If that’s true, it won’t be until nearly 2100 when a full measure of Mr. Glass’s footprint will be possible. But some weighing can start now. The most instantly recognizable voice in contemporary music, he opened a new chapter in operatic history, pushing the bounds of duration and abstraction. At a time when the most lauded composers disdained overproduction, Mr. Glass wrote unashamedly for everyone and everything — and all stubbornly in the distinctive style he created, establishing a model for serious artists moving from the opera house to the concert hall to the film studio, garnering both Met commissions and Academy Award nominations.
MR. GLASS WAS BORN, almost literally, into music: His father owned a record store in Baltimore, where the composer-to-be absorbed Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky — and, perhaps, an intrinsic connection between art and commerce. Over a few years in Paris, Nadia Boulanger was his composition teacher as he was exposed to the jittery-fly modernism of Boulez and Stockhausen. He didn’t hate them, but he didn’t want to compose like them, either.
Those pieces culminated in “Einstein on the Beach,” a dreamlike meditation on scientific discovery, human relations and nuclear apocalypse that progressed in enigmatic episodes, austerely designed and directed by Robert Wilson and with swirling choreography by Lucinda Childs, the dancers representing atomic particles in ceaseless motion.
“When ‘Einstein’ opened,” Mr. Glass said, “we had never performed it straight through without stopping. We didn’t know how long it was. It turned out to be five and a half hours.”
Mr. Glass became a maestro of excruciatingly delayed gratification. “I have no idea what Philip was thinking when he wrote ‘Satyagraha,’” Mr. Guérin said of that 1980 opera, a highly stylized but (compared with “Einstein”) more traditionally plotted story about Gandhi’s early ventures into nonviolent protest in South Africa. “The third act is 45 minutes long, and has just two harmonies. But when it explodes into pure Phrygian scale in the final aria, it’s, like, oh, this totally makes sense.”
When it came to “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten” (1983), Mr. Glass said, “many people were waiting for the son of ‘Einstein.’ They liked that experience of that throbbing, relentless ensemble playing that we did. Of course I wasn’t going to do that. Why would I do that? I had just done it. So I did something completely different, and it was much too lyrical for some people.”
The bronzed character of the “Akhnaten” score emerged through necessity. The company in Stuttgart, Germany, that commissioned the work was renovating its theater, so the performances took place in a space with a much smaller pit.
With the violas now taking the place of the violins, the sound shifted down an octave, its burnished sheen given body with brasses and punctuated by sometimes raucous percussion. As for the title character, the Egyptian pharaoh who is said to have pioneered monotheism — and to have had all traces of him erased for that blasphemy — Mr. Glass put him onstage from almost the beginning, but tantalizingly delayed his first musical entrance.
“How do I introduce him to the audience so that the first time they hear him, they understand he is a completely radical, unforgivable event in the Egyptians’ history, and they have to destroy him?” Mr. Glass recalled asking himself. “I’ll make him a countertenor, to sound not unnatural, but radical. Radical can be natural. He just was who he was.”
“The world had caught up with his music,” Mr. Guérin said. “The Philip Glass sound became digestible to mass audiences. If you had told the people in New York that the composer of ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ would be able to maintain his musical language and score major Hollywood pictures, they wouldn’t have believed you. But he got to be himself.”