Fashionably minimalistic, America's premier avant garde composer recently visited the UK for an all too brief concert tour. He has been cited by many international stars as one of their first influences, yet commercial success has eluded him. Dan Goldstein listens to what he has to say
He's been hailed as the greatest composer of our era. He's written operas, chamber music and film soundtracks. He's influenced Eno, Bowie, Tangerine Dream and The Human League. The name is Philip Glass.
Philip Glass emerged during the middle to late sixties as one of a group of composers and musicians (among them Terry Riley and Steve Reich) involved in writing, performing and recording serial or 'systems' music. The essence of this music was repetition, with wind and keyboard instruments playing the same simple motifs over and over with slight, almost imperceptible, shifts of emphasis as the piece continued.
It was on the one hand stunning and entrancing (and, to some ears, maddeningly monotonous) while on the other it had as its basis a series of complex, rigidly-adhered to arithmetical formulae, of which the casual listener would only be half-conscious.
Glass' first recorded work, Music In Similar Motion, was released in 1969 on his own Chatham Square label, and bears a strong resemblance to Terry Riley's A Rainbow In Curved Air, while the music's sheer minimalism has hints of John Cage or Stockhausen. Until recently, Glass' ensemble began every concert with an excerpt from Music In Similar Motion, and it's a work that's still dear to him as a composer.
'It's got a few nice little compositional tricks in it. For instance there's a bit near the end where it adds and subtracts in the same figure, and that makes the piece interesting arithmetically. Of course, that isn't all there is to it because it's also got a tremendous emotional impact, because it's so repetitive, so monotonous. The reason we always played it first was that people either loved it or hated it. Quite a few people used to walk out after the first twenty minutes. It was a way of finding out which members of the audience were really interested in my music.
'The instrumentation we had in '69 was very basic. Most of the LP was recorded on an old Farfisa organ, a dual-manual one. I got quite attached to it, but eventually I think it just fell apart. Fortunately I succeeded in finding a similar sort of sound on the Prophet 5 a couple of years back, so I've stored that in memory which means I've got access to that organ sound at any time.'
The second major landmark in Glass' musical career came some time later in 1976, when he collaborated with stage designer Robert Wilson to create Einstein On The Beach, a 4½-hour opera based on the life and times of the well-known physicist and amateur violinist. It was premiered at the Avignon Festival the same year and a little later the production moved to Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where both performances were completely sold-out. Einstein has since become something of a contemporary opera masterpiece, but as Glass recalls, initial reaction was more than a little mixed.
'The people in the audience who were traditional opera lovers didn't like it one bit, because it was so long and repetitive, because the stage design was avant-garde, and because of lots of other factors I've never been able to workout. As those people left the auditorium, they handed their ticket stubs to others outside who were trying to get in, and it was those others that liked it.'
The opera was released subsequently as a four-record boxed set, though unfortunately the maximum length of LP sides imposed limitations on the music in its recorded form. The set is still available on import from French label Tomato Records, and CBS will be re-issuing it in the Spring.
Since Einstein, Glass has written two further operas, Satyagraha, about the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhnaton, set in Ancient Egypt. Satyagraha was premiered in Holland in 1981 while Akhnaton receives its first performance in Stuttgart in March 1984. Glass is also due to record Satyagraha for CBS at some time during the Spring.
'I prefer to call my opera work music theatre, because when you think of opera you do tend to think of Rigoletto and Aida and Falstaff, and I think my work has more to it than that. It has a broader base because it involves collaborating with designers, choreographers and so on, and also I defy a lot of operatic conventions - quite a lot of the actors speak, for example.
'People say opera has declined, but I don't think that's really the case. I think quite a lot of people are writing in that field, but I'm one of the few actually getting his work staged, which is a shame really. There's still a big opera audience out there and the only problem is finding the backing to produce a completely new work.'
Philip Glass has achieved considerably more than merely writing a couple of critically-acclaimed operas, however. He wrote his first film soundtrack (for North Star) in the mid-seventies, and this project saw the appearance of a sharper, more disciplined and more lyrical form of Glasswork.
