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Minimalist composer.

Quora Answer : Why is Philip Glass seen as such a good composer?

Jan 30

As you can see from the other answers here, opinions vary as to whether he is.

I think there's no point worrying about Glass being seen as "good".

What's important is that Glass is a "successful" composer. People like listening to his music. They commission him to write more. They go and listen to his works.

Being successful is what makes him "good". That may seem simplistic. But let's face it, if you create music that no-one wants to listen to, then that at least raises the suspicion that you aren't fulfilling the function of a composer particularly well.

Popularity may not be the same as goodness. But it's not so easy to disentangle them completely.

Now does Glass "deserve" to be as popular as he is?

Well, he does three things well :

he writes very pleasant melodic riffs. Pretty conventional / traditional melodies. Of that kind that people actually like. And popular music shows that people like riffs. With a proper rhythm to them. So that's all good

intellectually, he has doubled down and committed seriously to minimalism. There's no doubt that Glass has the intellectual ability and education that if he wanted to write more like earlier classical composers he probably could. Perhaps not as great as some of the greatest. But at least sufficiently well that the average philistine who complains about Glass couldn't tell the difference.

But he chooses not to. He commits to this minimalism.

In a sense being an artist is about finding your "authentic voice". But another way of thinking about it is that it's about finding something that you "stand for".

Art is an "illocutionary act". The artists isn't just saying "here's something, hope it's good". The artist is saying "I declare that this is worth you paying attention to". Glass is a real (and potentially good) artist partly because he is making that kind of statement; throwing his whole credibility behind the assertion that it's OK to write in this minimalist repetitive riff style in contemporary "serious" music. You thought that there had to be gratuitous variation and widdling around? You were wrong. These large blocks of harmony and rhythm are sufficient to hold the interest and count as music.

You can disagree with Glass on that question, but you have to recognise that it's not mere accident. (Or as Tyler Rutland implies, a failure to develop.) Glass is an artist making an artistic statement, that deserves to be treated as one.

Finally, some of Glass's music is essentially part of theatrical works which are great. I'm not Glass's biggest fan. Thanks to some overenthusiastic bittorrenting back in the day, I seem to have a huge amount of Glass on my hard-disk. And a lot of it I've skimmed and never bothered with again. I completely understand why, if you hear a piece of Glass in the background, out of context, you might well just think "there's nothing to that, that's a bit dull".

But I've also seen the three big operas : Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten on stage. And there's no doubt they are fantastic, spectacular theatre. It may seem tough to sit through 5 hours of repetitive minimalism in Satyagraha. But, quite the opposite, the time flows more smoothly and faster than many more traditional operas. The music makes total sense in the contexts of these theatrical pieces. And the aesthetic of minimalism is necessary to them.

Finally, let's just listen to Glass. There are great tunes. Beautiful and original aesthetic experiences unlike anything else in the "serious music" canon. And, frankly, why shouldn't music sometimes be fun and accessible and pleasant?

This ends up on one of the most clich├ęd 8-chord loops in the world, but it's done so beautifully here.

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