Siobhan Kane interviews legendary composer Philip Glass ahead of his solo piano concert at the National Concert Hall.
Philip Glass‘s huge body of work seems initially diverse; whether composing music for the great choreographer Jerome Robbins (Dance Pieces) in the early eighties, to working with Aphex Twin (Icct Hedral), or Woody Allen (Cassandra’s Dream)- but there is a common ground to all of his work – a great artistry, a compulsion to provoke, to play with what has gone before to originate something different. He is in a constant dialogue with himself as a classicist, talking to Schubert, Bach and Mozart in particular, and as a modernist, having started around the same period as Steve Reich (they both studied composition at Juilliard), and out of the ashes of their collaboration moving on to establish the well-regarded, ever-exciting The Philip Glass Ensemble. This kind of dialogue and way of thinking was established early on by Glass’s own upbringing, and his father who ran a radio repair shop, which also sold records, and which stocked everything from Shostakovich through to Frank Sinatra. Harmony and disharmony was everywhere in the shop. It is a lovely image to think of the broken down radios sitting amidst the neatly stacked vinyl, and a sense of practical magic at work; the records and the radios that play those records perhaps framed so much of Glass’s own approach to music and earthy way of understanding and disseminating something that can ultimately be quite abstract.
Glass has never regarded himself as a teacher, but he has been hugely influential, and has nurtured other composers, such as Arthur Russell (through letting him use his studio at night), John Moran (widely regarded as his protege) and more recently Nico Muhly, who stayed as an assistant with Glass for almost nine years. In terms of musical influence his greatness is keenly felt by musicians such as David Bowie and Brian Eno, and more recently in Dan Deacon’s 2009 record Bromst, which owes a huge debt to Glass, but Glass doesn’t see these experiences or his influence as ‘teaching’, again he sees it as something of a constant dialogue, consisting of the flow of ideas, the inspiration, the creativity. It is partly what makes him one of the world’s most interesting, and best composers. He matches his prolific output (he sleeps strictly five hours a night) with a high standard of quality and interesting collaborations, and his sense of integrity (a rare quality) is something that has stood him well, across a series of long working relationships, whether with the composer Dennis Russell Davies (Low, Symphony No. 2, Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Appomattox among others), documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, the excellent Fog of War), the writer Doris Lessing (The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, In the Penal Colony) or musician and poet Leonard Cohen (Three Songs for Chorus, Book of Longing)- Glass invests, and with that comes a sense of responsibility and awe in the presence of the creative power, and the way it can reach and move – the transcendental state. Sometimes his work is regarded as stripped back, repetitive beauty, which is sometimes true, but then there is also work such as the sensual, loving, yearning, tender Songs and Poems for Solo Cello (which were inspired by his own love, the cellist Wendy Sutter).
Brian Eno once described experiencing The Philip Glass Ensemble in the late sixties as ‘the most extraordinary musical experiences’ of his life, and a lovely coda to those experiences, was that fifteen years later Glass responded to the Eno/Bowie record Low with his three movement symphony Low, which combined some of Glass’s own original composition with themes featured in many tracks from their record – again the idea of dialogue hangs heavy over his work. As does homage. Glass has often composed work in homage to people he has worked with, as a kind of gift to that experience, or as a testimony to a different kind of influence, for example his Violin Concerto for his father who loved chamber music; he is constantly giving others their due, and in turn, providing us with outstanding, moving, interesting music.
This idea of homage does not just originate with his father, but some of the experiences he himself has had with great artists, whether Beckett in Paris, or Jerome Robbins in New York, Glass has worked with people who are routinely described as geniuses. Now Glass is often described in such terms. It is not just about the content of the work, but his approach to the work. It is about the fact that he believes in music as a great basis for intellectual exploration, that he believes in free music and instruments in the school system, that he has run three successful record labels (Chatham Square Productions, Point Music and presently Orange Mountain Music, neatly going back to his roots and his father, in a strange way), that he is open and giving and that he has worked through struggle. A particularly funny story is when he was making a living as a taxi driver in New York, around the time his brilliant, epic opera Einstein on the Beach was premiering, a woman tapped on his window and asked him if he knew that he had the same name as a ‘very famous composer’, but that is another thing about him, he sees the truth in life, what is important, he is at once an observer and a participant, he knows what it is to struggle, to grieve, to experience pain, but also great joy. He has previously described himself as ‘the painter who does abstract painting at home, but likes to go to the sidewalk and do sketches of people on the street’. He is now a spritely seventy-three, and to see him play solo piano is one of those great joys, and rest assured, there are many more to come, channelling as ever, what the New York Times described in response to his composition for some of Beckett’s work in 2007 as ‘icy, repetitive music that comes closest to piercing the heart’.
Siobhán Kane talks to the great Philip Glass.
You once said that piano is the first thing you play in the morning, and the last thing at night, do you view playing solo piano as the ultimate distilling of your work and your mission as a composer and musician?
The experience of playing as a solo pianist in front of an audience is the ultimate. I am in the Ensemble, and have played with other groups, but when I am alone on the stage it is the most intimate experience, you are directly playing to each person in the room, there is a transmission there. You can focus the elements; the performer, the music, the listener and nothing comes between it.
After all this time, do you still experience a certain amount of nerves? It almost seems like a huge weight of responsibility somehow.
Oh yes, there is always that moment, just before you walk on stage, you could be playing to a hundred people, or thousands – but then when I sit down and start playing, I feel comfortable and feel that this is what I am supposed to be doing, this is the way. There is always a small jump into that, and it is an intense experience, but it is the order of things.
