Juggling and nudity — I found myself in the middle of this unlikely spectacle one Friday night last November when I attended a performance of The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Akhnaten. A friend had had a last minute change of plans and offered me his tickets, which I gratefully accepted, eager to see the show I had been hearing about for weeks on my music friends’ social media accounts.
At the performance, I was surprised to see that among the Met’s usual upper crust cliental were people my age. A lot of people my age. And they didn’t look like classical musicians: these were the cool kids. Mixed in with Upper West Side’s finest was half of Bushwick — vintage dresses, micro-bangs, and ironic glasses were everywhere I looked. Hipsters have never really liked me all that much — starting back in college, when I was never invited to join the film majors on the smoking benches outside the dorms, mostly because I didn’t smoke, but also maybe because I liked the Counting Crows a little too much — and yet, here we were, all together, willingly putting ourselves on “Philip Glass time” for almost four hours.
As it turned out, that evening was part of the Met’s Fridays Under 40s series (side note: I guess those Instagram ads work!) And yet, somehow I didn’t think I would see quite as many of these people ironically attending a production of La Traviata. Something about the music of Philip Glass was enthralling to this group.
As I pondered this theory a few weeks later, I was afforded the opportunity to directly speak to some hipsters about the matter, who confirmed what I suspected: hipsters love Philip Glass. “I also love John Adams,” one guy explained to me at a holiday party. Further research on my end produced a Spotify Playlist called “Classical Music for Hipsters,” which, alongside Glass included multiple works by Arvo Pärt. An aesthetic trend was beginning to emerge.
To understand Glass and his style requires a look at the musical movement called minimalism. Like most minimalists, Glass doesn’t like to be called a minimalist (then again, most hipsters don’t like to be called hipsters). Minimalism developed in the 1960s in Manhattan’s “downtown” scene and was pioneered by Glass and his hipster composer friends (I think they were still called “beatniks” back then). Stylistically, it features intentionally simplified rhythms, consonant harmonies, and lots of repetitive patterns. This is especially a hallmark of Glass’s writing: most of his music includes a repeated rhythmic pattern of two to six notes set over slowly evolving harmonies.
While this description of minimalism refers specifically to art music, its elements can be found everywhere in our pop culture, from television and movie music to dance tracks to Pitchfork’s greatest hits lists. This can be traced back to the creative output of Glass starting from the 1980s, as he began more and more to direct his music towards a wider public. 1982 saw the release of Glassworks, a six-track chamber music work that was marketed by CBS Records as being specially optimized for Walkman cassette players. While Glass had been involved in film scoring as early as the 1960s when he encountered Ravi Shankar in Paris, his true turning point was in 1985 with his work on the film Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters, which Glass himself credits for developing his “technique of film scoring in a very special way.” This technique paved the way for his later work on blockbuster hits, including 1998’s The Truman Show and 2002’s The Hours.
As Glass’s hypnotic ostinatos began to pervade our collective consciousness in the decades that followed, his stylistic method became the go-to for any situation that required music to be pensive, suspenseful, or evocative. Take the theme from Netflix’s Stranger Things, which features a repeated musical hook that could almost have been written by Glass.
Composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band SURVIVE cite a nostalgia for the 80s as their inspiration for the show’s soundtrack, which makes sense, given the influence Glass’s friends and collaborators David Bowie and David Byrne (OG hipsters!) had on the music of this decade.
This year’s Best Picture, Parasite, also features moments of overt Philip Glass influence in Jung Jae-Il’s tense, emotional soundtrack. The first 35 seconds of “Mr. Yoon and Park” demonstrate this exceptionally well: the track begins with a repeated pizzicato pattern in the low string instruments, interrupted 12 seconds in by a faster, Glass-esque musical loop played by orchestral bells.
These excessively repetitive ear worms aren’t just limited to tv and film: they can be found in countless dance tracks. As the emergence of electronic dance music in the late 1970s and early 80s coincided with Glass’s rise to fame, it’s hard to imagine that early dance music producers weren’t influenced by his trademark minimal aesthetic, whether intentionally or not.
The style even works in ad campaigns: Gucci Bloom used Portishead’s song “The Rip” in their 2017 perfume advertisement. (This post was the only thing I could find on the internet referencing that Glass worked directly with Portishead, but even still, the evidence of his influence in their music is compelling).
Glass’s influence on our popular musical world is endless. It’s easy to discredit him as a sell-out, and indeed, many have. Nonetheless, something in his music resonates deeply with the under 40 crowd that turned out for Akhnaten that night in November — enough that they opened their minds, hearts, and limited weekend schedules to attend a four-hour opera sung mainly in ancient Egyptian and Akkadien. Perhaps the genius of Glass is that his music transcends its origins and pervades mainstream culture in a way that many classical composers have failed to do. I believe this openness lies at the heart of Glass’s vast oeuvre and embodies the spirit of his music-making. “In a clear way, we are bound to our culture. We understand the world because of the way we were taught to see,” Glass writes in his memoir, Words Without Music. “The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.”