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 1975, when 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 became familiar with your work through the world of contemporary dance. Why do you think choreographers are drawn to your music? I’ve always worked with dance. 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 Twyla Tharp-some of our major choreographers were people I knew personally; I knew their work. 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-very practical things. I traveled around Europe with Lucinda Childs’s dance company in 1978. 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. I think, more than any other composer, I really had a very practical awareness of how dance worked.
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. I’ve become very competent at coordinating visual elements with music. 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. When I was working with The Hours and saw the opening images of the piece, I just immediately heard the music for it.
And is that often how it is, that you’ll see an image and then the music will come to you aurally? Almost always.
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 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.
Computer-generated music and electronica have made repetitive structures familiar, but when you were first drawn to them, it was a pretty new sound. 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 Comedie or Play-and I was watching rehearsals in Paris. 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 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.
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. 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 have 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.
Philip Glass presents An Evening of Chamber Music featuring Wendy Sutter, cello, and Mick Rossi, percussion, on Sunday, March 2, at 7 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.