Is there a sense of working through some of your work to somewhere different when performing; a very different kind of process to composing?
When I am writing music, I have a sure sense of completion, but when I am performing, it is more of a process, and I can readdress pieces, and phrasing and though I am aware of what lies there initially, of the content, I can play with it, go somewhere else.
How important was being a composer in residence in the public school system in America in the sixties to you?
Very. When I was around twenty two or twenty three years old, I got this opportunity to be a composer in residence, I was one of the first. They sent musicians to places they had no connection to, a city you didn’t know, and I got sent to Pittsburg, and I got to be around all of these kids and some were really good, they were in their teens. It was the first kind of job that I had, I was very lucky. It taught me that I had to find a home for music and that it needed to be watered and appreciated.
Now that progressive policy seems to have been dramatically abandoned in the U.S.
Absolutely, it was around the early sixties when I did it, and twenty years later the funding has disappeared for it. There is a feeling among politicians here in the U.S. that the arts are not essential, that somehow they don’t contribute to the welfare of the economics of society, which of course is completely untrue. The training in music and arts is a great basis for intellectual endeavours, it impacts enormously. There are dominant misconceptions out there, and because of that, the system of music in schools has been dismantled, and yet when I was a boy I was given an instrument at school, I didn’t have to pay for it, it was on loan, and anyone could have access to that, now it really only happens in private schools. My children have that advantage now as they are in private schools, but it should be everywhere, but it is not available.
What do you think the advantages are for a musical education so early on in life?
There is no education finer or more constructive for work in the world that the training that music and arts can give as a foundation for intellectual achievement (Glass himself went on to study Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Chicago). I have no idea what is going on, there used to be such a great public schools music system, with orchestras and such, and now there is a general indifference, I think there has actually been a cultivated indifference to it. Music often was also a way of people moving up the social and economic ladder, if they had been born into mean or poor circumstances, music was a way up and out. A huge ideal also was to one day have more racially mixed orchestras, but that has not happened in America because the ideal was to have arts generally available to everyone regardless of background, race or gender, and that is just not happening now.
Was a turning point for you as a composer and musician going to Paris in the mid-sixties and studying with Nadia Boulanger, and also Ravi Shankar? They were coming from such different places; Boulanger with harmonic structure and Shankar with the elevation of rhythm, where ‘all notes are equal’.
I was completing perhaps eighteen years of training when I went to Mademoiselle Boulanger, and she was tough, and excellent – this was almost fifty years ago. It completed what I had already begun in America, but then meeting Ravi Shankar, he opened another door to me. I had been learning from a Western tradition, and there was a rebalancing there. Now I have worked with musicians from Australia and China, and it is a very different way to my own way, but I understand it. It is often termed ‘world music’ but I like the term ‘global music’ better, because it gives a picture of the whole world, that there are many of us professional musicians out there.
Since those teachers were hugely influential, did you ever consider taking up teaching yourself?
I really think of teaching as a vocation, and I didn’t have that talent. There are generations of talented students out there, but I feel my whole life has been about having one job – and that is as a composer. It’s funny, when I got to my seventies I got a backhanded offer of doing some teaching, but it’s not my vocation.
Yet you have been a kind of teacher to many, with your studio system, and sense of wanting to nurture talent.
That’s it, I have always had a studio system, and I employ assistants who, when they work with me, will see how it all works, from copying through to organising, through transferring the written composition to the computer, it is a great experience. They learn a lot about music production, and operas, other compositions. They come and go, and I always say to them to stay in the studio until they are ready to move on, and I always encounter some really talented people.
This must go back to the way you have always worked with people, and a lot of your working relationships have been over a long period of time.
Yes I always have had long working relationships, I could know someone over five decades and only do five pieces, that’s one every ten years, which is okay if they are good and you don’t run out of decades [laughs wryly] and live a long time. But then it can be different, I met Allen Ginsberg and over a very short period, it was intense, but we made a number of pieces, and then he passed away. It is like with Leonard Cohen, and his poems, I had them in mind, then he went away and then when he came back we did them. Jerome Robbins and I were also going to work together more, but after our first project Balanchine died, and at the time they needed Jerome, sometimes that’s the way it goes, but I have had some great working relationships.
You never actually met him, but you did have an ‘experience’ of Beckett in the mid sixties, and in a sense, he is one of your longest working relationships, as an inspiration and ghostly collaborator, since you completed work on Act Without Words I, Act Without Words II, Rough for Theatre I, and Eh Joe as recently as 2007. He is someone whose work you constantly go back to, why?
That was around 1964 – 66 in Paris, Beckett was not living far from the theatre company that I was working with, he was quite friendly with them. I was working on some material for them for his work, and they kept in touch with him, and I did ten scores to the text of this work and the performances were done there, and later in New York. I think I connected with his aesthetic, and the way of working, and the way he put his pieces together. It was a radical development, his form of narrative, whether through his plays or prose. It was familiar to us at the time, and it was useful, Beckett was a huge influence who certainly helped me with my music, he gave very little comment on what I did, but that helped.
It surprised me that it took so long for you to work with a fellow New Yorker in Woody Allen, especially given his love of music and your love of film.
We have both lived for fifty years in New York and have never spoken to one another, can you believe that? And then it was a nice moment we enjoyed. He liked my work, he rang me up, asked me if I would do the score for the film [Cassandra’s Dream] and I really enjoyed the experience. We are very compatible, I liked his company, and I hope that we can work together another time.
Philip Glass plays solo piano at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday 22nd June, and as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival featuring Wendy Sutter and Mick Rossi at Cork City Hall on Saturday 26th June.