The Making Of A New Music Supremo | Philip Glass
Philip Glass is the best known, and certainly the best paid, contemporary new music composer. In London for performances of his music for the films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, he talked to Mark J. Prendergast.
Philip Glass is by far the most successful and most visible modern composer of new music. His astonishing creativity — 80 compositions before 1966 alone, and innumerable 'operas', theatre pieces, performance works, collaborations, soundtracks, ballets and recordings have earned him the grudging respect of the world's classical establishment and the love of a huge public who ensure record sales like those of a rock star, and who make his sell-out live shows media events. The disaffection of the serious music establishment has been tempered in recent years by Glass's obvious bankability, the much talked about $0.3m he was paid for his new opera The Voyage by the Metropolitan Opera House of New York being the salient silencer.
In truth most journalists and critics have missed the point entirely. Glass's music, has taken all the possibilities inherent in both new technological rock and pop, and the adoption of non-Western sounds and fashioned a music out of time and out of place, in the traditional classical/romantic ethos, a form more at home with the recordings of Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd or Klaus Schulze.
Listening to his dazzling bright concoctions of amplified wind instruments, electronic keyboards, samplers and voices on the CBS Masterworks recording of Einstein On The Beach one is not so much reminded of other 'minimalists' but of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. Rick Wright's VCS3 sequence on 'On The Run' bears more than just a passing resemblance to the 'Trial/Prison' segment of the composer's tour de force opera. Of course the debate about who came first has gone on for years. Certainly in this case Floyd's opus predates Glass's by three years, but how much new music did Floyd members absorb at art school and other establishments in the '60s?
Glass has cited Floyd as an example of 'minimalism' working in the rock arena. As for the Floyd they've described their music, particularly Dark Side as "reductive", an adjective used on several occasions to describe Glass's work. This reductive quality derives from his rejection of serialism and neo-classical methods in Paris during the late 1960s. Whilst studying counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, Glass took a job scoring music for a hippy film called Chappaqua. The composer was Ravi Shankar and the director couldn't easily communicate Indian music to local Parisien string players; enter Glass.
He spent several months with Shankar and his drummer Alla Rakha. Glass was fascinated with the Indian raga system particularly the importance of rhythm in the structure of the music. When it came to transposition time in the recording studio, Glass utilised the usual Western bar lines and clusters of eight notes. Shankar and Rakha were dismayed. 'All the notes are equal', they said, and Glass had to find a solution. Instantly he dropped the bar lines to reveal a row of falling and rising cadences. Here was the new music revealed, large rhythmic cycles which in total could communicate quite forceful changes in tension without resorting to the standard melody/harmony axis of Western art music. Glass was to call his music "process music" or "music as pure sound event, an act without any dramatic structure". From this came the idea of 'automatic music' (beloved of Eno) where "the music has no overall structure but generates itself at each moment."
Strangely enough no British writer and few American ones have addressed themselves to the implications of Glass's philosophy. Only in Europe has there been any serious debate about its consequences. In a rush of postmodernist speculation, French philosophers have seen Glass's intention as one of historical negation, where the listener or viewer has no context in which to relate to what he or she is absorbing. Time, within the context of any Glass work, becomes infinite, thus implying an invention of a context by the recipient. This negation of subjectivity implies that Glass's music lends itself to more than the music itself, to mixed media event, to film, to a 'happening, to electronic experimentation, and most of all to 'opera'. Its origins in the 1960s recall the importance of sub-culture in the new improvised psychedelic rock, and recalls Jon Hassell's observation that the history of drugs and the history of new music are closely allied.
Born of Jewish parents in Baltimore, Maryland on January 31st 1937, Glass started on violin at the age of six; at eight he was studying flute at the Peabody Conservatory. Given that his father owned a record store, did growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s have a positive influence, particularly hearing early rock and roll records?
"First of all in, 1950 there wasn't any rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll only became mass media with Elvis Presley. Then we began ordering records by the box and selling them by the box because we never got the time to put them on the shelves. To start in the right place, the popular music of the early 1950s were the Italian crooners — Dean Martin, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Maybe a couple of Irish singers and Jewish troubadours. Then you had a breakthrough in multitrack recording when Les Paul discovered what you could do with two tape recorders. When new technical discoveries began to affect the way one recorded and heard music, popular music was not big business like it is today. In my day pop music was about people who were songwriters."
Glass, sitting in a West London hotel, dressed in de rigeur dark but comfortable clothes leans very close and delivers his answers in a hushed ultra relaxed style. He seems, in a word, unflappable. One would hardly think he is a man who performs 80 concerts a year, and rises at 6 every morning to put in a punishing 12 hour writing schedule seven days a week! As he reminisces about the birth of rock'n'roll, the Ed Sullivan Show, and all the rest, Glass delivers an interesting observation: "There was actually a kind of hysteria, an excitement that wasn't there before. It was very clear, quite quickly, that what we were seeing was the birth of a new culture. It was really a culture that was pretty broad, and something we hadn't had before."
