In the Music and Opera category

The Frontiers of Knowledge Award goes to Philip Glass for forging a unique musical style that embraces cultural traditions from around the world and appeals to audiences of all generations

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Music and Opera has gone in this fourteenth edition to Philip Glass “for his extraordinary contribution to musical creation and opera, with a major impact in the music history of the 20th and 21st centuries,” in the words of the award committee.

23 March, 2022


Philip Glass

“His distinctive style and fresh approach to composition has embraced different cultural traditions from all over the world,” the citation continues, “forging a unique and individual style and pursuing his own path with courage and conviction. Glass, it adds, is “an international figure appealing to audiences of all generations. His work is performed in the most important opera houses and by leading musical ensembles around the world.”

Born in Baltimore (Maryland, United States) in 1937, music immediately found a space in his life. His father owned a record store, and the young Glass’s early exposure to classics like Beethoven, Shostakovich or Bartók encouraged him to begin studying flute and piano at seven years of age.

He moved through the Chicago jazz scene and studied composition in New York City, but, disillusioned with the musical modernity prevailing at the time, in the early 1960s he decamped to Paris to study under Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. There he became familiar with the Central European canon and the Darmstadt School, but would quickly move beyond them thanks largely to his close working relationship with composer and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

His experience with Eastern music, which he delved into more deeply on a trip through northern India in 1966, would have a decisive influence on his compositional style. “To write the music I wanted to write I needed to come up with a different language,” he remarked in a phone conversation shortly after hearing of the award, which he was, he said, “thrilled” to receive. “The huge effort I put in between my twenties and thirties yielded important breakthroughs in certain pieces. It was a language based firstly on contemporary music as I understood it, but also on my own particular way of applying that language. I was also very interested in theater and dance. What I was looking for was a musical language that established a relationship between movement, sound and image.”

In his memoirs, Glass talks of how his sound world is rooted in New York, the city where he has lived longest and still resides today. “What makes New York such a wonderful place is that people come from all over the country and the world, generally speaking with an open mind, ready to work with others and on the lookout for new ideas. New York, Los Angeles, Paris or Madrid are all cities of that kind, where artists come together.”

After his travels through Europe and Asia, in 1967 he returned to New York, where he set up his own group, the Philip Glass Ensemble, comprising synthesizers, keyboards and amplified woodwinds. The group became a vehicle for a whole new approach to musical creation than came to be known as minimalism. Though the label itself was not to his liking, Glass would be acknowledged as among its founders and leading exponents.

Asked about the evolution of his creative style, which Glass at one point defined as “an attempt to integrate three musical elements: melody, harmony and rhythm,” he insists today that what interests him more is “redefining the elements. Instead of talking about harmony, melody and rhythm, let’s talk about language, imagination and intuition. The language of music can be highly specific, depending on where, when and with whom you study. The language of music is what we learn to play and listen to. The other two elements, imagination and intuition, are actually more important. You can get a degree in the language of music, but you can’t get a degree in imagination or intuition. Those are the things we bring with us when we set to work, and that is true also of architecture, medicine, politics or economics. Without imagination and intuition, music has no real meaning.”

His breakthrough: Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass’s novel way of composing did not initially find favor with the American public, who considered him more of a performative or protest artist than a musician. Víctor García de Gomar, committee secretary and Artistic Director of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu reflects on those early days: “At first he was not successful on the music circuit, and was better known in New York’s galleries. The art establishment saw him more as the creator of acts of cultural resistance employing a distinctly individual sound language.” In fact, in 1976, at the time of the premiere of his opera Einstein on the Beach – seen as his first great work and the one that won him significant acclaim – Philip Glass was still earning a living from his “day” jobs as a taxi driver and electrical appliance repairman.

But Einstein on the Beach “broke every rule about what an opera was then supposed to be. It has no plot, the protagonist barely makes an appearance, the number of instruments used is far smaller than usual, it brings in electronics. It has many elements that renew or even overturn the opera concept,” García de Gomar relates. Among those distinctive elements is the fact that during the performance (almost five hours long in its live version) the audience can enter and leave whenever they choose. It premiered as part of the Avignon Festival in summer 1976, and Glass himself describes the audience reaction: “People were out of their minds. There was an uproar. People couldn’t believe it. They were screaming and laughing – practically dancing.”

The piece marked the composer’s first collaboration with theater director Robert Wilson, an artistic partnership that has continued to thrive. In it he offers a purely descriptive portrait of the historical figure that is Einstein, with little trace of a plot. In the words of the Artistic Director of the Liceu: “In his operas, Glass approaches the gallery of the world’s great figures in a similar way to Wagner, showing the heroic side of his characters, but without ignoring the stains, scars and contradictions each of them might have, which at the same time make them deeply human.”

It also forms part of the trilogy or “triptych of portraits” that Glass continued with Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha – “insistence on truth” in Sanskrit ­– (1979), and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten in the opera of the same name (1983). This was Glass’s tribute to three men (the man of science, the man of religion, the man of politics) who, each in their own way, managed to change the thinking of their times “not by force of arms, but through the power of ideas.”

“The most significant issues of our times”

Philip Glass has said on several occasions that, from his earliest years, science and music have been his two guiding passions, to the extent of seeing scientists “as visionaries or poets.” No surprise then that he has “probably composed more operas on science than any other composer.” Aside from his Einstein piece, this claim rests on his operatic scores on the Florentine genius Galileo Galilei, in the opera of the same name premiered in 2002, and the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler (Kepler, 2009), as well as on the soundtrack he wrote for the documentary A Brief History of Time on the figure of Stephen Hawking, a Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in Basic Sciences in the eight edition of the awards.

