Week 10 – Philip Glass/Minimalism/Additive Composition

Philip Glass is regarded as one of the major minimalist composers along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Although Glass himself has sought to distance himself somewhat from the minimalist label as he describes his own work as “music with repetitive structures”. Much of Philip Glass’s early work on minimalism occurred between 1967-1974. It was I 1967, just after arriving in New York that Glass was influenced by a performance by Steve Reich which included the ground breaking ‘Piano Phase’.

Between the summer of 1967 and early 1969, Glass composed a number of works, including Strung Out (for amplified solo violin, composed in summer of 1967), Gradus (for solo saxophone, 1968), Music in the Shape of a Square (for two flutes, May 1968), How Now (for solo piano, 1968) 1+1 (for amplified tabletop, November 1968) and Two Pages (1969). Much of these pieces clearly demonstrated Glass’s new-found minimalist approach of which a key component was the additive process.

Philip Glass later went on to compose music for operas, symphonies and film soundtracks whilst further developing his distinctive style. The first opera of his portrait opera trilogy: Einstein on the Beach (1968) has four acts (framed and connected by five “knee plays” or intermezzos), and was composed by Philip Glass and directed by theatrical producer Robert Wilson.

One of the most famous soundtracks composed by glass is that of Koyaanisqatsi (1983). Although the quantity of music was as long as the film itself, the soundtrack was only 46 minutes when initially released, consisting only of selections from the film. In 1998 glass rerecorded the album with two additional tracks and extended versions of previous tracks. Feeding off the popularity of the music the Philip Glass Ensemble has toured the world, playing music of Konyaanisqatsi live in front of the movie screen.

The additive rhythm process is the main technique which gives Glass’s work his distinctive sound. For many of his pieces, the opening simply establishes a melodic unit which is repeated anything from to 2 to 8 times or more. The next unit is then simply an addition or subtraction of notes to the previous one, a process which is repeated throughout the piece.

Like many of Glass’s works ‘Music in Fifths’ (1969) demonstrates the additive process. In Music in Fifths:

“….…a sequence begins with a simple diatonic 8-note rising and falling five finger exercise; the next figure repeats the next two notes (making a 10-note figure), then the original, then the (original) 5th and 6th are added again (12-note). To this a repeat of the first three are added (15-note), then notes 5 to 7 (18-note), then all the first four are added in repeat (22-note) and finally the last four are added again. So that by the end of the sequence the original 8-note sequence has grown-without the addition of any new pitches-into a 26-note melody, and the original sequence of notes 12345678 has been permutated by adding one unit at a time into the following: 121123123412345656756785678 where, because the second note is the same as the 8th, the third the same as the 7th and the fourth the same as the 6th, five separate pitches both retain their original ordering and are subjected to a process regular temporal shifts in a constant pattern of movement.” (Nyman, M. 1999).

This week’s composition takes some influence from Music in Twelve Parts in that different instrumental parts have been layered. With different instruments playing slightly different melodic lines and the additive process being used.

The sounds used for this week’s composition were some sampled horns played through Kontakt and synthesized sounds made in Zebra2. The below picture demonstrates the arrangement of the composition in Reaper. With each separate midi item being just a bit long or shorter (by an addition or subtraction) of notes than the midi item before it.

Music In 1 Part

The rhythm of the horns part is actually fixed throughout the entire piece. There are four others parts layered which are actually subjected to the additive process. I feel however that by layering so many parts all playing slightly different melodies and subjected to different additions and subtractions that the effect of experiencing different time signatures is lost somewhat and everything sounds a bit 4/4. I would say to have many parts is fine but many a number of instruments playing the same melodic lines (so overall less different melodic lines happening at once) is better for experiencing the rhythmic changes.

Below is a link to this week’s composition:


• Glass, P (1968). 1+1, Live Performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYAyPre0vD8 – accessed 13/05/14.
• Glass, P. (1968). Einstein on the Beach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poTLWcgTtow&index=11&list=PLTUlTwlsdlFQhHsAoG7sCxumrigHW-qJk – accessed 13/05/14.
• Glass, P. (1994). Two Pages/Contrary Motion/In Fifths/In Similar Motion (1994 issue). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZMJcrVIHCU – accessed 13/05/14.
• Glass, P. (1996). Music in 12 Parts (1996 issue). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7fcHnR7UF0 – accessed 13/05/14.
• Glass, P. (1998). Koyaanisqatsi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4WlNj1TTqA – accessed 13/05/14.
• Nyman, M. (1999). Experimental Music Cage and Beyond. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
• O’Mahony, John (2001), “The Guardian Profile: Philip Glass”, The Guardian (London). http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/nov/24/arts.highereducation1 – accessed 13/05/14.
• Potter, Keith (2000). Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Music in the Twentieth Century series. Cambridge, UK; New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.
• The Independent (2007). Philip Glass on making music with no frills. The Independent London. http://archive.today/4CStk – accessed 13/05/14.



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