It took a long time for Philip Glass to make ends meet through composition; during the 1960s and ’70s, he mostly made his living as a mover and taxi driver. This did not mean, however, that his compositions remained unknown. As Glass recalls in his 1987 book Music by Philip Glass: “I vividly remember the moment, shortly after [Einstein on the Beach played at the Met Opera House], when a well-dressed woman got into my cab. After noting the name of the driver (New York law requires the name and photograph of the driver to be clearly visible), she leaned forward and said: ‘Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?’”
In 1984, between the European and American premieres of Akhnaten, Philip Glass was invited to compose the music for another modern event with its roots in the ancient world: the Olympics! At the opening ceremonies in Los Angeles on July 28, American decathlete Rafer Johnson lit the Olympic cauldron as Glass’s newly composed work played in the background.
Mention the phrase “ancient Egyptian makeup,” and an image of Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic green-and-black Cleopatra cat-eye is likely to spring to mind. Yet there is good evidence that this dramatic makeup was, in fact, part of ancient Egyptian beauty rituals. Green malachite and black galena (a type of lead ore) were the two basic cosmetic pigments used in ancient Egypt; these were mixed with water and applied to the skin with a small spatula of wood or metal. In addition to lending a rich color to the skin, the minerals offered practical health benefits. Galena has antibacterial properties, and it absorbs the sun’s rays, acting as a kind of proto-sunglasses or eye-black, like athletes use today. There is also evidence that the shape of the eyeliner was meant to imitate the eye of the falcon-headed god Horus; amulets of this eye, worn as jewelry, were thought to protect the wearer, and it is possible that the quintessential Egyptian “cat-eye” was meant to have a similar effect.
Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”) was built on the East side of the Nile, about halfway between Memphis and Thebes, on a flat plane bordered by two high cliffs. At the Eastern edge of this plane, the cliffs come together to form a valley; each morning, the sun disc (or “Aten”) can be seen rising between the steep valley walls. The result is a geographical feature closely resembling the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for “Akhet” or “horizon,” thereby evoking this divine city’s name.
Burial and rebirth were so closely associated in ancient Egypt that the Egyptian word for “coffin” was also the word for “egg”!
If you look into the orchestra pit during a performance of Akhnaten, you might be struck by a glaring absence: The orchestra has no violins! When Akhnaten premiered in Stuttgart, Germany, the Stuttgart Opera’s main auditorium was undergoing renovations, and Akhnaten was scheduled to be performed in a different auditorium with a much smaller pit. Glass knew that he would have to cut back on the size of his orchestra if he wanted his players to fit under the stage. Rather than removing a few performers from each string section, however, he decided to do away with the violin section entirely while retaining the usual number of violas, cellos, and basses. The result is a low, dark orchestral timbre that perfectly balances the high pitches of Akhnaten’s counter-tenor voice.