Mark Jenkins tries to see through one of the most significant composers of our time...
Transparently one of the most significant classical composers of our times, Philip Glass has surprised some by crossing boundaries to a rock and electronic music audience. Recently this process has been speeded by his involvement in theatre and latterly in film, and as we'll see his work is about to enter the world of video.
Glass studied at the Juillard school of music in New York and became interested both in Eastern music and in minimalist composition techniques based on simple repeated patterns, such as those seen in the work of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. In 1968 he formed an ensemble which played his pieces using wind instruments and keyboards such as piano, clavinet and Farfisa organ, the sound of which persists in his music — though nowadays reproduced by a Prophet 5! His public performances ranged from concert halls to college diners, with Glass himself driving taxis to finance his work, and gradually a small core of established listeners was created. Never one to court public acclaim, Glass invariably started recitals with one of his most austere pieces, such as Music In Changing Parts, which takes repetition to new heights. This tended to sort the sheep from the goats, and any remaining audience had an opportunity to learn a new way of listening — one which has no changes or landmarks to offer, just a shifting texture of music in itself, which needs no external connections or influences. In 1968 Glass was able to form his own Chatham Square label and release several pieces including Music In Fifths and Music In Similar Motion.
In the early 'seventies Glass met Tangerine Dream in Berlin, which led to his being signed to Virgin Records. His influence on the Tangs' later pieces — such as the quintessential minimalist Ricochet — did not go unnoticed! Virgin released parts One and Two of Music In Twelve parts, a massive experimental work which took three years to complete, and later an album of shorter, more accessible pieces for film — North Star. Meanwhile Glass had been getting into theatre and opera, working on the massive Einstein on the Beach, a multi-media piece about the professional patents officer and amateur violinist, and on Dance with choreographer Lucinda Childs, from which two sections were later released on LP. Einstein gained much attention and signalled the start of a new phase in his career, with numerous commissions from arts organisations and increased interest from the film world.
In 1982 Glass premiered The Photographer, another multi-media piece telling the sad tale of Eadweard Muybridge, famous first as a pioneer of photography and later as the killer of his wife's lover. This was released by CBS/Epic, as was a collection of short pieces, Glassworks, which have found their way into ballet and even TV advertised compilation albums. In 1982 the Glass Ensemble played at Sadler's Wells in London to a packed house, and featured pieces from Glassworks, Einstein and Dance. In 1983 at the Dominion there were significant developments — Glass had been working on presentations of two more massive operas, Satyagraha (about Gandhi) and Akhnaton, together with Robert Wilson's world-wide multi-event, Civil Wars. Also uppermost in much of the audience's mind must have been the magnificent Koyaanisqatsi, of which more later.
In the live situation the Glass Ensemble consists of three keyboard players — Glass on JX-3P, Michael Riesman and Martin Goldray on Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX, with Dora Ohrenstein on Emulator and vocals. There are also three wind players, Jon Gibson, Jack Kripl and Richard Peck, together with Kurt Muncaksi, who engineers all the LPs and takes care of the live sound mix. Despite all the synthesizers, the sound is that of the classical orchestra slightly extended — the Emulator plays voice sounds, the Prophet plays Farfisa organ sounds, the Oberheim plays horns. Sometimes it's difficult to tell who's paying what, but in the blitzkrieg of arpeggios and repeated patterns it's certain that all the musicians involved are working hard — it may be simplistic but it's not simple to play. The extended pieces leave a stunning silence as they come to a precisely notated end.
Koyaanisqatsi was represented by The Grid, a high-power arpeggio piece, but sadly missed was the dramatic Prophecies, which requires bass vocals. Godfrey Reggio's film, made over three years, uses archive film to contrast nature in all its solemnity (the Grand Canyon, skies and clouds) with the frantic pace of city life (speeded up motorways, shoppers and factories). The entire 87 minutes of wordless visuals are backed up only by Glass's music, with some contributions by ex-Tangerine Dream synthesist Michael Hoenig. The opening and conclusion are dominated by the Hopi Indian prophecies which give the film its title — Koyaanisqatsi, a life out of balance. It's an overwhelming experience, in which the unique minimal music of Philip Glass plays a vital part.
