20th Century Americans - Philip Glass (Part 1)
Article from Music Technology, January 1993
Philip Glass: Glazed expression
This month, Music Technology begins a series of interviews with the leading lights of contemporary American music composition. In the brief period between 1935 and 1937, four composers were born in the USA who's careers were to adopt significant parallels. Glass was the youngest, born in Baltimore in 1937; the other three were Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Harold Budd. Riley and Budd will be featured later in this series, along with synth pioneer Wendy Carlos. Also included will be the grandfather of them all, John Cage, in an interview that was recorded shortly before his death in 1992.
Conducting the interview, along with those of Glass, Riley and Budd are Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker-Smith who are currently preparing the texts for a new book they are writing on the subject of twentieth century American composers, due to be published later this year by Tuber & Tuber. In it, they cover the full spectrum of contemporary American music through interviews with Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, The Kronos Quartet, etc - in addition to those featured here.
Focussing on a generation of composers who, with or without theoretical training, have steadfastly ignored the traditional boundaries; between the 'serious' and the 'popular' - or the acoustic and the electronic - our series begins with Philip Glass, known as a minimalist, but exerting considerably more than a minimal influence on a range of musicians from Mike Oldfield to Meat Beat Manifesto.
In the explosion of new directions which seemed to galvanise so many musicians in the mid-1960s, Glass himself discovered the music of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, and was prompted to incorporate an element of Indian musical form into his own compositions. This was the starting point for his exploration of modular, slowly-developing themes - a pattern which coincided with the tastes of a generation drawn to freer, more contemplative music, and which led to a successful album, Music In Twelve Parts, on the flagship label for this audience in 1974 - Virgin Records.
A contract with CBS in 1982 brought his music to an even wider public, beginning with Glassworks and including Songs From Liquid Days (1986) - a notable collaboration with American pop writers such as David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson.
Glass has never neglected the importance of electronics in the vocabulary of the modern composer: the original Philip Glass Ensemble, formed in 1968, included no less than three electric organists and a full-time sound engineer, and Glassworks itself features his first use of synth bass. Today, the pulses and washes which characterise his work have prompted many imitators, and while Glass concerts tend to take place in sumptuous concert halls with expensive, glossy programmes available in the foyer, his albums sales continue to put many a new age pretender in the shade.
"The thing that makes the music is the choices you make. It's not the technique but the choices you make within the technique. That's the art of it"
"It's hard to say. I was in Paris in '65 and out of touch with what was going on in America. I didn't know what other people were doing. Certainly no-one else in Paris was doing it - they were all very much enthralled with the second Viennese school. No-one paid any attention to world music in Europe at that time. I was hired by Ravi because a friend of mine was doing the photography for a film and they needed someone to translate, notate and to do a little conducting. It was just a complete coincidence that I was there.
Then I saw right away that the kind of ideas that were involved in non-western music when viewed from a western perspective seemed very fresh. It changed all the rules. It meant that you didn't have to count from one to twelve, you could count from one to eight. There's not much difference in a certain way but the whole tyranny of history and the historical imperative of contemporary music was demystified entirely. It didn't matter anymore. If you took one step outside of those institutions it simply didn't matter anymore. That's, of course, what Cage was very good at. He was one of the people that I was reading at the time. I would say that he was the only western composer at the time that hinted at that. Most of us are pretty much studying the tradition that we're brought up in, it's very hard to break out of it."
How do you feel you relate to that European tradition now?
"Well, you have to remember that I had such solid training in it. It took years to get over it and then it took years to reintegrate it."
Are you back on speaking terms with it now?
"You can hear it in the music - it's very clear. But the good thing is that I had technique to begin with. For example, I just wrote a symphony based on Low, the record by David Bowie. When I have to write a symphony, I have the technique and the means to do it. I've come across composers who, for example, only studied say, electronic music - and then they decided that they really wanted to write counterpoint and they didn't know how to do it. They had never had any training in it. Then in their mid-30's they have to go back and learn basic music theory. It's tough to do that. I think it was good having the training to begin with and it was good leaving it and it was good coming back to it. I think the whole thing has worked out alright."
What attracted you to opera?
"From '65 to '75, I was the music director of a theatre company. I was married to one of the people in the theatre and my life was in the theatre. Actually, there were two parts to my life - there was the ensemble which I wrote for and then there was the theatre. When I did Einstein on the Beach I put them together. It turned out that the opera house was the place where I could put all the things that I knew together into one form - working with dance, writers, designers, choreographers, lighting people. That actually turns out to be a description of opera.
"We started with Einstein and then Satyagraha in '79. It's kind of escalated since then. The hardest thing for me was to learn about singing and that's taken a good fifteen years to figure out."
What motivates your music? What is it that really makes you sit down and write?
