Philip Glass recalls his early years in Chicago

This 2016 portrait of Philip Glass by Luis Alvarez Roure is part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.


Ahead of the first performances of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, the composer was interviewed by Richard Guérin, manager of Glass’ label, Orange Mountain Music.

Richard Guérin: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is performing your Symphony No. 11. This is the first time they are playing a symphony of yours, and it’s Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting. I was thinking about your time there at the University of Chicago, from going to jazz clubs like the Cotton Club to hear Charlie Parker and Stan Getz to going to hear the CSO and Fritz Reiner.

Philip Glass: I got to Chicago in 1952. I went there when I was 15. I’m turning 85 now. That means this was 70 years ago! I lived in Chicago for that time that I was at the university. These were four crucial years of my life. I graduated when I was 19, and from there I went to New York, did my education all over again, and went to music school.

Do you have any memories of going to the Chicago Symphony?

Oh, sure! Friday afternoons, as I remember, there was a student ticket you could get. I know this sounds crazy, but I think it was 25 or 50 cents. That’s ridiculous, even if you put it in terms of “25 cents at that time.” We are talking about 1952–53. Basically, the Friday afternoon concert was a warmup for the “real” concerts that were going to happen that night and on Saturday and Sunday. You were kind of going to the first time that people were hearing the pieces.

I would take the IC [Illinois Central] train that goes from the South Side right down to the Loop. You’d get off only a block or two away from Orchestra Hall. I went there almost every Friday because Fritz Reiner was the conductor. The modern music he was playing was by his friend Bartók. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, things of that kind, were what we thought of as wildly modern pieces.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was from 1944, so in 1952, it was only eight years old. It was new music!

That’s right! Fritz Reiner was bringing modern music into Chicago. By the way, he was a man of tremendous courage, because there was no audience waiting to hear this music. Reiner was introducing it to Chicago, and I wasn’t going to miss it, and I didn’t miss it. I never met him, but you have to remember that I was very young. He was probably 50 years older than I was. It was very clear that the music of Reiner’s day, the music that he championed, was the music he knew in his 20s, and even maybe in his teens. For that time, he was playing the music of his day.

It must have been in Chicago that you made your first attempts at composing.

Yes, though I didn’t even have a piano at the time. There was a tiny little music department for the University of Chicago. It was a little house on Ellsworth or something. I forget. There were only two classrooms in the place, and there were only one or two courses given there a year. It was completely ignored by everybody. I wanted to listen to new music and went to the library. They had a good library of modern music, but no recordings. So I would take these scores and sit there and try to imagine what they sounded like, and I probably wasn’t too far off.

Just as you sat and tried to imagine what the music in those scores would sound like, what do you think an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will bring to your Symphony No. 11?

(Glass laughs) A great conductor and one of the best orchestras in the country? Every section is beautiful. The thing about that Chicago Symphony tradition that survives is [what] I was talking about [when I said] that Reiner was admired and respected. Reiner got them to play this modern music. You know, it’s funny, because I would go to a rehearsal, and I’d meet the players — of course I admired them because they were wonderful players. At that time, they looked at me like I was some kind of weird guy, interested in this weird music. They’d open their hands, and they’d just say, “This is what Maestro wants to do.” At that time, [Reiner] did not have the orchestra on his side. It takes courage, and that courage becomes a tradition.

Along with managing Philip Glass’ Orange Mountain Music label since 2006, Richard Guérin also is the director of Zarathustra Music, which represents the recording and publishing interests for Academy Award-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal. Guérin also is the founder of the Salem Classical music series and the newly formed Supertrain Records.