Mad Rush” better than I would have predicted had I read the description before watching the video. It’s very pretty.

The genre developed in the downtown scene in New York City in the 1970s. Robert Cummings’ profile of Glass at AllMusic says that the leading minimalist composers besides Glass are Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams. Adams wrote the music for “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera about the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. It opened in New York City this week.

Glass was a prodigy. He was born in Baltimore in 1937 to Lithuanian Jewish parents. His father owned a record store, which jump started his interest in music. Glass entered The University of Chicago at the age of 15, where he studied mathematics and philosophy.

Wikipedia notes that Glass has attempted to distance himself from the term “minimalism,” instead preferring to say that he writes “music with repetitive structures.” He plays piano and is prolific: He composes operas, musical theater pieces, symphonies, concertos, chamber music (including string quartets) and sonatas. Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards.

Above is “Mad Rush.” It starts at about the 2:30 mark. Below is the “String Quartet No. 2,” performed by the ReDo String Quartet.

AllMusic and Wikipedia entries on Glass and mimimalist music were used in writing this post. Homepage photo: Axel Boldt

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Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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