Philip Glass’ numerous works have been heard in art galleries, opera houses, concert halls and as backdrops to various stage productions and films. A constant seeker of new musical experiences, Glass embraces a multitude of influences, from the music of Bach, Schubert and John Cage to visual arts, films of the French New Wave, and experimental theater. While in Paris in the late 60's where he studied with the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, he encountered the music of Pierre Boulez and other modern composers but never thought to emulate them. It wasn’t until working on a film score with sitar player Ravi Shankar that his distinctive voice emerged, and he began incorporating the concept of Indian additive rhythm into his compositions. He rejects the description of this style as minimalist, preferring to call it “music with repetitive structures” instead.
The Philip Glass Ensemble was formed in 1974 by the composer as a way to ensure performances of his works. With exclusive rights over the music, the only way to hear Glass’ compositions was to have the ensemble perform it. The 20 études were similarly inaccessible to outsiders for two decades. Most of the pieces were written in 1994 as a way for Philip Glass to improve his pianistic skills and to have music to perform in recitals. In 2012 he began editing the études and preparing them for recording and they have been widely available to the public since. The études are now popular with pianists in search of a modern, yet consonant sound.
"This is the first body of work that I’m really welcoming the world of pianists into my world." - Philip Glass
Étude is the French word for study, and each study focuses on a particular technical difficulty. Before Chopin, études were performed by pianists behind closed doors and served as mere technical exercises to keep pianists’ fingers nimble for recitals. In Chopin’s hands the study became a refined concert piece, challenging both technically and artistically. This idea was furthered by Liszt, who with his Transcendental Études aimed to set a new standard of piano technique. Today, some of György Ligeti’s studies are playable only by the top pianists and pose not only technical and artistic, but also significant intellectual and coordination challenges.
Glass’ études are not on that level technically but do offer a contemporary take on a form that has been serving - and plaguing - pianists for centuries. In his own words, Glass set out to “explore a variety of tempi, textures, and piano techniques” in addition to wishing to become a better pianist through the studies. For the listeners who love repetitive structures, the slower numbers offer an immersion into a sphere of quiet contemplation, meditation even, while the faster ones mirror the dynamic whirlwind our daily lives have become. For the performer the études are a welcome respite from overly complex music, a time-out of pure enjoyment.