Category crossing contemporary composer cornered
Tony Mills catches composer and one-time cabman Philip Glass in conversation
The superiority of Philip Glass in the world of "systems music" is transparently obvious. And the terrible pun is intentional, because at best Glass' music can be highly accessible; with all due respect to Michael Nyman, Steve Reich and their ilk, there's nothing to quite match the thundering keyboards and rapid-fire voices of a Glass piece such as Koyaanisqatsi or The Photographer.
Although the most recent Glass piece given in London, his third opera Akhnaten, has little electronic content, even his orchestral pieces are produced with surprisingly sophisticated studio techniques, and later in the year we're going to have a chance to hear both his orchestral and more synthesised music. CBS are releasing his second opera Satyagraha, which was shown on Channel 4 earlier this year, and also an album of songs written in collaboration with Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon (a return favour for Glass' arrangements on Simon's Hearts and Bones album) and others. Elektra/Asylum are putting out Mishima, the soundtrack to Paul Shrader's film premiered at Cannes which contains music largely for harp and strings. The harp is a Yamaha DX9 though, and plays parts no ordinary harp could reach!
So is it true to describe Akhnaten, which has a 40-piece orchestra with violas, cellos and basses (no violins), percussion, synthesiser and a large chorus, as a straight classical piece?
"Well, we have some keyboards here, just a DX7 in the orchestra, but from the point of view of the music I've done in the past working with the synthesiser ensemble it's very traditional because it's written for a repertory opera company. But it appears very "different" to the people playing it... the company in London have a lot of enthusiasm though. I've gone to a lot of places where the musicians just didn't get the point of the music — it's still hard work for them because the music is very repetitive and requires stamina as well as concentration, but to have them working hard at it is terrific".
So why one synthesiser in such a conventional orchestra? And why use synthesisers in the studio when they often just double the acoustic instrument parts?
"Because Akhnaten doesn't have a large orchestra the synthesiser helps to smooth out some places where the wind and brass parts don't get much time to breathe. In the studio I work a lot with synths — I've got nine in my band and I didn't realise how they'd crept up. We didn't use them until about 78 when they weren't really polyphonic, and they aren't really now, because you still get notes stolen after you play five or six keys."
"But now I've got an Emulator and an Emulator II, two DX9's, an Oberheim, a Prophet, a Roland JX3-P and so on, and I'd say at this point that the synth has a generic sound of its own; when I wrote parts for the synths I used to write "woodwind" and "brass" to indicate the kind of sound, but now I tend to just write "bass synth" or "wind synth" because they have sounds of their own. And even when you think you're hearing an acoustic instrument on the albums there's a synth doubling it an octave below, which gives you a bigger bottom end.
"I doubled all the strings on the album of Satyagraha with synths and scarcely anybody can tell where one ends and the other begins. In fact there's some very difficult wind playing in Satyagraha and I used synths to smooth out the rough places and give a very deep sound".
So Glass, who had a conventional classical music training before becoming influenced by Indian music and studying with Ravi Shankar, was quick to take up the opportunities afforded by electric keyboards (originally Farfisa organs and ARP Pro Soloist synths) on his earlier records such as Music in Similar Motion (Chatham Square), Music In Twelve Parts (Caroline) and North Star (Virgin). So why haven't other classical musicians followed his ideas of "extended instrumentation", overdubbing and multitrack recording?
"Well, all this is just part of recording technology and has been with us for fifteen years, so I'm surprised that more people in the classical business haven't done what Michael (Riesman), Kurt (Muncaksi) and myself have done with the Ensemble. We've done a lot of experimentation in acoustic/synth combinations which aren't generally done in classical music, and in pop they don't use this instrumentation, so it's real breakthrough area.
"On The Photographer, which used a lot of keyboards, we worked to a click track, but I was also able to work the same way on the album of Satyagraha; the conductor took the rehearsal pianist through the piano score, we set a click to it with a Dr. Click, then we took off the piano, put on the high strings, the winds, the chorus...
