Philip Glass, Tim Fain, Pittsburgh

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

In case you missed it: Philip Glass has written a couple of things since he was the composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the early 1960s. 

OK, so maybe he's done more than a few. And whattya know: For the first time on its main subscription series, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will perform a piece by Mr. Glass, the composer of "Einstein on the Beach" and one of the elder statesmen of American classical music.

7c66836b-220d-415c-830c-c836e3ab9cc8Philip Glass (left) and violinist Tim Fain. (Photo credit: Brian Hall)

On Sunday, I heard from a couple of people whose story was woven in with his.

First was the story of Louise Gray, the prudential schoolteacher I mentioned in the article, who rescued a Philip Glass manuscript from the trash. She wrote me this email:

"In October 2013, as I was reading Pittsburgh magazine, I came across an article by Rick Sebak about Philip Glass and his Pittsburgh connection. I taught music in the Pittsburgh Public Schools from 1979-2007. In the late 1980's, I was involved with the National Arts Education Research Center and was completing a project on contemporary music with my students. I was well aware of Mr. Glass and his work in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Public Schools offered a free Saturday program for students which provided at no cost private music lessons, theory classes, choral experiences, theatre, etc. This program was called the Centers for Musically Talented and was located at the old Peabody High School. I performed various tasks there but one of my very first jobs was to organize and maintain the music library. This was a room which housed all of the music and scores which the teachers would check out for use of their students.

"Since "the Centers" was at the mercy of Peabody as far as room assignments and storage, the music library was subject to frequent re-location. When I first entered the new music library room, it looked as if there had been a hurricane with papers, boxes, and music stands strewn everywhere. As I began to restore order to the room, I noticed a large round metal garbage container filled to capacity with yellowed sheet music, tattered scores, and rumpled manuscript papers. Something else caught my eye. It was a hand-written score for woodwind instruments by Philip Glass. I could not believe what I was seeing and quickly removed it from the trash. I was going to think on this one. I put the precious music in a Volkwein's folder, took it home, and then quickly forgot about it. Fast forward to Rick Sebak's article. After reading it, I recalled the retrieval of the Glass score but panic set in. We had purchased a fixer-upper home in Shadyside in 1988 and it was still in the process of getting 'fixed up.'

"Where did we put that we asked ourselves and fortunately it was quickly located. I shared my story with Pittsburgh Magazine and they printed a little blurb about it in a later issue. By that time, I made up mind to donate the music score, but I was undecided about where it should go. The University of Pittsburgh has a Center for American Music and probably would have welcomed the addition to their collection. The Carnegie Library has one of the largest music collections in the country and the score would add to it. After much thought, I donated it to the Carnegie Library since it has been such a great source of pleasure and education for me throughout my entire life. I also thought that if the score were placed at the library, a greater number of people would have access to it. So I am glad that I was able to preserve a piece of Pittsburgh music history and that the Glass score now has a respectful home. So now you know the whole story of the score that almost wasn't."

I love that story! Thank you very much to Ms. Gray for sending it along.

Owen Cantor, a French horn player turned dentist who lives in East Liberty, messaged me about what it was like to work with Mr. Glass as a student in the city schools:

"I was one of the young public school kids who worked with Phil when he lived in Pittsburgh. Both years! Looking back, how lucky I feel. I played horn in his Woodwind Quintet and also his Brass Sextet. We worked directly with Philip, often at his East Liberty loft [on Baum Boulevard, after he moved out of Shadyside], which he sublet from Robert Qualters, a legendary Pittsburgh painter. He also wrote orchestral and band music, and as a French horn player, I was always principal horn. He let me save my horn parts. I could probably find them somewhere in my house."

He continued:

"It was amazing to have Beethoven and Philip Glass equal partners in my earliest musical life. Maybe that's why I never had bias against 'new music'(?). When I was forming my life in music every period was equal.

"Also, Phil had the first electric eraser I ever laid eyes on. He'd compose, have us play, then take the parts back and erase what he didn't like."

As Mr. Cantor pointed out, Carnegie Mellon University's School of Music will produce the music/theater piece "Hydrogen Jukebox," with music by Mr. Glass and a libretto by the poet Allen Ginsberg, Jan. 21-24

Another couple of things worth noting:

  • Mr. Glass last year published a memoir, titled "Words Without Music."
  • As I briefly mentioned in the article, one of Mr. Glass' many collaborators was David Bowie, who died on Sunday and whose music informed his Symphonies No. 1 ("Low") and No. 4 ("Heroes"). The artists discussed their influences on each other in this video:

In Sunday's article, I didn't get a chance to delve deeply into the work of Mr. Glass' talented collaborator, Tim Fain, who will perform the solo on Glass' Violin Concerto No. 2 this weekend and who has taken on some interesting musical endeavors. For example, he worked with Google on a virtual reality music project, called "Resonance," for which he composed the music. "I was learning how to write music before I was learning how to write words, or at least simultaneously," he said. Working with Mr. Glass has informed his composition efforts to some extent. "It's been incredible working with him and talking with him about the way he writes," Mr. Fain said.

Addendum (posted 1/22): I received one more story from Philip Glass' Pittsburgh days. This comes from David Singer, who was a student in the city schools at the time. (Thanks to Mike Staresinic, Mr. Singer's former music student during the 1980s, who passed along Mr. Singer's story.)

"In 1965, I played clarinet in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, All-City High School Orchestra, representing Peabody High School. Distinctly remember the day we were given penciled copies of an orchestral composition that was difficult to follow and difficult to listen to at best. After a brief rehearsal of the piece, we were introduced to the composer, Philip Glass. At the time, Glass was a Ford Foundation composer in residence with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. For many of us, that moment represented a paradigm shift in the way we thought about music composition."

 Correction (1/22): Owen Cantor lives in East Liberty. A previous version of this post had an incorrect neighborhood. The post was also amended to clarify his title. 

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