In 1980, aged 15, I borrowed a record from the music section of my local library in Ibrox, Glasgow. It was called Music In Twelve Parts – Parts 1 & 2, by someone called Philip Glass. I knew nothing about it, except that I liked its minimal-looking orange cover.

Back home that night I listened to it, again and again, fascinated by its repetitive, hypnotic sound. Fast forward 32 years, and I find myself back in Glasgow, sitting in a concert hall with Philip Glass himself.

In the intervening decades Glass has become one of the most famous modern composers in the world, and I have become a documentary film-maker with a passion for modern classical music that was kick-started by hearing his record.

Philip Glass was one of the composers at the forefront of minimalism in the 1960s

And so it is somewhat fitting that he is the first person I interview for what will eventually become a three-part BBC Four series - The Sound And The Fury.

To a non-specialist audience 20th Century classical music can be daunting. Much of it is indeed harsh and complicated, deliberately so. It is not always an easy listen, and The Sound and The Fury sets out to explain how it came to be that way.

But for the third episode in the series I hoped to feature some of the composers who wanted to change that – to bring harmony and simplicity back into music, and to make a sound that had the energy, drive and popularity of jazz and rock.

This music eventually came to be labelled minimalism, and Glass was one of its pioneers.

In person he is a warm, friendly soul with a sly sense of humour. As he explains, his music was not an overnight success. Laughing, he recalls an early review that read, 'Glass invents new sonic torture'.

It is quaint to hear him describe how he played many of his early concerts in cafeterias. Today, his symphonies are performed to sell out audiences in the world's greatest concert halls.

Minimalism was, largely, a New York sound, and I go there to meet another of its towering figures, Steve Reich.

Fellow pioneer of minimalism, composer Steve Reich

For a time, as struggling young composers, Reich and Glass ran a house removals company together, but they had a falling out that is unresolved to this day.

Reich lives outside of the city, in an elegant mid-century modernist house. Its clean lines are just like the clean lines of his music. He's spiky, sharp-talking, with the tone of a wise-cracking comedian.

When I ask him why he thinks his work Music For 18 Musicians became such an audience hit he even hits back with a one-liner: "It's a good piece!"

‘A return to normalcy’: composer Steve Reich on the advent of minimalism

But his tone becomes softer, almost reverential, when he starts to speak about the music of his fellow composer Arvo Pärt, who he sums up as "the most important living European composer."

Pärt's music has sometimes been called holy minimalism. It is also incredibly beautiful - a deeply felt response to the composer's religious faith.

Pärt is no recluse, but unlike the gregariously media-friendly Glass and Reich he very rarely gives filmed interviews, and so I can't quite believe my luck when this gentle, unassuming man arrives at his office in Tallin, Estonia, and sits down in front of me.

Composer Arvo Pärt, often identified with a form of minimalism with a distinctly religious focus

I'm used to filming with artists, writers and musicians – some of them very famous indeed – but I have to confess I've never been so in awe.

He talks about the fear he felt as a young man in Soviet Estonia, where religion was taboo, and of how repression affected the music he wrote. It's incredible to see how close the man is to the music, its plaintive heart and soul made flesh.

After we have finished packing away our equipment, Pärt sits down at a piano and starts playing. One of his assistants explains that it's a piece of music from the 1960s, when he made his living as a soundtrack composer in the Estonian film industry. "He only plays this when he's happy" she whispers.

With his back to the rest of the room he can't see his small team, his wife Nora, and the dumbstruck television crew. We are all beaming. And I have a tear in my eye.

Ian MacMillan is the series producer of The Sound And The Fury.

The Sound And The Fury begins on Friday, 27 September at 7.30pm on BBC Four. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

This series was previously broadcast on BBC Four beginning on 12 February 2013.

BBC Four Collections: Modern Classical Music: programmes from the BBC archives featuring trailblazing 20th Century classical music composers.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Mr_Lightning

    on 4 Oct 2013 11:47

    "David Bowie's Low has also been done by Reich in a classical format."

    Wow. That's in addition to Philip Glass's "Low" Symphony?