"Well, different things at different times. Motivation is a difficult word. I think that I'm inspired by other peoples' ideas and by the talents of the people I work with. Working in the theatre as I did, I became a collaborator very early and the pieces were really a result of working with other people. That's how it works for me. My inspiration comes from the material that is outside of music. It's interesting though, of all the people in this book apart from Bob Moran, almost nobody of our generation was a theatre composer."
Now everybody's doing it. Was it down to you?
"Well, I'm happy to say I had a lot to do with that. Einstein on the Beach played to sold-out houses all over Europe and the United States. Before that, people thought it simply wasn't done. They used to say that opera was dead, but they don't say that any more. I hardly know a composer today who isn't writing an opera. But the point is that there are really two kinds of composers - theatre composers and composers of concert music. They are actually very different. I mean there's probably a very good reason why Verdi didn't write any symphonies and Brahms didn't write any operas. It's what the French call a different metier. It's a different way of working.
"For theatre composers, the source of the piece very often comes from some non-musical material - a story, an image or dance. When you work with concert music, you're dealing with the language of music itself. For a lot of people that's been a problem. It's one of those unconscious hierarchies that we make. We say that concept music is pure music, somehow more important than theatre music, forgetting of course that the great innovations in music have come from the theatre - Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, Berg, Stravinsky - not the concert hall.
What about your own concert music?
"I hardly ever do it. I almost don't do it at all. I write an odd piece here and there but almost everything is theatre music and has been since 1975. Between '65 and '75, half of it was theatre music and half of it was the ensemble. But it's a whole different way of working and comes back to the question of motivation and inspiration. The opera Satyagraha was inspired by the life of Ghandi - that's why I did it - the idea of social change through non-violence was an idea that I was very keen on turning into a musical exposition of some kind.
"The Representative for Planet 8, the opera I did with Doris Lessing, is a book whose ideas were very attractive to me. Almost every theatre piece is involved with either literary, historical or social ideas that are interesting to me. I work outside of the theatre with great difficulty and a certain awkwardness. I need a place to start from. For example, with the Low symphony, I started from another man's work. In almost all of the non-theatrical works, if you examine them, you'll find that there's actually a sub-text which is theatrical.
"Theatre music is often criticised in Anglo-American culture because basically our puritanism doesn't allow us to take seriously things that are apparently involved in entertainment. But you can define opera as the place where art and entertainment come together. The French and Anglo-American traditions are very suspect of things which are quotes 'near' entertainment - Good Lord! God save us! God help us that we should go to the theatre and be entertained! It has made us as a whole tend to look at theatre with certain suspicion. For a long while in contemporary music it was simply over looked."
What do you feel is the underlying theme of your operas?
"Well, obviously I made it all up as I went along, but it's actually a very clear one in a way. They are portraits of people who change the world through the power of ideas rather than through the force of arms. One is of modern science, one religion and one politics. It's about the three big social themes. They're quite different. I think of Einstein as the apocalyptic opera, Satyagraha to me is the lyrical opera and Akhnaten is a dramatic opera."
How do you actually go about composing?
"I wrote music like all my teachers, which actually isn't a bad way to learn music. It's the way that artists learn to paint - you just copy"
"I get up around five. It's a little hard to work in New York, but I often go to a city where I don't live and just rent an apartment. I do that to get away from the phone. I did that in South America for a while and I have a house up in Canada. The ideal is not to be disturbed. In New York I find that by 11 o'clock that's very hard. Ideally, I will work from around 7 to 12 and around 2 to 6, about 10 hours. I go to sleep early - about 10 o'clock. It's nice actually. I recommend it. Especially if you like writing music. People think that I write fast but I don't, I just spend a lot of time writing and so it seems fast because I spend about three times as many hours in the day writing than most people do."
How do you write? What's the process?
"Well, it depends where I am with a piece. I'm usually working from a libretto or from text of some kind."
So from that you have an overview of the whole thing?
"I try to do a lot of work before I even get to that point - I spent almost a year with the librettist and the director on On Voyage laying out the music piece in terms of formal structure, the dramatic structure and the music forces involved. I try to get the designer to deliver the designs before I begin writing. My goal is to have everything done before I begin the music. I seem to work well when I have a lot of help. In my studio I have the designs on the wall. I create an environment that is about the piece and then the music is not so hard to do. I don't write a note of music until all those preliminaries are taken care of. With a large opera that can take two years or certainly a year and then the third year I spend writing."
Do you start at the beginning and just work through?
"Yes. Now that I've got older I find I rewrite more. Satyagraha and Einstein were virtually unchanged from the first drafts - they were written straight off from beginning to end. By the time I got into the other works I began to start doing revisions and now I revise whole scenes."
How do the ideas work? Do you generally just set the text or is it mainly harmonic ideas?