In this regard, Glass says that “the second big interest in my life has been science. From a very early age I started reading about science. When I was a kid everyone knew who Einstein was, they might not have been able to express his ideas, but they knew the importance of what he said. Theoretical science always fascinated me, and that’s how I got interested in mathematics. From early on I began to use ideas from science, history and psychology to express myself in the language of music.”

Part of the importance of Glass’s work, for the award committee, is his willingness to address “the most significant issues of our times.” We can see this is his “Qatsi Trilogy” (1981-1982) with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, three experimental, non-narrative films that are all about the images and the music. The first and best known, Koyaanisqatsi, (a word in the Hopi language that translates approximately as “life out of balance”), is a reflection on the dangers of a society leaning too heavily on technology, the balance of power between nature and hyper-technified human beings, between the organic and the mechanical.

Another example of how the big social issues find space in his work is of particular relevance to current world politics. It is the closing scene of Einstein on the Beach, juxtaposing “the most terrible thing you can think of, the annihilation that follows a nuclear holocaust,” with “love, the cure, you might say, for all the problems of humanity.” Glass is happy to acknowledge that social issues “are the main subject [of some of my works]. I was able to see a deeper side that I could relate to completely. I came to understand that I had a social responsibility, which I could not avoid, but I also had a personal responsibility.”

Collaboration with artists from other disciplines

The committee refers to Glass as “highly respected by leading artists in many art forms.” “My own feeling,” says the composer, “is that collaboration with other artists is precisely what has driven the greatest successes of my career. It’s not the language of music alone that counts, but how it integrates with the contributions of the colleagues we work with.”

This desire is patent in the long list of works that Glass has produced in cooperation with other artists, which have taken many different guises. The painter and photographer Chuck Close has portrayed Glass using diverse techniques, and he in turn composed A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close (2005); Book of Longing is a song cycle based on texts and drawings by Leonard Cohen; his symphonies no. 1 (Low), 4 (Heroes) and 12 take their inspiration from David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. Woody Allen, David Byrne, Paul Simon, choreographer Twyla Tharp and poet Allen Ginsberg are other artists featuring in the eclectic relational network forged by Glass in the course of his musical practice. And, of course, his productions with Robert Wilson, to whom he is bound by friendship and a shared passion for the theater as communication.

Philip Glass is the author of an extensive catalog of works spanning multiple genres and every type of musical ensemble. The list includes more than 26 operas, large and small, notably the aforementioned Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983), and The Voyage (1992), commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera to commemorate the fifth centenary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. He has also written fourteen symphonies, thirteen concertos, nine string quartets and works for solo instruments like the piano or organ.

Film scores merit their own chapter in Glass’s output. The composer has lent his music to over fifty titles, from experimental works like Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio (1981-1982) and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, to Martin Scorcese’s Kundun (1997), Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) or the Stephen Hawking biopic A Brief History of Time, directed by Errol Morris (1992). He has received three Oscar nominations for best film soundtrack: for Kundun (1997), Notes on a Scandal (2006) and The Hours (2002), which won him the 2003 BAFTA for Original Film Music.

“He is an artist who breaks the mold,” concludes committee secretary Víctor García de Gomar. “His contribution to music is of a unique quality, without obvious precedent. He creates a whole new universe, as does the Darmstadt School in Europe, with the difference that the minimalist formula Glass represents has managed to connect with a broad public, while the European tradition has kept its distance from such mass appeal.”

A similar view is expressed by Glass’s nominator for the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, Gabriel Erkoreka, a composer and Professor of Composition at the Basque Country Higher School of Music (Musikene). For Erkoreka, “Philip Glass is a towering figure in the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, who transcends the realm of contemporary music in the way his work has permeated society, connecting with a multitude of audiences of all ages and characteristics, across the length and breadth of the planet.” As the creator of a whole musical current, he adds, Glass’s pieces offer us “on the one hand, that repetitive element, which we may at times perceive as static and hypnotic. But if we are attentive to the changes, what sinks in is the ingenuity he deploys in the rhythm, which breathes life into the work as it unfolds in time.”

Music and Opera committee and evaluation support panel

The committee in this category was chaired by Tomás Marco, musicologist and Director of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Spain), with Víctor García de Gomar, Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu (Spain) acting as secretary. Remaining members were Mauro Bucarelli, Artistic Administrator of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome (Italy); Raquel García-Tomás, composer (Spain); Pedro Halffter Caro, conductor and composer (Spain); and Kathryn McDowell, Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra (United Kingdom).

The evaluation support panel of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) was coordinated by M. Victoria Moreno, the Council’s Deputy Vice President for Scientific and Technical Areas, and formed by: Antonio Ezquerro Esteban, scientific researcher at the Mila I Fontanals Institution (IMF); Luis Antonio González Marín, tenured researcher at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF); Ignacio Montero Ruíz, Deputy Coordinator of the Global Society Area and scientific researcher at the Institute of History (IH); Emilio Ros Fábregas, scientific researcher at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF); and Juan Manual Vicent García, scientific researcher at the Institute of History (IH).

About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, technology, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas. The goal of the awards, established in 2008, is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument at our command to take on the great global challenges of our time and expand the worldviews of individuals in a way that benefits all of humanity. Their eight categories address the knowledge map of the 21st century, from basic knowledge to fields devoted to understanding and interrelating the natural environment by way of closely connected domains such as biology and medicine or economics, information technologies, social sciences and the humanities, and the universal art of music. They come with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, along with a diploma and a commemorative artwork created by artist Blanca Muñoz.

The BBVA Foundation has been aided from the outset in the evaluation of nominees for the Frontiers Award in Music and Opera by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC appoints evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding knowledge area, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of the candidates proposed by numerous institutions across the world, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates in the selection of its members, thus helping to ensure objectivity in the recognition of innovation and scientific excellence.