Back to school: renowned composer Philip Glass returns to the University of Chicago for three-day residency

Philip Glass talks to UChicago Professor Augusta Read Thomas about artistic collaborations. (Rob Kozloff/ THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO)

By Frances Van de Vel

In 1956, Philip Glass graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 19 with a degree in mathematics and philosophy. His eventual career path, however, strayed far from those tracks in pursuit of musical composition. Sixty years and multiple operas, soundtracks and concertos later, the alumnus finally returned to his alma mater on Feb. 17 for a three-day residency.

His stint as a Presidential Arts Fellow at the university opened with a screening of a movie he scored: “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985), directed by Paul Schrader, in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. One day later, that was also the site of a public conversation, in which Glass discussed the value of artistic collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago. The residency ended on Feb. 19 with a sold-out performance of his piano etudes in Mandel Hall.

For Glass, who enrolled at the university at age 15, his residency presented an opportunity to reminisce about the first days he set foot in Chicago (“a powerhouse of a city”) after a childhood in Baltimore, Md.

“The breadths and depths of culture were far more than I could have imagined,” said Glass fondly. “When I came to Chicago, it felt like I was walking into a living encyclopedia.”

Fascinated by the music scene on the South Side, he would regularly go down to the Beehive Lounge on 55th Street. Too young to enter, he listened to the live jazz music at the windows, until someone would let him in with a gruff “Okay, kid… You sit here.”

Yet it was in the university’s Harper Library that Glass first thought about becoming a musician himself, an idea hatched while studying scores and recordings in the library’s small music department. Both learning how to use the library for research and hearing the music he was exposed to in the city have left a lasting impact.

“What Chicago provided me was a deep, broad and cultural basis,” said Glass. “Frankly, I couldn’t have become an opera composer without that training.”

During his residency as a Presidential Arts Fellow, Glass passed some of that knowledge on to University of Chicago composition students while workshopping their musical creations. Glass, who has described his success as “a surprise since day one,” remained modest about his contributions to the students’ learning process.

“I don’t expect to be a model for anybody else,” he said. “But I think we had a good conversation.”

Thomas, on the other hand, thought Glass had been an excellent teacher for the University of Chicago students, informing his eager audience with thoughts about issues such as the artist’s work ethic.

“I thought that it was fantastic,” she said. “A lot of really important subjects came up, and he was extremely articulate; I would say profoundly generous.”

The masterclass left Glass thoroughly impressed with the up-and-coming artistic generation. “This generation of kids [is] extremely interesting,” he said. “We haven’t had as creative a generation since the 1960s.”

According to Glass, the previous generations of artists focused too much on money and on getting on television programs. He considered the current generation more idealistic and appreciative of core values such as community and creativity, and compared this ideological change to polluted rivers: “If you leave it alone, ten years later, it will be clean again… Mother Nature has a way of correcting things.”

Also, he was pleasantly surprised by the refreshing ways in which the students wrote their music.

“What could be better than that,” wondered Glass, “if you’re a composer hearing music that you couldn’t write – isn’t that great?”

Approached by a student who was unsure about what to do with his own compositions, Glass had a peculiar piece of advice ready.

“Well, I know the feeling,” he replied. “It’s like walking into a restaurant where all the tables are taken. So what do you do? You build another table. Just build another table.”

Photo at top: Philip Glass talks to University of Chicago Professor Augusta Read Thomas about artistic collaborations. (Rob Kozloff/ THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO)