Nonesuch observes -- for some reason, a little late -- the 70th birthday of composer Philip Glass through the release of Glass Box, a deluxe 10-CD compilation taken from Glass' extensive catalog and ranging from 1969 to 2005. Designed as much art object as a delivery mechanism for music, all sides of the box save the bottom are emblazoned with striking iconography of Glass from various points in his life. The box is completely square save for a hinged lid, and inside the 10 CDs in digi-pak covers and 192-page booklet are held upright by a pair of cardboard spacers.
Glass does not write many short pieces, and to string together an even roughly "complete" edition of his work would be a foolhardy enterprise, given his high level of productivity and the great diversity of offerings he has given us over the years. Glass' own association with Nonesuch began in 1985 with the soundtrack for Mishima, and Nonesuch has kept Glass on the roster ever since, issuing whatever it could afford to, and many highlights have evolved from this fruitful association. Even given the history, Nonesuch has wisely kept the focus in Glass Box on Glass, as the selection -- divided roughly in half between excerpts and complete works -- isn't exclusively drawn from the catalog but also sources recordings from Glass' labels Orange Mountain Music and Chatham Square and even including a bit of Akhenaton on loan from Sony. Orange Mountain is to large extent responsible for the selection, and it is a very well-done job; each disc summarizes Glass' work in a different area and the excerpted discs are carefully sequenced to avoid the feeling of "bleeding chunks."
Glass Box is a surprising thing to see in 2008, given the state of the industry; one would wonder how such a deluxe item could be possible. However, for what it is and contains, Glass Box is really not that expensive; had it been issued on Glass' sixtieth birthday it probably would have cost $50-60 more. Philip Glass is truly fortunate to have made connections throughout his career with visual artists of such caliber as Chuck Close, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Wilson, and Annie Leibovitz; among composers, possibly only Igor Stravinsky has better portraits. You could set Glass Box on the shelf and when you get tired of seeing a given Philip Glass image, you could flip the box around for another: perhaps you could change Glass' portrait with the seasons! Seriously, though, such design is in keeping with the conceptual angle often associated with Glass' music, and does strike a strong consonance between Glass and his close relationship to visual artists. Inside the box, the same degree of quality is observed, with each individual disc boasting a different Chuck Close portrait. The booklet is quite impressive; highlights include a useful and informative essay on the internal development of Glass' style by Keith Potter, and a number of short, heart-warming, and genuinely felt appreciations by Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Robert Wilson, and others.
One concern is the booklet; it is very densely packed and the review copy sent is starting to shed some pages, so it is advised that one take care in handling the book. Glass Box is as close as one is likely to get to a greatest-hits package for Philip Glass and is better in that it does not suffer from the scrappiness of a typical "greatest hits." It is too big to serve as an introduction to his work, but as a career summary Glass Box is ideal, hits the high points, and is concise at 10 discs. It is worth every penny.