Composer Philip Glass to be recognized at Kennedy Center Honors

Author: CBS News
Photo by CBS News.

As one of the most influential composers in the world, Philip Glass has produced 27 operas, 11 symphonies and scored more than 50 films. Although Glass has secured his place as a legendary force in the music world, success didn’t come quick, and acceptance by the establishment was never something he sought.

In a way, Glass first made his mark on popular culture as the subject of Chuck Close’s striking 1969 portrait, titled simply “Phil.” His influence in music started much earlier.

“When did you first think you wanted to be musician or a composer?” “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Anthony Mason asked.

“I thought it when I had my first thoughts,” Glass said.

His parents, Benjamin and Ida Glass, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, raised their family in Baltimore. Philip worked in his father’s record store.

“He learned music from selling it. Then he taught it to me … it was kind of the family business in a way. But oddly enough, they were disappointed when I went into it,” Glass said. “It was far away from being a doctor or a lawyer.”

Glass went to the University of Chicago at 15, then to Juilliard. In 1964, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, where he met Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.

“Ravi Shankar was a composer and a performer … I saw that as a possible future,” Glass said. “I said, ‘Oh, look what this guy does.”

Glass transcribed Shankar’s Indian music into Western notation.

“And I couldn’t figure it out. And then I finally – I erased the bar lines and suddenly I saw the flow of music. Now, if I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be sitting here today, Anthony,” Glass said.

Glass began to develop his own musical language: subtle variations of similar patterns. He moved to New York and in 1968 he gave his first public performance at Queens College. Among the half a dozen people in the audience was his mother, who came up from Baltimore.

“She didn’t say anything. And I didn’t say anything … as she got onto the train, she turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you think you should get a haircut?’ I mean that’s classic, isn’t it?”

But some of his early audiences were more demonstrative, throwing things like eggs and tomatoes at him.

“I ducked. That’s the way it goes. The people we throw stones at then later we use the same stones to build mausoleums for them,” Glass said.

Photo by CBS News.

In 1971, he formed the Philip Glass ensemble to perform his music, but struggled to pay them. He was still working day jobs into his 40s, from moving furniture to driving cabs.

In 1976, his opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” a metaphysical look at Albert Einstein, debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. The Washington Post called it “one of the seminal artworks of the 20th century.” Two years later, a commission from the Rotterdam Opera finally allowed glass to quit his day job.

In the 80s he began scoring films. His music for martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” about the Dalai Lama, won him the first of three Academy Award nominations. His music for Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show,” in which he made a cameo appearance, won Glass a Golden Globe.

His work is now performed all over the world and the awards have finally followed. In 2015, the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama and now the Kennedy Center Honors.

“I’m very impressed with who the other people are. You know what it’s really good for? My sister. … Makes her really happy. And my family.”

You can watch the Kennedy Center Honors on Wednesday, December 26, 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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