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Philip Glass' Connections to Pop Culture Today, Including EDM

Spaceship from Einstein on the Beach
Spaceship from Einstein on the Beach
© Lucie Jansch 2012

Philip Glass isn't for everyone. To the uninitiated, his atonal soundscapes can come off as cold, uncomfortable or, as critic Michael White once put it, "as rewarding as chewing gum that's lost its flavor." And some might expect audiences to write off the 76-year-old composer's Einstein on the Beach as a relic of 1970s Soho.

Yet as the Los Angeles Opera mounts a buzzed-about restaging of Einstein this weekend, it's worth pointing out that Glass' music has a surprising amount of relevance to pop culture today.

Recently, it seems like the spirit of Glass is stealing into unexpected places. His Einstein was reportedly the inspiration for the Louis Vuitton 2013 spring-summer show, where models strutted down the runway in yellow geometric bodysuits. Beck took a less esoteric approach in 2012 when he organized a collection of remixes called REWORK_ Philip Glass, where artists like Nosaj Thing and Pantha Du Prince put their own dance-electronica spin on some of the minimalist classics.

That album, which debuted on NPR, is worth a listen for fans of either crowd. The two genres snap together with ease.

But many discerning college kids could have told you that. One 21-year-old filmmaker named Thaddeus Bouska, who uses old Glass compositions to score his film projects, described the connection as something emotional as well as intellectual.

"Electronica puts you in a special state of mind where your attentions shift and you are less focused on the present," he says, "and that's sort of what I think embodies Glass' music -- that interesting aural experience. They both sort of start in the same place but they lead to different conclusions." 


Bouska's favorite Glass piece is "Metamorphosis," a piano-led rumination on Kafka he listens to in sections via YouTube. "It makes me think about the human condition and that kind of shit," he says. "Mankind's grandeur and drawbacks all at once."

Why would twenty-somethings so embrace an avant-garde artist old enough to be their grandfather? Maybe because his musical structure reminds them a little bit of the synth-driven music that is popular today.

Glass and his contemporaries, like John Adams and Steve Reich, were once the edgy and boundary-pushing artists that the cool kids flocked around. And today's dance-fueled EDM craze, by all appearances the cultural opposite of Glass's highbrow contemplations, is built on the blueprints of mid-century minimalism. The instruments might be completely different, but the underlying skeleton is the same. That unyielding repetition and those throbbing oscillations of tone -- Glass was innovating that style decades before Skrillex turned up on the scene. Many EDM artists even structure their songs in movements, like classical compositions, not the verse-chorus-verse structure of a pop song.

More than some of his minimalist peers, Glass has remained firmly entrenched in modern media, mostly thanks to his film soundtracks for The Hours and The Illusionist. His score for cult favorite The Truman Show (a collaboration with Burkhard Dallwitz) won a Golden Globe in 1998 and is beloved by film kids everywhere. There's something about his compositions that suck the listener into a trance-like state, not unlike the sounds of Grimes or Aphex Twin. That hipster with the oversize headphones and the wide, haunted gaze might be listening to a selection of 2008's "Glassworks" -- a piece Glass designed to be "walkman-suitable." Or maybe they just like kick of contemplating the nature of humanity, like Glass's contemporaries did in the 1970s.

Einstein on the Beach turned 37 years old this summer, but to some it doesn't sound dated -- probably because Glass's music has never felt bound to a particular time or place. Don't be surprised if the audience demographic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend has a sprinkling of fans that span the generation gap.


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