“Get up early and work all day. That’s the only rule,” grins Philip Glass when pressed for his ethos early in this video portrait of the prolific composer, seen juggling four film scores, a new symphony, and the debut of his opera Waiting for the Barbarians while approaching age 70. Cozier than vérité—“Phil” often addresses director and camera operator Scott Hicks by name, once asking him to turn the teapot off—but sufficiently frank about obsessions and limitations to rise above puffery, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts relies on Glass’s siblings and friends to supply nearly all the early background and career anecdotage, from postwar Baltimore youth to Juilliard to the experimental downtown New York scene of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, where the Philip Glass Ensemble played art galleries instead of music venues and their leader worked as a cabbie and plumber to eat. That he drew reviews with headlines like “Six Hours of Monotony” proved to Glass that his innovations were flummoxing the Old Guard: “If you don’t need a new language, you’re not saying anything new.”
While paying heed to his subject’s significant, arguably pioneering collaborations on stage in Einstein on the Beach and on film in the score for Koyaanisqatsi, Hicks keeps the focus on the 2005/6 Glass, who barely finds time to whip up pizzas in a Nova Scotia retreat’s kitchen or play with his two young children before burrowing back into one of his workplaces, scratching out a manuscript, running soundtrack cues for Woody Allen, or leafing through a score with his opera’s conductor Dennis Russell Davies (“I don’t think I wrote that,” Glass frets opaquely). Glass’s status as one of America’s most venerated and mocked highbrows matches gracefully with his peripatetic cultural and spiritual life; he may not define himself exclusively as a Buddhist, but his frequent self-targeted laughter and robust playfulness at physical-meditation sessions are so clearly engrained, not affected, that he often seems like a jolly, music-consumed monk. The cost of his devotion to his art is partly paid by his fourth wife, Holly, whose voice breaks with the hard knowledge that she and her husband are leading essentially divergent lives in proximity.
Glass does not offer an unmediated window into its resident master’s experiences: Why, for instance, one of his gurus, a Toltec shaman, apparently buried him in the wild as a test we don’t learn here. It does show a man who can, perhaps, be best understood by how the confidence in his half-century-honed aesthetics is underscored by the fears he frequently confesses to—from shamanic encounters, from his nascent struggles in music, from the memory of his exacting Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger. “She taught me through terror, [Ravi Shankar] taught me through love,” Glass analyzes, and both are irreducibly mixed in the repetitions and textures of his life’s labor.