Philip Glass’s Psychedelic Short for Sesame Street

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 1 2012 5:26 PM

Did You See This? When Philip Glass Wrote for Sesame Street

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Philip Glass, one-time composer for Sesame Street.

Photo by KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images

American composer and subject of my favorite knock-knock joke Philip Glass turned 75 yesterday, a milestone that he celebrated by premiering his latest symphony at Carnegie Hall. The symphony received a standing ovation appropriate for a birthday boy (some reviewers were more giddy than others), and the piece has already shot up the charts on iTunes.

Long before last night’s concert at Carnegie Hall, Glass composed for the esteemed halls of Sesame Street, and the results are worth revisiting as a belated form of celebrating the composer’s birthday. The piece, written in 1979 and embedded below, accompanied a lesson about the “Geometry of Circles,” though it’s hard even as an adult to figure out what exactly we’re supposed to learn. (Thanks to Open Culture for the tip.)

Indeed, the four-part short is much more psychedelic (perhaps it was written for those in their sensorimotor phase?) than it is educational. The score, heavy on fluttering organs and staccato vocal choirs, is especially reminiscent of the work Glass would do for Koyaanisqatsi (a stoner classic in its own right) a few years later. While I was surprised to learn Glass had composed for the children’s show, Open Culture points out that in some ways it’s an appropriate move for someone borne of a movement that often emphasized accessibility and simplicity (see, e.g., “In C,” sometimes considered the first minimalist composition).

Of course, given the cyclical form of Glass’s compositions, it’s appropriate that the piece is about circles. I’d be even more curious to see what Glass would write about squares.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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