I spoke to Glass before his Dominion concert last year, and began by asking him what he meant by referring to his music in a recent TV interview as 'performance music'.
You've been known to refer to your music as 'performance music'. What exactly do you mean by that?
Did I say that? I'd never say that! I never call it anything but music. However, I understand why that term might be used. There's a whole idea now of performance art, but that has much more reference to somebody like Laurie Anderson's work than my own. I love Laurie's work, but when you come to see me perform, what you're watching is seven people working real hard at playing music.' When you look at Laurie perform you're looking at her as a performer and as a personality — I love her work but I would never call myself a performance artist.
The 1982 performance at Sadler's Wells didn't involve any visual element, but it was very loud for a 'classical' music concert. Is that normal for you?
That was our normal PA. I'm surprised if anybody complained, as I recall we played Music In Similar Motion which is a pure music piece, and some of the music from Dance, which wasn't. Also some of the pieces we played have become dance pieces later on or been used with film, and then there's Einstein on the Beach which would normally be connected with visuals. What we've done over the years is that I've taken works out of these theatre pieces that I felt could stand on their own as concert pieces, and in fact there are damn few of the Einstein pieces that we can do that with. There's the Train and Spaceship pieces and the first dance and that's about it.
For the album version of Koyaanisqatsi was it difficult to choose sections which stood up without a visual element?
We had a lot of music to start with, about 80 minutes, but I'm very pleased with the album; I think it's one of the best records that we've done. Even the pieces that are there are severely cut, and for the same reasons that we cut Einstein for the album; without the visuals, for instance the speeded-up cars that accompany the fast part on Side 2, The Grid, it couldn't be sustained for its full length which is 23minutes in the film — on the album it's cut to barely 14. However, in the film I can watch it quite easily at that length. I've made real editorial decisions in making that record, to do with what the spectator is being asked to take in — is it just music, or is it music with images? Side 2 of The Photographer in performance is a 25 minute piece, on the record it's 19 — it's not so much a question of cutting it down to fit on a record as cutting it because, without the elements it's married to on stage, it doesn't require that length.
Was the music for Koyaanisqatsi composed by looking at the film?
We did it both ways. In fact I began working on the film three years before it was finished. We usually worked in terms of groups of images, for example, early in the film there was a collection of images which we called Clouds and Water. We didn't know the exact length — first they said it was 15 minutes, then it was 11 minutes, and I didn't even know where it would cut. I went to Los Angeles and looked at it on a big screen, we talked about it and I went home with a video cassette and wrote music for Clouds and Water. Then they asked for a 12 minute piece and said "let's try to cut to that", so I made a 12-minute Cloud and Water piece and they tried it and said "too long — let's try eight minutes". So I went back and revised it to eight minutes, but sometimes it worked the other way — on The Grid, with a very intense set of freeway and big city images, they wanted it to be longer!
On that piece we worked in a very curious way at first. They gave me a complete log of images and times — remember we had three years to do this so we had plenty of time to experiment! — for instance, 10 seconds of people on the subway station, 15 seconds of cars going back and forth, 30 seconds of Twinkies going by on a food machine — so I took that and wrote a piece exactly for that. Then they completely re-cut it. I knew they were going to do that, so I really had two problems, to fit the format that they'd given me, and to write a piece that would be successful as a piece of music so that if the images were changed there'd be a musical form that would be able to contain the changes.
"The main thing in joining sound to image was to find what would be the emotional attitude of the music to the images."
What were the other problems of composing electronic music specifically for film?
The main thing in joining sound to image was to find what would be the emotional attitude of the music to the images, because it was my belief, and still is my belief, that the music provides an emotional point of view from which we see the images. I feel that's true of dance and opera too.