"Classical music people used to think you couldn't capture the 'live' quality of a performance on multitrack, so they just hung a mike over the orchestra and had endless takes. But then you have to match up the pitch and tempo of all the takes and it's a fucking nightmare! Now people have learned to do a 'performance' in the studio — the singer 'performs' with the click, so you CAN have the 'live feel' in the studio if you perform in the studio.
"Basically we record each piece horizontally and then vertically, so it may seem longer our way but in fact it's quicker, because when we get done there's virtually no editing — all we do is use a razor blade to put the header tape on the front".
Glass' Ensemble and two other partners have recently established a 24-track studio, which frees them from the restrictions of costly studio time and allows them to break recording down into the smallest units they could want.
"My studio at home is just a Baldwin upright piano and a big desk! — but in the 24-track we do a lot of preparation for live performances as well as the album pieces. My designers and directors, as well as dance companies, often work from rough tapes, so I make a synth tape of a whole piece in real time and even put scratch track voices on. Usually I get up about seven, work on a new composition until twelve, then go into the studio in the afternoon".
So what does the studio equipment consist of?
"Well, there's an MCI 24-track machine, a 16- and 24-channel Soundcraft board (mixing), a whole shitload of noise reduction and digital delays, a control room which has all the synths in it of about 15 x 30ft, and a smaller room of about 10 x 12ft which is large enough for around a dozen string players. Because we're not worried about hours now we can break down into the smallest sections we want, so space for twelve string players is enough".
Glass explains that the synthesisers are often linked together to obtain powerful sounds, but even so he rarely uses a sampled choir or string sound in isolation from the real thing.
"We've made our own samples for the Emulators but it's very hard to do strings and voices; it's OK for dummy tapes though, and I could even do a string quartet on an Emulator although I'd still do it one voice at a time. You can't really get away with it for a real record apart from percussion and gong samples though".
Glass has particularly string views on composing for film, which he did with spectacular success on the wordless Koyaanisqatsi and more recently for Mishima.
"Paul Shrader partly shot Mishima to my working tape of the score; I composed 60 minutes and thought he'd use about thirty, but in fact he asked me for five more. I went down to see a lot of the shooting, and he re-cut my working tape of the music, looped it to make it fit, and then gave it back to me all cut to pieces. So then I had to re-write the score to fit; but at least this way the film-maker had something real to work to. What most people don't realise is that film editors just cannot cut without music, and if they don't have yours they'll use Wagner or whatever they can. And of course it's very disturbing having to write to match someone else's temporary music, so I prefer my way of working even if it does mean writing the score twice".
The last time I spoke to Glass a couple of years ago he was dubious about the possibilities of sequencers in his music. Had more advanced technology such as the Roland MSQ 700 persuaded him otherwise?
"Well, we have a computer sequencer which Michael feeds percussion parts into as digits, but I'm not so keen on that method - it's an experiment, and we're mostly using the computer as a word processor for the scores.
You see, Michael Riesman is such an extraordinary keyboard player that he's better than most machines, and he doesn't break down or forget his programs! It seems to me quicker to work that way — and sequencers aren't much good to me because the music changes so much, it's the same for two or three measures then it changes, and that may go on for two or three hundred measures. It's not simply a repeated pattern as people thought; the problem is not that it doesn't change, but that it changes all the time. It's the accretion of small changes that gives the music its life, and that represents a terrific problem in sequencer programming".
Glass has a busy time ahead of him; he has just completed The Juniper Tree, a theatre work based on The Brothers Grimm which premieres in Boston in December, has finished a ballet score for Twyla Tharp, has one act of an opera based on Doris Lessing's science fiction-ish epic The Making Of The Representative For Planet Eight under his belt, has to finish the song album, and is looking forward to a triple performance of the 'portrait' operas Einstein On The Beach (about science), Satyagraha (about Gandhi and politics) and Akhnaten (about religion) in Stuttgart in '87.
But whether he's working on massive operas, subtle string quartets or thundering keyboard pieces, you can be sure that Glass will remain several steps ahead of the rest of the classical music world as far as technological expertise is concerned. His influence on David Bowie, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads and many other pop and rock figures is as well-known as his reputation for monotony is exaggerated. Anybody who can tap their feet to the Tangs should be able to groove along with Glass.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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