At the age of 15 Glass went to Chicago University, studying maths and philosophy by day, piano and the work of Charles Ives and Anton Webern by night. "To be honest I wasn't very good at either, it was a passing thing for me. Yet later when it came to doing Einstein On The Beach to have some background in science was helpful. Similarly, when dealing with Gandhi for Satyagraha or a writer like Doris Lessing, my university background helped me much better with literary subjects.
"I was considered the local whiz-kid, but at the University of Chicago there were a lot of bright kids. I just became an average student there. It specialised in taking kids and putting them into a heavy academic scene, and seeing what would happen to them."
At 19 Glass graduated and went to New York to study at the famed Juilliard School, where he met Steve Reich. Serial and 12-tone techniques became less interesting as Glass discovered the music of Aaron Copland and other neo-romantic Americans. "It was a very interesting school, considered the premier music school in America at the time. It was basically a trade school, a conservatory. You did nothing at Juilliard but music. I got a Diploma from the school, not an academic degree. Like Chicago, the idea was that you put very talented people together to see what happened. In that way you had a very difficult entrance examination and a very easy graduating one."
With a Fulbright scholarship in one hand and a head full of the music of Darius Milhaud, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and Virgil Thomson, Glass went to Paris at the age of 23. There the elderly French teacher Nadia Boulanger, dismissed his compositions and started him from scratch with nightmarish lessons and exercises in harmony, melody and counterpoint. The Beethoven sonatas of his childhood were coming back to haunt him. He confesses in the autobiographical Opera On The Beach that with her he "learned the difference between technique and style and how to go beyond what we might expect of ourselves." His musical education was completed during this period through the aforementioned encounter with Ravi Shankar.
"Ravi Shankar represented a composer who was also a performer. That's where I got the idea of performing my own music, from non-Western music. It was the way to find an audience, the way to get out of the cul de sac of modern music. I was very unhappy there because it was a music which had nowhere to go. And in fact Boulez is still going nowhere with IRCAM, it's just a one way ticket."
Boulez, a major figure in France and America as Glass doggedly edged his way towards stardom, was a tireless advocator of 12-tone serialism, and his approval was essential to gain advancement in the classical schools of the 1960s. Later he would conduct the New York Philharmonic for five years. He was overtly interested in dragging Viennese serialism into the late 20th century via the use of rhythm, world music and above all electronics and computers.
"To be fair to Boulez, he really doesn't write for a general listening public. When myself and Ravi did Passages recently we knew who our public was because we had 60 years of concert experience behind us! We weren't making theoretical or academic music, we weren't writing for our tenure in the University system. From the moment I met Ravi I set my sights on making my way in the world as a composer and as a performer and not through the academic system... I actually make a living out of writing music, and people in the academic world would think this is horrible; something dirty and crude. They look down on people like John Williams who writes film music, film music which I happen to think is terrific."
Having left Paris in the mid-60s, Glass decided to travel in North Africa, India and the Himalayas. What he saw and heard there would strengthen his personal vision of a new music. "Between 1966 and 1967 there was nobody clamouring for my presence in the music world. I was on my way home so to speak, so I decided to have a look around this new culture that Ravi had acquainted me with. I'd been to Morocco before but went again. From there it was to India through Turkey, Iran and then Afghanistan. I had spent a long time in school, starting at eight, and now I knew I was about to start what was to be a difficult re-entry into the music world because I was going to come in from a very different point of view. I wasn't going to teach music, I wasn't going to write academic music, but start a different type of career entirely."
While in Europe Glass had come into contact with people who were actively interested in 'living theatre'. Beckett was an inspiration as he had already written Play for two soprano saxophones. Back in New York Glass was to find a changed world. Terry Riley's 'In C' had started the Minimalist ball rolling and Steve Reich was performing with his Musicians. Glass threw himself into the fray with his first performance in September 1968 at the Film Maker Cinematheque in SoFlo. The pieces, 'Strung Out/Music In The Form Of A Square', used amplification, contact microphones, and concept like the actual music being hung geometrically — the musicians (including Glass) had to move around as they played. The next piece 'One + One' (1968) involved banging a table fitted with mics, an amplifier and loudspeakers.
By 1969 Glass had put together his ensemble of saxophones, electric piano and organs through a series of contacts, old university friends and chance encounters. Glass, in these East Village days, applied an open-hearted approach to the whole community, being interested in all forms of new art, new literature and ideas. 'Two Pages', 'Music In Fifths','Music In Contrary Motion' and 'Music In Similar Motion' (all 1969) utilised the additive principles of Indian music in a variety of settings. Moreover Glass seemed dead set on electronics and psycho-acoustical properties of playing music at volume. What was the electronic climate like in those days?
"It wasn't much. I met a few people that were interested. Robert Moog's first synthesizer was showing up, Don Buchla's computer was around. I knew a young woman named Suzanne Ciani who had a synth, which was good because I could take lessons from her. Anyway at that time, the late 1960s, synthesizers didn't represent a practical performance vehicle. It wasn't until you had polyphonic keyboards that it was practical, and that was as late as 1974. The Moog only played one line at a time and we were keyboard players. We wanted 10-finger access to the keyboard. Until then the electronics we favoured were simple electronic organs; Farfisa and Yamaha. Then no one dreamed of samples. Even our sound systems, by today's standards, were very crude."
