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A Touch of Glass

Philip Glass

Philip Glass is best known for his work as a minimalist classical composer, but recently he's been completing work in fields as diverse as opera, piano recitals, film and synth ensembles. Mark Jenkins talked to the minimalist maestro during a fleeting visit to London for his latest opera, 'The Making Of The Representative From Planet 8'.


Philip Glass is best known for his work as a minimalist classical composer, but recently he's been completing work in fields as diverse as opera, piano recitals, film and synth ensembles. Mark Jenkins talked to the minimalist maestro during a fleeting visit to London for his latest opera, 'The Making Of The Representative From Planet 8'.

For a classical composer, Philip Glass has gone pretty hi-tech. Yet, at the same time, he's now presenting his most ambitious work yet for the conventional orchestra, The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8, based on the Canopus In Argos series novel by Doris Lessing. Planet 8 had a successful run in Houston and then opened at London's Coliseum with the English National Opera, and had a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast marred only by a few unexplained breaks in transmission.

It's perhaps strange that Glass's relentlessly minimal style of music has crossed over so succesfully to the pop/rock market, but his work for films as diverse as Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima and Hamburger Hill, for the Los Angeles Olympics, and on albums featuring pop vocalists such as Songs For Liquid Days, has won him a far bigger audience than that enjoyed by most of his other 'minimalist' peers.

Planet 8 is something of a first for Glass - his first narrative opera, his first with English text, and his first written in collaboration with a novelist. A science fiction saga on one level, a challenging examination of spiritual matters on another, Planet 8 took four years to prepare as an opera - but even more surprising than the huge cast and sparse, hi-tech staging is the amount of work Glass has been completing in fields as diverse as films, opera, synth ensembles and piano recitals.

"Apart from Planet 8, there are several pieces I'm doing in the States right now," explains Glass, "including one called A Thousand Airplanes On The Roof, which is a music theatre piece for one actor and my ensemble, with slide projections acting as decor. That's quite an extensive tour, going to 35 cities: it's a very portable piece. I'm also doing piano recitals - I call them recitals because that gives the idea of a small hall, and I've only booked into places no bigger than 500-700 seats. About half the programme is from music I've written in the past year. The other half is transcriptions from Einstein On The Beach and other pieces I've done - but more than half is properly piano music."

What made you go out and play piano recitals?

"I think as I get more and more involved with electronics, it's a way of balancing myself. A Thousand Airplanes is a full force synthesizer piece; I'm even using two wind synthesizers. We play through something like 70 synth programs during the course of the evening, so it's a very complex piece. Those pieces get complex to the point where it takes two engineers close to three weeks to do the programming. So as that tends to grow, as everything becomes more sophisticated and more demonstrably successful in terms of being able to convey what I want, at the same time I want to balance it with something more simple and direct, which is playing the piano."

What's the technology used in your synthesizer pieces these days?

"It's a MIDI setup basically, and there are various keyboards - I forget all the damned names though! There are a lot of modules activated by master keyboards, such as DX7 modules. It gets so complicated that you have to programme them on a Macintosh II, which we use to store all the programs, and then when we're finally done with that we transfer them to the onboard memories - there are some sampled sounds as well."

Planet 8 is an entirely orchestral work though - there are no synthesizers at all, unlike Glass's last opera staged at the Coliseum, Akhnaten.

"Well, Akhnaten used one synthesizer but it wasn't really crucial, you could almost have done without it, and the same applies to Satyagraha [which hasn't been seen in London]. But as far as the audience is concerned, they're not really there: they help the wind players in passages where breathing is difficult, and they fill out some of the string and brass parts. So, basically, those synthesizers are used to fill out the orchestra. I've done a number of pieces, including The Civil Wars and this one, which depend entirely on acoustic instruments. We don't have to amplify or modify the sound of the orchestra at all, although we do a little for some of the spoken text, as the singers are very well trained to project their singing voices, but are not always so good with the spoken voice."

How do you compose these days - on the piano?

"The piano's a problem in a way - I do the piano pieces on it, but the operas are very hard to work out on the piano. The first time I played through Satyagraha on the piano was when I went through it with (conductor) Russell Davies, and we divided up the score and played it with four hands - it would be almost impossible otherwise. So what I do is play parts of it, to get a sense of the unfolding of the work."

