Whitwell: Four reasons why we must appreciate Philip Glass

Listen and learn



In 2011, Sally Whitwell won an ARIA award for Mad Rush – her collection of music by Philip Glass.

And she still can’t get enough.

This month, she releases Philip Glass – Complete Etudes for Solo Piano. So why does this Australian composer and pianist love Glass so much, anyway? Why should we all continue to appreciate his music? 

Let’s find out in these four reasons, as written by Sally herself:


Reason 1: Meditation

So much of Philip Glass’s music is like a meditation. I’m not talking about health-spa-aromatherapy-chakra-alignment-massage-meditations washed down with a kale shake, so stay with me folks. It’s a meditation in the sense of going towards a concentrated space, as opposed to retreating from a chaotic space. That’s why for myself, I most often listen to Glass when I’m out and about in a busy place, to block out the chaotic competing noises with one, focused sound world.

Playing it is like a meditation too, or a mindfulness exercise, because you have to be completely present 100 per cent of the time so that you don’t lose track of where you are in the structure.

Reason 2: Immersion

These days when you go to a museum, they frequently talk about it as an ‘experience’ rather than as an ‘exhibition’. You get your audio tour headset, which guides you around the visual elements; whilst providing a constant sound world, which serves to immerse you in the material. It works, I mean, I love it!

But way before there was museum immersion, there was Einstein on the Beach, which I saw live for the first time in Melbourne in 2013. Although I’d always loved this perfect theatrical synthesis of text, dance, and music from afar, it wasn’t until I was there in the theatre, feeling like I was sitting inside a giant 1970s synthesiser, tears of joy streaming down my face, that I really knew what immersion was.

Reason 3: Politics

For a film that has only music and no dialogue, Koyaanisqatsi shouts pretty loud. It shouts about the way that we live our lives in the western world, the intensity and the insanity. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning ‘life out of balance’, and if you really want to know how little the insanity of modern life has really changed since this film was made in the 1970s, watch it. It will unashamedly manipulate you. You might be kind of terrified, but in a good way. It’s rather like Disney’s Fantasia, but for grownups.

Reason 4: Connection

Glass carries on a long tradition of classical music borrowing from popular music or folk music; high-brow paying tribute to low-brow. Think the second movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata, which is a ‘blues’, or any one of Elena Kats Chernin’s rags. The difference with Glass is firstly, the way he treats the raw materials he borrows. This is very far from pastiche. And secondly, the collaborative nature of his work, the connections he has to creatives from other ‘worlds’. He’s been friends, colleagues, collaborators with the biggest variety of artists in so many genres and disciplines. Take his Symphony No. 1 Low, which is based on themes of his friend and colleague David Bowie.

Anecdotally, I’m aware of many a Bowie fan who became a Glass fan directly as a result of hearing this symphony; a gateway drug for them into contemporary classical world. And that’s got to be a good thing for classical music, more broadly, don’t you think? Incidentally, his third Bowie-inspired symphony Lodger is set for a 2019 premiere in the UK. Look out for it!


Listen to Sally Whitwell perform this music in Philip Glass: Complete Etudes for Solo Piano, out now through ABC Music.



Images courtesy Universal Music Australia.

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