The Five Best Philip Glass Performances

We’re pretty excited about the news that Philip Glass will be taking over the Park Avenue Armory for his 75th birthday celebration. The Philip Glass Ensemble will be performing “Music in Twelve Parts” and “Another Look at Harmony” will get a rare performance in New York (with longtime Ensemble conductor Michael Riesman playing organ). The mini-festival takes place February 23-26. In anticipation, here are our five favorite Philip Glass pieces. Surely you don’t agree with all of them, so feel free to share your own favorites.

“Music in 12 Parts”

Famously, the piece was originally one movement with twelve lines of counterpoint melody. Glass explained in 1993, “I called it Music in Twelve Parts because the keyboards played six lines, there were three wind players involved, and I had originally planned to augment the ensemble to being in three more lines, for a total of twelve. I played it for a friend of mine and, when it was through, she said, ‘That’s very beautiful: what are the other eleven parts going to be like?’” The piece transformed into a score of over three hours with subtle, constant changes that reveal themselves only when taken as a whole. It is like minimalism stacked on top of itself until forming a wild unruly beast, manic and unsettling, but also letting in moments of real beauty.


The name translates from the Hopi language as “Crazy life,” “life in turmoil,” “life disintegrating,” “life out of balance,” “a state of life that calls for another way of living.” The score goes along with Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film of the same name, a series of images lacking dialogue or narrative that looks at the quirks and ephemera of daily life. This is one of Mr. Glass’s most disparate pieces of music. It begins as a slow, minor key dirge, progresses to arpeggiated chaos and continues to alternate between the two in a loop, creating a long cycle of tension and release.

“Einstein on the Beach”

A sort of follow up to Music In Twelve Parts, its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1976 was unprecedented: five hours long and in four parts, there was no intermission. The audience was told to occasionally ramble out of the theater at their own discretion. Written with Robert Wilson in a series of so-called “knee plays,” 20 minute intertwining scenes that stood on their own as self-contained stories, the opera contained a splattering of pop culture references of the day mixed with “words” that were merely a series of interchanging numerical patterns. Apparently, many of the ideas came together casually over lunch on Sullivan Street.

“1 + 1”

This early piece lays the groundwork for everything to come later. The work consists of a single performer tapping on a tabletop into a single microphone. Still the piece explores Mr. Glass’s characteristic tension between lengthening and shortening musical figures. The score instructs the performer to tap on the table using either fingers or knuckles in two variations: two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note or a single eighth note. Ostensibly no two versions are alike. The piece is more conceptual than pleasurable to listen to, but it sheds light on the rhythmic intricacies of Mr. Glass’s music.


Mr. Glass’s major label debut was, as he says, “written for the recording studio.” The music was intended for a more general audience, but it’s far from a sell out. He refines his themes here, working alternately with melody and atonality in an interplay of ostinato rhythmic patterns and more loose arpeggios that expand upon the more abrasive “Music in Twelve Parts,” interestingly, by shying away from it.

The Five Best Philip Glass Performances