"It can be a number of things. Generally there's a musical argument to a piece and you have to know what that is. With The making of... for example, it was a resolution of a particular cadence that took three hours to work in the music. With Einstein it had to do with combining a rhythmic process that I had evolved with a harmonic process. And I was trying to discover a kind of functional harmony that didn't depend on classical structure but depended on rhythmic structure. Einstein is really about that.
"There is a musical argument or subtext to the music which is about the language of music and that has to be there for me. That's usually what I'm happy to be thinking about at that time of my life. But that's changed over the years. In the early music I was mostly thinking about structure. Now I'm thinking about the hard piece that you can develop in tonal relationships, which sounds suspiciously like what twelve tone music talks about. But in fact I now think that we've come to a funny place at the end of the twentieth century where the crisis of tonality has arrived again in a new form. It had arrived at the end of the nineteenth century and then we spent most of the twentieth century trying to resolve it at the end of the twentieth century we're right back almost where we were except that we've learnt quite a lot about it along the way."
What do you think we've learned? That what's happened since then is just one more technique that's available to composers rather than a way of being?
"No, I think it's actually more subtle than that. I think the experiments of the dodecaphonic and twelve-tone school have been crucial in changing how how we listen to music. Though I think that whole school didn't determine the future of music as it had thought. It didn't even develop useful techniques for other composers.
"But if you go to look at movies now, the harmonic language is much denser. People listen to my music and they think they're hearing triadic music and they aren't. They just don't know the name for it. It's actually more complicated than they think because they're hearing differently. But in fact, we all do music in a much more complex way than we used to. What's happening now in my view of it is that we're going back over some of the ground that we've gone over before, but I hope in a more sophisticated and a more conscious way and a less didactic way than we did before."
What do you think inspired the minimalist movement?
"It was certainly a very useful time and for about five or ten years there was a certain liveliness to that group of composers. But it was a very diverse group of people. Everyone from Phil Niblock and John Gibson to Terry Riley and Meredith Monk - even some English composers like Gavin Bryars, and a few Europeans. Certainly, that generation was telling the older generation that they had gone too far in the direction of polemical music. As a result, almost nobody talked about the music from a theoretical point of view. It's really hard to find anybody who wrote anything about that period. Reich wrote one thing called Music as a Gradual Process. But I can hardly think of any other composer who wrote anything about what they were doing.
"Part of that was because the generation older than us had done so much writing and so much talking that we were sick to death of it. That was the generation where they were saying that the music was better than it sounded - and people actually believed that stuff. Our generation really got back to a fundamental value in music which has to do with clarity and expressivity and yet is not without complexity. Clarity and expressivity do not deny complexity at all, though the older composers always felt that that was the case. It was a very threatening thing at the time and I've heard older composers characterise Terry's music by just pounding a C major chord on the piano for twenty minutes - as if that was what he did.
Obviously, it must have been very threatening when it happened and there were a lot of very angry people. There was a suspicion that this younger group was on to something and weren't going to be following neatly behind the teachers in the way that they had evidently done. One of the problems was that for a long while, very few people were talking about the music because of the deluge of polemics and writing. It still goes on. I have volumes of Perspectives of New Music and you still see that stuff. It's just hopeless in a way. That tended to create the idea that it was an intellectual movement which actually wasn't the case at all."
Was it just that - a generation?
"That's how I think of it, as a generation rather than a category. I mean, I like Phil Niblock's music a lot. But I don't know what to call it. The same would be true of Terry Jennings or Meredith Monk or Robert Ashley - it's not important. Stylistic identity is not the issue. Not in this country it isn't. But we have to remember that Americans generally tend to be less didactic than our European colleagues. It's taken much more seriously in Europe that it is here. I'm not quite sure why that is but I think that one of the reasons has to do with economics. There's very little money in the arts here but because of that, you're also much freer. You can do what you want.
"Also, there's a much more entrepreneurial spirit here. People start ensembles, record companies, music co-ops and all kinds of things. There's more of an independence and the idea of not getting historical or critical approval is simply not important at all. I find that for example Louis Andriessen is much more conscious of himself as a European composer in the tradition of Stravinsky and the whole thing. He is very much that kind of composer. I go to Holland quite a lot and I remember at one point I was accused of betraying the minimalist movement. I never thought there was a movement to begin with, but my European colleagues felt that a betrayal had taken place.
"Our generation got back to a fundamental value in music which has to do with clarity and expressivity and yet is not without complexity. Clarity and expressivity do not deny complexity - though the older composers always felt that that was the case"
John Adams said about 'minimalism' that it's three things: repetition, a return of tonality and repetition of small motivic cells, would you agree?
"I used to say something similar. There was a period in my music that was identified by tonality, repetitive structures and - the other thing he didn't mention - there's a constant steady beat."
Yet La Monte Young or Terry Riley don't have all of those characteristics...