Did the Hopi Indian text which gives the film its title exist at the start? (Ko-Yaa-Nis-Qatsi = 'a life out of balance').
No, that came in very late. We didn't even have the beginning and the ending, and my suggestion to Godfrey Reggio was that the piece should begin as if you were in a church, with a church organ and a chorus. He said "what text would you like to use?" and we had various suggestions, and that was the one we settled for. The Hopi prophecies come at the end where you see the power failure in 1973 or 4. I asked Godfrey to give me a tape of the prophecies recited by a Hopi elder and our way of interpreting them was to try and capture the rhythm of the speech in the music. After we recorded it Godfrey was very concerned about this. We sent it back to Santa Fe and they took it to the reservation and played it to the old man, and he said "yes — I understand the words"; without that we would have had to do it again.
What was Michael Hoenig's part in the film?
He was the music director, in fact he was the music co-ordinator. It was his job to take my footage as it came in and to interpret it in a certain way for the editors. For instance, they'd say to Michael "can we make a cut here?" and he'd look at the score and say "no, you can't". Or they would say "can we make this piece longer?" and we'd talk about it, I'd try it and Michael would make and edit, copy something and play it to the producers. He wrote some pieces as well, about four or five minutes of music, but I cut out so much of my own music that there's none of it on the LP. I had to go for a record with the most impact and I was not trying to make a souvenir of the film, although it was marketed that way. There was one piece he did that I was really fond of which we called Slow Motion People, which he did entirely on his synthesizers.
Was he advising you on the use of synthesizers or sequencers?
No, Michael Riesman and Kurt Munkacsi share that body of knowledge. Michael Hoenig was particularly good at coordinating with the film people and also at keeping an overall view if we wanted to switch things around, because in fact things changed radically before the final cut. There had to be a music person there in order to advise them and help them, and then he'd talk with me all the time. We got on very well in terms of what I was doing and what he was doing — at one point there was going to be a lot more of his music, but what Godfrey wanted was more like my stuff. Michael didn't seem to mind that, so he was very much involved in the structuring largely, although he put in some nice pieces and I think it was an enjoyable experience for him.
You've been using synthesizers such as the Prophet 5 and now the Emulator for a couple of years now, but one of the first things you used them for was to reproduce the sound of the Farfisa organs used on your earlier pieces. Have you done a lot of experimentation with synthesizer sounds which don't correspond to conventional instruments?
For my purposes that hasn't been so interesting. At this stage of our work, and we may change this, we're playing off the recognisability of certain instruments, such as a violin and a trumpet. Often what you're hearing on the record isn't that at all, but the audience recognise it and think it is. On the records you might have a horn sound done with a synthesizer two octaves below it, and no trombone in the world sounds like that, but we're playing off the audience's recognition of that sound. They think they're hearing a trombone but they're not. We're making a play between what's familiar and what's unfamiliar, and we call that extended orchestration. I'm one of the few people that works that way I believe, and we've become very advanced at it. Sometimes we put pianos behind the trombones and use a compressor and gates in such a way that you're really getting just the attack of the piano which gives the trombone a percussive attack that's not a really there. There's virtually no sound on The Photographer that's a pure sound except for the violins.
Have you looked at touch-sensitive synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 which can give very acoustic-seeming sounds?
When synthesizers first came out some very good work was done by people like Morton Subotnick and Wendy Carlos, but in most of their work the synthesized sound did not pretend to be anything but synthesized sound. I was aware of that work, and now we're in the area of extending orchestra sounds with synthesized sounds we're doing something I feel can be traced back to Bruckner, although some musicians would feel it's heresy. We did it with Carmina Burana though (ex-Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek's album interpreting Carl Orff's classical/traditional piece).
How did you approach the classical version of Carmina Burana in working on the new version?
"If I sell a lot of copies of The Photographer it means that CBS records are willing to put out a three-record set like Satyagraha."
