Composers are among the most mysterious, formidable figures in culture, and that’s not just true of Beethoven and Bach. The ability to bring great music into the world seemingly ex nihilo leaves others in awe — even other creative artists. In his novel Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann portrays the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn as a Promethean figure punished by fate for bringing fiery new modes of musical expression into being. It’s a sign of the respect we owe to the uncanny aspect of musical creation that great composers are so frequently imagined as competing with gods and wrestling demons.
Philip Glass, who will be at Campbell Hall on Thursday, October 3, as the first guest in UCSB Arts & Lectures’ 2019-20 Speaking with Pico [Iyer] series, represents both a bold continuation of Western music’s core tradition and a definitive break from the cliché of genius as a wounding gift or a Faustian bargain. Maybe it’s his decades of Buddhist practice or his status as an OG of the avant-garde, but after speaking with Glass by phone last week, I can attest to the remarkable perspective and general equanimity of this extremely productive 82-year-old. Glass famously drove a New York City cab when he was a young man, and the sangfroid required to navigate Manhattan traffic remains a feature of his disposition to this day.
Widely recognized as the world’s best-known living composer, Glass and his music are much more than simply famous and popular. His immediately recognizable early sound — derived in part from the music of India and honed to a sharp point in the lofts of New York City’s SoHo — continues to be heard ’round the world, even as he races ahead of his signature style in later work. Indeed, compositions from every period in his vast oeuvre have now become staples of not only the concert hall but the dance world, the theater, opera, and film soundtracks. More than 50 years have passed since Glass began composing works that would prove a pivotal influence on the course of Western music, and he still dares to make changes and take chances.
Asked how he felt about the remarkable durability of his music, Glass was characteristically modest and direct, saying, “I have people who keep track for me of where my music goes and who’s playing it. My job is to write it.” Yet there are still certain productions that stand out enough to earn the composer’s notice, like the upcoming new version of his 1984 opera Akhnaten that will open at the Metropolitan Opera in November.
Immediately following his appearance at UCSB, an exclusive event he’s only doing for Arts & Lectures, Glass will travel to Carmel, where The Philip Glass Center for the Arts, Science, and the Environment is based. Each fall, the Glass Center presents two weeks of programming in Big Sur and Carmel under the banner of The Days and Nights Festival. Glass clearly loves this event, which offers him the opportunity to play music — his own and other people’s — in an intimate setting and with complete creative control over the content.
This year, Days and Nights kicks off on Saturday, October 5, with A Thousand Thoughts, a documentary film about the Kronos Quartet featuring live musical accompaniment. On Thursday, October 10, the group Third Coast Percussion will premiere a work by Danny Elfman that was commissioned for the festival. The whole thing comes to a creative crescendo with what Glass refers to as a new “pocket opera” called Drowning, based on a text by the playwright María Irene Fornés. Glass and Pico Iyer should have plenty to talk about.
4•1•1 | Philip Glass comes to Santa Barbara Thursday, October 3, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall, as the first guest in UCSB Arts & Lectures’ 2019-20 Speaking with Pico [Iyer] series. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.