'I like working in opera more than anything else because the pieces can be as long as they need to be, but then again I like taking a rest from that, it's very refreshing, changing in scale from the extended work of an opera to the shorter, more disciplined pieces of, say, a film score.'
Certainly, North Star is one of Glass' most accessible works, as is his second composition for film, the much-acclaimed Koyaanisqatsi. The latter received its debut in New York (as part of that city's Film Festival) just over a year ago, while a part of the score received its first UK performance at the Dominion Theatre earlier this month.
The sheer alacrity with which Philip Glass composes might lead the casual observer to suspect that quality suffers as a result. Nothing could be further from the truth...
I often work on a lot of different projects simultaneously, but I always try to do as much preparation as possible for each work. For an opera I might spend a year or two, perhaps more, liaising with the other people involved, thinking about different ideas. Films are obviously less work - you've got less time in which to do them, for one thing - but for Koyaanisqatsi I still spent a lot of time looking at sections of the film, edited, unedited, and talking with the director, Godfrey Reggio.
There is a definite work process inherent in the way I compose music, but there's no real logic to it. I've been writing music for over 30 years now, and I think it helps a lot, having so much music behind me, though I think my best work may be yet to come. I used to work in a slightly more systematic way, but now I think I've got ways of working I'm not even familiar with myself.'
Establishment sceptics cite as Glass' two major faults his willingness to incorporate electronic or amplified instruments in his work and his outrageously unconventional recording techniques. Glass himself is at a loss as to how to explain these criticisms. On the first point, for example, he sees the adoption of electric instruments as a perfectly natural musical development, and shares Robert Moog's view that a synthesiser is no more contrived an instrument than, say, a violin.
'For this tour we're using the Emulator for the first time, and it's a damn good instrument. We've programmed a woman's voice into it, and Dora Ohrenstein sings and plays it at the same time. Actually it sounds very much like the chorus on the record of The Photographer - it doesn't have quite the same sound, obviously, but it has the same sort of weight to it, which is nice.
'In many ways using these keyboards live is mainly an economic decision, because if you're going to ask me whether or not I'd rather tour with a whole group of singers, the answer is yes I would! On the other hand, this is chamber music, and if I can keep the number of players down to seven, we get a tighter ensemble. We did a concert recently at Carnegie Hall, and for that we hired four brass players and six other singers, and when you add that to the seven we've got it tends to get a bit like a chamber orchestra. Because my music depends on precise, intricate ensemble playing, I find the more people I'm working with, the more difficult things become.
'The way we use synthesisers now is to extend the range of acoustic instruments. For instance on The Photographer there's a trombone line that plays at several different octaves, one of which is too low for a trombone, so we played that line on a synth. So what you're hearing is not a pure trombone sound, it's an extended sound.
'There are a lot of synth sounds that we've come to like a lot - and we aren't the only ones. You know, synthesiser sounds are almost always reminiscent of acoustic ones. I mean, what is a completely pure sound? Is there such a thing as a sound that doesn't sound like an instrument? Does such a thing exist? I suppose it does, but to be honest very synthetic sounds don't really interest me all that much; they've got no emotional impact to them. When I think of a trombone I think of all kinds of emotions and feel and colour, and synthesisers can only augment that, they can't replace it.
'Synthesisers are still not accepted by the serious music establishment, but who cares? I'm not really sure why it is - there's no rational explanation for it. You know, there are still people around who say you shouldn't edit tapes. I mean, what can you do with these people? In the end you know what'll happen to them? They'll grow old and they'll die, that's what'll happen to them.'
This leads us nicely on to the subject of recording, something on which, if anything, Glass has even stronger views...
'We're not in the business of making sonic photographs of pieces of music. To us a record is not a form of documentation, a record is a record. I'm not interested in just making live recordings and then releasing them, because you can do things in a studio that you just can't do anywhere else. When we're making a record, we're trying to do the best we can, whatever that takes. In performance, we're limited by all kinds of things; the personnel, what we can play and so on.
