He’s not only one of America’s greatest living composers; he’s also a musician. From collaborating across genres with some of the world’s greatest artists to playing chamber music in small ensembles, Philip Glass does it all.
Glass studied music at Juilliard and in Paris before turning his back on contemporary music and founding his own ensemble in New York City in the late 1960s. He proceeded to scrape by working as a cab driver and mover until in 1975 he composed the score for a non-narrative opera, Einstein on the Beach. Today, he’s one of modern music’s biggest names, known for composing scores based on repetitive structures.
Glass’s music is immediately recognizable, at once compositionally simple and breathtakingly complex. Glass spoke to me on the phone from New York last week.
I actually became familiar with your work through the world of contemporary dance. I was a student at UC Berkeley, where all the young choreographers were using Philip Glass or John Cage for their pieces. That trend seemed to continue beyond college, too. Why do you think contemporary dance choreographers are drawn to your music?
Well you know, John’s music is so different from mine. His association with Merce [Cunningham] kind of solidified his place in the dance world, don’t you think? His relationship to dance was very personal and autobiographical. Mine is a little bit different, though I’ve worked with dance always. From my earliest pieces 50 years ago I was writing for dance companies. I discovered very early that the people who needed new music were dance companies and theater companies, and that’s where I began. The rhythmic core of my music has been attractive to dancers, and that has certainly been a big help. But then I developed very personal associations with particular dancers: Lucinda Childs for a long time, and Jerry Robbins and then Twyla Tharp-some of our major choreographers were people I knew personally; I knew their work. Many of these collaborations happened in the ’70s and ’80s. So I guess it just began that way. Today I expect I’m danced to more than any other living composer.
The other thing is that I performed with dancers a lot, so I really got to know a lot about dance, and very practical things. Traveling with Lucinda Childs’s dance company in 1978, we went out with a piece which was called Dance, appropriately. We were traveling around Europe, and every time we came to a different house Lucinda had to set the piece onto the space in a different way because of the size of the stage, and I had to adjust the tempo so that the dancers wouldn’t run out of music or finish before the score was complete. So the relationship of dance space and music time became very imprinted on me from that experience. I think more than any other composer I really had a very practical awareness of how dance worked.
I think a lot of people find your music really visual, even physical somehow. This is an obvious connection when it is staged for an opera or in one of your films like Koyaanisqatsi; maybe less so in your concert music. Do you have an experience of ‘seeing’ the music?
You know, I don’t, and this is the odd thing. I’ve become very competent at coordinating visual elements with music. Film is one place where that happens, and it happens in opera all the time. But I don’t see things when I write music. When I write music I hear music and that’s what I hear. I don’t have any skills at generating images on paper or even in my own mind, for that matter. However, when I have had a particular assignment of writing music for a picture-like with The Hours, or this recent piece I did with Woody Allen, Cassandra’s Dream-I have learned a lot about how images and music work together psychologically, and how the spectator participates through the activity of their watching and listening at the same time. How that actually works is a very precise function, and the composer who knows how to do that can draw that line between the spectator and the image precisely through the music. It’s an actual skill that you learn from doing it, and I’ve done it for 50 years. When I was working with The Hours and I saw the opening images of the piece I just immediately heard the music for it. But then the actual synchronizing the image and the music together becomes another kind of technique.
And is that often how it is – that you’ll see an image and then the music will come to you aurally?
Or does it ever come from nowhere?
No, it never comes from nowhere; it always comes from the image. When I’m writing music for a play, for example, I might I try to get the designer’s drawings and to have them with me while I’m writing the music. I like to have the visual and the text elements in front of me when I do that. There’s no question that it works that way.
Computer generated music and electronica have made repetitive structures familiar, but when you were first drawn to them, the results sounded unlike anything else. Can you say where that impulse came from?
Oh that’s easy, I remember all that very well. I was working with a [Samuel] Beckett work – a piece called La Comedie or A Play – and I was watching rehearsals in Paris. We were doing it with an English-speaking theater company. I watched it for a long time and I realized that the emotional epiphanies of the play shifted throughout the play; they didn’t occur at the same place every night as it would in a play by Euripides or Shakespeare or Sartre, for that matter. Beckett had done something with drama and time and words that was very different. I began to work with repetitive music as a backdrop to the dramatic cycle of the music, and I discovered that it did not actually change the dramatic structure at all, which is very unusual. Through that experience I had begun working with repetition; I was working specifically to try to find a link between a non-narrative dramatic structure and a non-narrative music structure. I discovered that repetition was a way of doing that, and then from there I then extended it into other areas. We’re talking now about 1965 or ’66, and I was off and running by then; I knew what I wanted to do.
You’ve done much of your work in collaboration with other artists, and not only musicians or composers. What is it that excites you about working with others?
Oh, they have such interesting ideas! [laughs.] You know, we live in a time when there are fantastic collaborative artists. In the theater I work with Doris Lessing and Christopher Hampton and for that matter Jean Cocteau who I never knew but I’ve used his work. In dance, there are those dancers we’ve just been talking about, in film, the films we’ve just talked about, so whether it’s text or image or movement, they all become sources of inspiration for music. I tend to compose mostly for theater-that would be dance, plays, operas-in other words where the source of the inspiration is not the language of music itself, but another genre of art, another form of performance. What’s interesting about that is that the personality of the collaborator affects the work so profoundly that it becomes a source for the work itself. The impact of collaboration becomes a kind of an engine for changing the language of music. And that becomes extremely interesting.
What’s some of your favorite music these days-other than your own?
There are a lot of composers whose work I admire, whether it’s Shostakovich or Schubert, or young composers, or musicians from Africa like Fela Sowande or India like Ravi Shankar-I’m drawn a lot to world music. But I just was listening to some songs by Paul Simon today and thinking about the way his lyrics and his music are combined. I know Paul because I’ve worked with him-he often starts with the music idea and then finds the words, which is a very tricky business, but there’s no one better than Paul Simon for writing music and lyrics together.
How would you say your musical interests have changed over the years?
Well it has a lot to do with people I have worked with, and I’ve worked with different people. Certainly, film came late for me. I started writing films in my 50s, and I began with films like Koyaanisqatsi and The Thin Blue Line-they were very abstract, kind of non-narrative films. I eventually ended up doing studio films, so that’s one form of collaboration that changed as I became more skillful at working in that medium. But then there’s the language of music itself that has changed-from strictly repetitive structures to things that don’t repeat in any strict way at all. Even though people say they repeat, if you actually had to describe how they repeated you would have a hard time doing it. It would be true, but much more oblique, and much more as a background to the music than the foreground. And elements like harmonic language became more important than even melodic language. So there have been shifts within the language of music itself that happened over the years, and that continue to change.
You’ve talked a little bit about how being a composer is not at all the same as being a musician. Is that ever frustrating?
Well, fortunately I am both [laughs], so that’s why I am playing. What I mean to say by that is that for most composers the crowning moment is the creation of the music, but being an interpreter myself, the fact that I wrote the music doesn’t matter. But I’m working with interpreters – like, in this concert in Santa Barbara, Wendy Sutter – she takes a piece of mine and brings it to life, literally. I put notes on a page, but the real creative work of performance is done by the performer. And it can happen on a very, very high level.