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by GillianB

    on 3 Oct 2013 17:10

    Richard, should you ever see this reply, you might like to try Judith Weir or Thea Musgrave, both of whom have written music that is well worth listening to. Looking forward to the repeat of the programme tomorrow night.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Lewis Graham

    on 9 Mar 2013 14:44

    As a keen - but largely uneducated - listener I found this fascinating. I think there is enough material for thirty episodes, let alone three, but it was a good start. It has enriched my listening no end.

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by John Thompson

    on 3 Mar 2013 01:48

    I'm afraid I found this series too chaotic,it had too many taliking heads,although it was meant to be
    primarily centred on Alex Ross's book The Rest Is Noise.I think it picked up the way serial atonal music reflected the increasing frenzy,fragmentation of the 20th century,using images from Cubism
    to illustrate this.However it spoke too much of Webern,Berg and Schoenberg and not enough of
    the way popular forms of music from Jazz,Blues and Rock and Roll(and Pop) tapped into the
    bleak nature of history through people's conscience.I liked its treatment of Ives.Classical music
    was enriched by these other forms of popular music,not so aloof and excruciating.Sometimes
    the prejudices of certain musicians like the guy who did Nixon in China(I forget name)were given too much air time.I think I preferred Howard Goodhall's History of Music series,one point of view
    by a musician who was able to demonstrate the different concepts like Circle of Fifths on a
    piano or even sing some simple Beatles tunes,include Bob Dylan,musicals(Porgy & Bess)
    show how classical music reivigorated itself say through dance(West Side Story,The Nutcracker
    Suite etc.) to give it some focus,narrative and prevent it becoming too abstract.Also the way
    minimalism with its simple repetitions which vary have united pop and classical forms and are
    with us today.I know outside the two series how Stephen Reich has praised the Beatles and
    Radiohead.David Bowie's Low has also been done by Reich in a classical format.

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by louis

    on 1 Mar 2013 22:44

    The sound and the fury over 'the new mix' composers, in particular Adams, seems mistaken. I have listened and wonder if I am alone in thinking that some of 'popular' modern classical lacks the extatic feel of much music. An interesting comparison might be between Adams' The Chairman Dances and Tippets' Concerto for Double Strings; although they are not the same they, at least to me, spell out the difference between much popularised music in the conventional canon of music. Both use, at least in parts, the driving rythme around which various themes are structured but Adams seems not to lift off. Some composers have the ability to lift into extacy, I know its just a brain function thing and part of the subjective problem of the atrs in general but there seems to be a division between this composers who have it and those who don't and it might be that Adams will fade as a serious composer, whereas Tippit is less likely to. I am not being either Eurcentric, Elliot Carter can do it too. There is a parallel in musicals, this lift off is not confined to classical music ( think Penny Lane), between Bernstein and LLoyd Webber- there you know what I mean. Any comments?

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Tessa Delaunay-Martin

    on 1 Mar 2013 18:32

    Hi altnetid (comment #3), thank you for getting in touch. I'm a researcher on the TV blog and can tell you that the music used in the Radio 4 trail was by one of the composers in episode three, Arvo Pärt. The track title is Spiegal Im Spiegal and it is from the album Arvo Pärt: Alina. Performed by Sergej Bezrodny and Vladimir Spiakov.

  • Comment number 8. Posted by hawgwind13

    on 28 Feb 2013 01:16

    Sadly, I was not able to watch all three programmes -did Benjamin Britten get a mention?
    Regarding earlier comments, female composers are legion but traditionally do not have the same profile as the male of the species. This is not so in other (i.e. non-Classical) forms, so poses an intriguing question that might have been addressed. Just sayin'!

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Magic_stag

    on 27 Feb 2013 21:38

    Please jools and monbuckland state any female composers who have contributed one tenth the originality, expression, and power that male composers have? then i will listen, it will be my pleasure!

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Richard

    on 27 Feb 2013 13:27

    @monbuckland - can you recommend female composers to listen to, definatly open to listening. The Wire magazine is my contemporary source. I have not watched last nights episode yet

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by Jools

    on 26 Feb 2013 13:46

    Very interested to know why women composers should have been completely ignored.

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