"La Monte doesn't but Terry does. I don't know what La monte is. He's a kind of inferno - a conceptual composer in a way. It wasn't intended to be that way but it turned out to be the opposite of what say, Berio or Boulez did. Their music never repeated - our music repeated all the time; their rhythms were non-predictable - ours were extremely steady and predictable; their music was atonal - ours was tonal. They just turned out to be polar opposites."
It just happened to turn out that way?
"Well, it's hard to say. I don't think that one morning I said, 'I think I'll do the opposite'. It wasn't like that. What happened is I got involved with Ravi Shankar who introduced a whole other element of music. Those ideas could fit easily into another coherent musical language. I didn't really have to invent one. I borrowed a lot from Ravi and non-western music to get started. One could have invented it by a construction of opposites. In my case, to be truthful, it didn't really happen that way. But people did it in different ways.
"The other thing about Ravi that was important for me was that he was a composer/performer. When I came back to New York I discovered that there were other people doing that - Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Steve Reich. There were good reasons to do that - no-one else would play the music. Basically the avenues for presenting new music were closed to us."
So you were forced to create your own network?
"Yes, a network without any institutional basis at all. It took a good ten years to do that. It was quite tough at first; I played everywhere from parks to cafeterias. I never refused a concert anywhere for any amount of money - at least for the first ten or fifteen years. It was also a way of getting around the whole institutional aspect of contemporary music which had become, from our point of view, over-institutionalised. You more or less needed permission to write music. The only one who gave you permission to write the music that you wanted was John Cage, who was also a performing composer. I saw him frequently. He and Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns lived around here and I would have lunch with them from time to time and we talked about things.
"These weren't remote figures. One advantage (...and there are not that many) of being in New York is that nothing is very remote. That's an important aspect of that generation; where we didn't have the institutional support - either financially or academically - and so it was a generation that's evolved new places to play."
Do you think that a sense of artistic community still exists in New York?
"Yes and no. Some of the young composers seem to be a little daunted by how hard it is and want it to be easier. If they don't get a concert right away and get a good fee they don't want to do it. I had a loft here on Baker Street and we had a concert every Sunday in 1972/3 around 3 o'clock. We did it for years for whatever people gave us. People are not so willing to do that now. I mean, I'm reluctant to say... 'Oh, in our day we didn't have this and we didn't have that' but I think there is an element of careerism in younger composers and I think you have to remember that when we were young we didn't expect to do well. It never occurred to me that I would be at the Metropolitan Opera House, certainly not by '76 and not again by '92! I mean, I'm in Groves dictionary of music, I have records all over, I do concerts all over the world - I didn't expect that. At the age of 30 I was willing to hold on forever. I was willing to play in that loft forever."
Maybe it's because young people see that it can be done now, that those battles have been fought and won.
"I think that's very true. Perhaps they're smarter than us and think that maybe there is a way around that. But I think models of success are unreliable. How our younger generation is going to manage I couldn't venture to say."
What is the essence of Philip Glass's music?
"I don't think it's a style or technique. Obviously it's not because hundreds of other people do it. Once I was giving a talk at the New School for Social Research years ago and some one had done a computer printout of a piece of mine showing all the possibilities. It was endlessly long and he asked me if I wanted to hear it and I said, 'No, I don't want to hear it'. What that contained was all the things that I didn't do. I hadn't thought about it until then but I said that the thing that makes the music is the choices you make. It's not the technique but the choices you make within the technique. That's the art of it. I make certain choices.
"I mean, someone asked Morton Feldman what his system was and he said, 'The system is me. I'm the system'. He was a very funny old guy. He was very nasty about other composers and he would routinely condemn everyone in the field. But at the same time he was a very charming man. His answer was very much to the point. What you like about Bartok or Debussy isn't the style of music - what you like is them. It's the artist in the work that we are finally drawn to whether it's Tolstoy or Picasso or John Cage. What you like in John Cage is John Cage."
Wouldn't he have shuddered at the thought?
"I don't think so. I think he pretended he would have. But I think he had a very shrewd idea of who he was. But what's the difference between composers? Surely it's not the technique or the intelligence or even the talent. There were people that were more talented than I was in music school who are judged to have done less than I."
Is there a certain way to listen to your music? Perhaps a non-western way?
"No I don't think so. I think there are different ways of listening depending on when I was writing because I was thinking about different things at different times. I was thinking about rhythmic structure in the early 70s. I was thinking about harmonic structure in the mid to late '70s. I was thinking about polytonality in the early '80s and in the late '80s I was starting to think about tonal relationships in a much more general way. Yet I don't really leave any of those things behind. The rhythmic structures I used twenty years ago are still there. You hang on to some things and other things you just abandon. Actually, my aim has also been to change, and it's hard to do that. I sometimes say that for a composer the first thing to do is to find your voice and the second is to get rid of it. Mostly I try to get rid of it."
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