James McVinnie on Glassworks

You might not think you know Glassworks, but scroll down to listen and you'll almost certainly recognise it. Its trademark repeated riffs, overlapping patterns and glittering sonorities encapsulate Philip Glass' unmistakable style, which can be found everywhere from The Hours to The Truman Show to Stranger Things. Read on to hear from James McVinnie on what makes this seminal piece so special.


Philip Glass’s music permeates popular culture: his undulating arpeggio shapes and rippling musical figures have been the soundtrack to so much of what we see in film and TV over the past 30 years and it all started with Glassworks, a six movement work written in 1981 and released as an album the following year. Its deceptively simple music belies its true complexity of form, structure and musical directness which sets Glass apart from his many imitators. I formed my own ensemble principally to bring Glass’s earlier music to wider audiences in the UK and beyond and I’m thrilled to be coming to Saffron Hall in February to perform this great work.

Glass’s musical journey as a composer has been a fascinating one. Steeped in the rigours of harmony and counterpoint in Nadia Boulanger’s legendary class in Paris in the 1960s, he moved on to develop a unique musical language principally concerned with repetition and repetitive structure, created a new genre of music. Glass formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, comprising synthesisers & winds and wrote for it a huge body of work, culminating in Music in Twelve Parts and his opera Einstein on the Beach.

Glassworks was seminal for Glass because it marked something of a turning point in his musical language—here he embraced a softer musical lexicon which formed the foundation of his unmistakable style since. If you turn on the TV you will doubtless hear Glass imitations on virtually every channel. Every time I hear Glassworks, I think ‘of course, it all started here (and Glass is never bettered)’. Glassworks’s six movements each take a musical cell and explore various different permutations of it. The effect is mesmerising: beautiful, ecstatic, reflective, melancholic, joyous all at once.


I’ve chosen to pair Glassworks with four works from New York composer Chris P Thompson’s album True Story & Rational Numbers, originally written for electronic keyboards in just intonation, a tuning system different to that of standard western music. This technique provides unique and colourful sonorities and tonalities to the music. The music is full of the energy of a great city—approachable and captivating. In addition to this we will also play three works by the legendary New York composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker and choreographer Meredith Monk. Monk wrote her hauntingly beautiful piano songs between 1971 and 2006 and they represent a universal story of human existence. Ellis Island takes its name from the island outside New York which processed migrants. Monk made a film about the experiences of those held here and this is its soundtrack.

Hear the James McVinnie Ensemble perform Glassworks live at Saffron Hall on 10 February 2023, 8pm - tickets from £10.

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