What we did on that was to eliminate the orchestra entirely. We could have hired an orchestra because there's plenty around in New York, but as a producer — and in conjunction with Kurt Munkacsi — I said "let's not use any orchestral instruments, let's use all synthesized orchestral instruments", so when you hear a trumpet it's a synthesized trumpet: with the strings it's synthesized strings. The only real instruments are a saxophone which we used to play all the solo horns, and a real choir. I was very curious to see what would happen when we did that — it's all Carl Orff's music though! I added a few parts, Ray added a few parts, Michael Riesman added a few parts — in fact everyone added a little bit, but we did not change the structure, harmonies or melody of the music at all.
So it's still a piece of classical music?
Well, you tell me! What we've changed is the presentation, it's almost like asking if Carl Orff was in this room and had these synthesizers, what would he do? It's a silly question and we have no way of knowing if we came anywhere near, but it was a very interesting way to do things. The question we asked ourselves was, what if this Prophet and Emulator and Oberheim were our orchestra?
You've been using the Prophet 5 for some time — are you continuing to use this on stage, and do you find the five note capability limiting in your style of music?
I've become fond of it, it has so many programmes and it's my personal instrument. Largely it's black and white music — there are some chords, but mainly what I'm playing doesn't involve more than three pitches being enunciated at any one time.
Can you explain how you go about recording synthesizer and orchestral parts in the studio?
What we did for The Photographer and for all the albums now is to take the total length of the piece, and record a click track for the whole piece which includes any tempo changes there might be. Then we do a vocal 'coding' on the tape on another track, simply a voice announcing where all the figures we've worked on in rehearsal will be, taped over a basic organ part which is never going to be on the final tape, but which reproduces all the music of the piece. Each four or five measures, maybe eight to 12 seconds, we have a rehearsal letter. Kurt makes a log of where these occur on the digital SMPTE code, so at that stage we can go to any rehearsal point on the tape by using a SMPTE autolocator.
Then we bring in the sections piece by piece, and let's say we bring in all the brass parts first. Then we listen to them and decide which parts we have to correct, and say we have to correct rehearsal letter 63 we get two trumpets back in, auto-locate it and do it again.
Are you listening to the click as you record or to the rest of the music?
We're listening to the click... we're listening to it all. I don't personally find a click annoying to listen to, but we leave it lower so that we can judge how precisely we're playing. We go for a very precise ensemble sound, and I've gotten to like working with a click quite a lot. The great fear if you use a click track is that it will sound mechanical, but I don't think The Photographer does — I think that's baloney. The orchestration is constantly changing, the harmony is changing — the emotional content of the music isn't in the click track, it's in the Harmonic lines of the piece.
You would avoid using a sequencer or digitally programmed patterns?
We've never used a loop or a sequencer because they're not sophisticated enough for my music. The music changes much more erratically and randomly than it might appear to. If you look at the music, what might happen next is not something that is easily programmed.
Looking at the last few pieces such as The Photographer and Koyaanisqatsi, and ahead to pieces like Akhnaton, the music seems to be increasingly commercial — is this intentional?
You mean more people are buying the records? I certainly am not indifferent if more people are buying the records, because if I sell a lot of copies of The Photographer it means that CBS records are willing to put out a three-record set like Satyagraha which everybody knows isn't going to sell a lot of copies. It's sung in Sanskrit, it's about Mahatma Ghandi, it can't possibly sell as much as The Photographer. In order to encourage the company to invest in these longer-term projects they need works which will sell in an easier way; the only compromise to me would be if I didn't like the music, and so far that hasn't been the case.
Will Koyaanisqatsi be available on video?
They'll run it in the theatres as long as they can then Island will probably put it out on video. I think it could do quite well as a video — people tend to go back and watch it many times, and it could be more like a record — a record with images.
During the 1982 Sadler's Wells concert Channel 4 filmed part of a documentary about the unique music of the Glass Ensemble. Although this hasn't surfaced at the time of writing it's presumably still scheduled, and should prove a fascinating document which will extend Glass's influence to the World of TV as well as recordings, films and video. Keep an eye open for it — Philip Glass is smashing.
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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