'Musicians in rock music realised the potential of studios a long, long time ago, but I know that among classical musicians, we're really the only ones using the recording studio the way it should be used, except of course that Glenn Gould beat us to it. I admired his music a lot, but he got an awful lot of criticism. People said his music was faked, but what's faked about listening to a record? Personally I like to put a record on and get in the bath-tub and listen to it - I don't care about the way it was recorded or where the edits are or anything.
'What you're doing with a record is you're trying to give people at home a way of hearing the music, and that's really the only obligation we have.
'When we're recording we start off by laying down a clicktrack. Then we put down the basic track and log in all the rehearsal points by voice. Then we notch all those rehearsal numbers to a SMPTE code on the tape-machine, so that way we can go to any place on the tape, instantly. All of The Photographer was done with a clicktrack, and so was Glassworks, even the solo piano pieces.
'Some people say that pieces of music should vary in tempo as they go along, but it's not just tempo that gives music its colour: it's changes in colour, changes in harmony, changes in instrumentation. My feeling is that when you get into recording, you should drop all your preconceptions and just start again from square one.'
One aspect of Glass' music that has remained constant throughout his career is its broad range of appeal: it seems his performances attract people with five years' classical training and people with no training at all. In roughly equal proportions.
'I'm not consciously trying to bridge gaps, in fact I'm not really setting out to do anything in particular except do what I want to do. I don't really know why people from so many different backgrounds like my music, but I do know there's a very wide range of response. It just seems to happen that way. I think we're in an age now where we've given ourselves permission to like a lot of different things. 15 or 20 years ago, when I was at college, there were groups of people who went to piano recitals, groups that went to jazz evenings and groups who went to rock and roll gigs, but very, very few who did all three, or even just two of them.'
It seems that Glass himself has extremely varied musical taste, and this is to some degree reflected in his compositions.
'The last week I was in New York I went to see Berlioz' The Trojans At Carthage at the Met, which was terrific, I went to see Ravi Shankhar at Carnegie Hall which was terrific, and I went to see a Breakdance contest at the Ritz, which was also terrific. And that was just one week! I think that there's a large public now that has as varied a taste as I have, and that could be part of the reason that so many different kinds of people get into my music.
'I think a more important reason though is that my music works on two separate levels. On the one hand, it's very direct, high-energy music, and then on the other hand it has a sophisticated structural basis to it. So if you want you can take it at a very intellectual level, or you can just forget about all that and get carried off by the music in a way.
'As a performer I like to get carried away with the sweep of the music, but as a writer I find there has to be some intellectual content because that's really what keeps me interested in writing - it has to be intricate enough arithmetically and mechanically, otherwise I tend to just lose interest.'
Another clue as to what keeps Glass' creative mind ticking lies in the sheer variety of his work, from the epic scale of his operas to the shorter chamber music pieces like Glassworks and The Photographer, his two bestselling albums to date.
'I've deliberately created a situation where I can change what I'm doing a lot. My contract gives me complete artistic freedom. I just wrote a piece of music that lasts four seconds: it's an ID jingle for public service television in the States. I like to work on lots of different things because it stops me from getting dulled - that's part of the reason I did the Carmina Burana thing with Ray Manzarek; it was something challenging and stimulating.'
The future will be no less varied, that's for sure. Glass is currently working on an album of songs (his first) for which he will write the music and various lyricists (among them Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and David Byrne) will pen the words. There's also another collaboration with Robert Wilson in the pipeline, and it's rumoured that Glass may soon start work on a joint project with Draughtsman's Contract director Peter Greenaway, who has already made a documentary on the composer - due to be screened by Channel 4 in the early Spring of next year.
Philip Glass' music may not always be the paragon of accessibility. His recording techniques may not always satisfy the whim of audio purists. He may never be accepted by the serious music establishment. He may never sell a million records (though whether or not this'll bother him is open to question).
What is certain is that his music, his technique and his approach are unique, and few can deny the impact his work has made on the evolution of contemporary music. If all he ever achieves is the destruction of the artificial barriers that have grown up around the different genres that make up today's music, he can retire a happy man.
Interview by Dan Goldstein