Philip Glass and David Bowie

Philip Glass is not afraid of reworking others’ music. The film above shows how he collaborated with David Bowie and Brian Eno on the Low and Heroes Symphonies, and how these influential musicians in turn influenced each other.

Meanwhile, Glass is not afraid of being reworked himself. Philip Clark explores how the minimalist master has welcomed the remixing of his music by modern artists such as Beck, Amon Tobin and My Great Ghost.

In late-1960s New York City, had you been lucky enough to be there, you were far more likely to see the composer Philip Glass hanging out with pop, rock and punk stars like Patti Smith, Roxy Music’s Brian Eno and David Byrne from Talking Heads than anyone from the city’s fraternity of classical musicians. 

There were many reasons for this. The style of composition Glass was pioneering – which would subsequently be termed ‘minimalism’ – with its repetitive grooves and repeating cycles of tonal harmony, resonated in sympathy with rock musicians more than with contemporary ‘classical’ composers who were exploring terrain laid bare by Schoenberg and Stockhausen

Glass defined the music he wanted to make with classic scores like Music In Twelve Parts, Einstein On The Beach and Glassworks. But it wasn’t long before he was scratching that pop itch again, reworking David Bowie albums into symphonies and setting texts by Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Glass turned 75 this year and it feels appropriate that his own record label, Orange Mountain Music, is celebrating with a double album of remixes by dance, techno and electronica musicians.

At its best, the album scoops Glass’s original material out from the inside

Philip Glass_REWORK wears its pop credentials with pride. Produced by Hector Castillo – producer for David Bowie, Lou Reed and Björk – it was initiated by a conversation Glass had with the cult American singer-songwriter Beck. The album, at its best, scoops Glass’s original material out from the inside, tracing new ideas across his original instrumental lines, with the occasional harmony nudged pop-wards. 

Watch the archive video above – a conversation between Glass and Bowie – and you’ll see how instinctive this way of thinking is to Glass. In his 1992 Low Symphony, followed seven years later by a follow-up Heroes Symphony, Glass re-moulded two of Bowie’s classic 1970s electronic albums around a symphony orchestra. Injecting his own distinctive harmonies into Bowie’s melodic material and re-shaping his structure, Glass offered a personal reflection on Bowie’s originals. (And then, in that way pop music gorges on its own existence, when Aphex Twin decided to remix Heroes, they worked on Glass’s version, not Bowie’s.)

Peter Broderick, the Berlin-based film composer who has also worked with indie rock band Efterklang, chose to remix ‘Island’ from Glass’s seminal album Glassworks for REWORK. ‘I like to think of my track as half cover, half remix,’ Broderick says. ‘It opens with me playing the piece note for note, but with the melodies shifted to the guitar and voice, like folk song. Eventually that gives way to a more percussive section, which builds up over several repeating and overlapping motifs.’ 

'I could make the track sound as Glassy as I wanted to without feeling guilty at all'

Broderick recalls that his introduction to the works of Glass was as a 15-year-old art student, when his teacher played Glass records in the background. ‘Often when I’m working on my own music, I find myself recording a melody that feels inspired by Glass, and sometimes I even feel a bit guilty about that. So this project was just perfect because I could make the track sound as Glassy as I wanted to without feeling guilty at all.’ 

The New York electronic duo My Great Ghost – Drew Smith (voice), Trevor Gureckis (producer) – opted for Glass at his most iconic: part one of his Music In Twelve Parts, which is for many the composer’s defining score. The duo remixes Glass in the purest sense of the term. Smith sang Glass’s instrumental lines which were then mulched together into what he calls a ‘beautiful harmonic cloud’. This sound itself was spliced up to generate a rhythmic pulse. ‘The vocal parts are true to Glass’s original but everything else is new,’ Gureckis says. ‘It’s a remix in that we use the core of Music in Twelve Parts but surround it with new bass lines, beats and synth parts.’ 

What to give the man who has everything for his 75th birthday? A set of remixes by musicians most of whom weren’t even born when Glass was starting to make his presence felt – that ought to make a ripely maturing man very happy.

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