What do you feel about composers such as John Adams, who use 8-track tape machines and synthesizers to compose before scoring their pieces for orchestra?

"Well, I still have a studio myself which is used for rehearsal, for records, and to make work tapes for the designers. There was a work tape of Planet 8 a year ago, but the conductor doesn't want to hear it, the singers don't usually bother to listen to it, it's just that the designer, the director and the lighting people like to have it. It's not as if you're doing La Boheme and they can go out to the record shop and listen to it and begin to plan, which is quite understandably the best way to do things. Later on they'd be able to listen to the new interpretation, but basically they want to know what the work is. So somehow we have to duplicate that, and that's why we make the synthesizer tapes.

"The studio's more or less Macintosh based, all digital. We use Performer software and I'm very interested in seeing how the Coda Finale package works for printout: it wouldn't save me a lot of work, but it would save my copyist a lot of work - and that would save me a lot of money! The only way it would save me work is on some of the piano pieces, which I could just play into the computer instead of writing them down. For the orchestral scores, it seems that my modus operandi is pretty well established after all these years and would be hard to change. I can actually write faster than you can programme: I may be one of a dying generation, and the younger generation may find it easier to play it in, but for people of my age it'll always be easier for us to write. The way John Adams composes with a synthesizer and an 8-track is just a different technique, but I can still work without all the machines, in a country house or on a plane: anywhere where I can have a pencil and paper, so it makes things much easier.

"I do have a friend called David Borden [leader of the innovative 'Mother Mallard' ensemble] who works in a hi-tech way, and he was showing me what you can do with all this gear - he has a multitrack and he uses Performer on a Macintosh Plus - and it's all very attractive. Hearing things in your head is a lot easier, but I wonder whether younger people are going to do it that way in the future? I doubt it. That's why you study counterpoint, not so you can understand counterpoint but so that you can hear music in your head. But who studies six-part or eight-part counterpoint any more? Of course they do it in the conservatories, or maybe they don't - I don't know if they take things seriously these days.

"But other interesting things are happening: I know composers who can hardly relate to traditional music at all - they work with samplers and all sorts of technology, and they're developing a musical language for that technology. I'm not talking about anybody well-known, but there are young people in New York, and I hear the same things in a lot of the sampled music you hear as dance music."

So what can you see yourself doing in five years' time?

"Very hard to say. I've started a whole series of new pieces that have nothing to do with Planet 8 at all - they're portraits of nature. I did a piece about a river and a piece about a canyon, all for large orchestras. So I've been thinking about doing landscapes - no people, no stories, and they're being performed now - but I don't know if that's what I'll be doing in five years!"

So, if anything, your keynote over the last couple of years seems to have been diversification - with the piano pieces, synthesizer ensemble pieces, large orchestral works, chamber works, film music and piano recitals all having equal importance?

"Yes. The MIDI thing is becoming very big and the sampling is much improved. It's allowed us to take symphonic sounding pieces out with a very small company of people, and unlike other composers I haven't actually cut my group down, I've just expanded the sonic possibilities with the same number I've always had. So I'm not using technology to put people out of work, I've just been employing them in somewhat different ways. It's very much part of our world now, and anyone writing music today has got to take that into account. We're using an Emulator II and an Akai sampler - I'm not exactly sure which, because if I don't go down to the studio for a week there's some new piece of gear there! The guys there are nuts, they're just buying stuff all the time. But I hear the results: the Emulator II's been very good. It turns out that you don't need all this fancy stuff, Fairlights and so forth - we can do everything you can do with a Fairlight for a tenth of the cost."

Glass's synthesizer works are more straightforward than the operas to record, and so A Thousand Airplanes On The Roof is already recorded and due for release in March on the Virgin label. The next Glass/Lessing collaboration, based on the Canopus In Argos novel The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four And Five is now at the libretto stage, but no-one's sure when it will emerge. However, we may see Airplanes on stage at the Dominion later this year, and undoubtedly Glass will remain at the forefront of hi-tech classical music for years to come.


More with this artist



Previous Article in this issue

Casio DA1

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A Mother's Touch


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Mar 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Artist:

Philip Glass


Role:

Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Terry Riley

Steve Reich


Interview by Mark Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> Casio DA1

Next article in this issue:

> A Mother's Touch


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