But as Glass's music grew more sophisticated, so did his interest in technology. In 1970 Kurt Munkacsi joined the Philip Glass Ensemble as sound designer, engineer and mixer. He came from the rock world as a session guitarist who had come under the spell of technology. It was while working with John Lennon that Munkacsi was able to acquire the use of a mobile studio on which Glass's first album Music With Changing Parts was recorded in a weekend. Here one could hear a jump in Glass's writing where harmony was structured vertically and open modulations (sudden note changes) would give that bright luminous quality that has come to be the trademark of the Philip Glass sound. In concerts Munckacsi re-created this sound by mixing the electronic and acoustic instruments live directly in front of the players.
"Kurt has produced every record I've done since. At that time he was doing something called Guitar lab, but also working with LaMonte Young on his sound system. Kurt was very interested in combining electronics and the state of the art of electronic business with live performance and what we call avant-garde music. I was the natural place for him to start working, and he began building sound systems for me in 1970. And he continues today. We're working on a new studio right now in New York. I've always liked Kurt because he's got interesting ways for me to spend my money. In 1970 he built a sound system for me which I naturally thought would be my sound system, but no sooner had he finished doing that than he began updating it. Changing the amplifiers and the speakers. We started with very simple amps and a mixing board, and things gradually became more complex. It was a constant thing."
Despite his own personal achievements, Glass and his Circle were reviled by the critics and the classical establishment. One response was to close ranks, hence the The Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich & Musicians played together for three years in the late '60s. "We had two bands. My setup was always a bit different — two keyboards, three wind players and a singer. Steve's were always different — '18 Musicians', '6 Pianos', or 'Music For Mallet Instruments'. It wasn't really possible to share a group in that way, but early on some of the musicians were the same, people like Arthur Murphy the keyboard player. I played 'Four Organs' in Steve's group, and that was the only piece I played and then we parted; it was wise as we had different touring schedules and wanted really to develop different ensembles."
Glass shrugs at differences between the two composers. He points out that he and Reich are almost the same age, as are Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. "I'm the youngest by a month, as Steve was born in Dec 1936. In fact we all came out of the same thing. The older composer was always John Cage. There was John, then there was us. We were all very aware of being onto something. I used to go to Terry's concerts and LaMonte, who you didn't see that much, was always there in a spiritual way. I had very good relations with Steve, though now he's gone a little cranky, but that shouldn't be taken too seriously.
When we were working together he was a terrific character. Of course there were others like John Gibson, Harold Budd, Terry Jennings, Phil Niblock and Meredith Monk. On trips to Britain you'd meet Gavin Bryars, in Holland Luis Andersson. There were a lot of composers breaking a similar style. But for some reason we four were considered the Minimalists. Later for some reason LaMonte got dropped and John Adams became the fourth."
"We don't hang a mic in front of an orchestra. It's carefully constructed overdubs. What you think is a trombone is in reality a trombone and a synthesised trombone. Almost every instrumental section is extended electronically. The acoustic piano record was a break from that way of working."
Following 'Four Organs' (1970), Glass struck out to summate his musical ideas in one grand piece, the 6-hour 'Music In 12 Parts' which was written between 1971-74, and recorded in 1974 with the full Ensemble including conductor, arranger and keyboardist Michael Riesman. In fact only Parts 1 & 2 were released at the time; Glass had to wait until 1988 for the courageous Virgin Venture put the lot out in a bumper boxed set of four CDs. Here Glass tipped the balance in favour of decoration, an illusory changing melodic pattern, strongly pulsing rhythm and harmonic figures. It was all here, but the fact that the other parts remained unreleased for so long dictated that in the meantime the public heard not 'Music In 12 Parts' but the below par electronic doodles of 'North Star', released in 1977, and Glass's first film soundtrack. Its brevity was its Achilles heal and it now only sells as a Glass oddity.
With no major recording deal, Glass drifted to the world of avant-garde theatre, and met Robert Wilson, then New York's most daring utiliser of time, space and light in the performance arts. The two worked together for three years on the opera 'Einstein On The Beach', a four hours and forty minute epic. Glass's own detailed recollections of the organising, funding, choreographing and staging the production, detailed in 'Opera On The Beach' (Fabers 1988), are a prime lesson in self-belief and sheer tenacity of will.
Staged in Europe in 1976, and using for the first time cordless mics developed by Kurt Munkacsi, it was an all-time avant-garde smash which single-handedly brought Glass to a whole new audience, and changed people's perceptions of serious music forever. Here was music played at an incredible volume, without the fuddy-duddy intermissions or polite coughs, to mixed audiences of hippies and serious listeners. Moreover Wilson's visuals matched Glass's simple reductive but glacially clear music to a tee. Its slow passages of violin and flute conjured up mystical speculation while even hardened avantists like Laurie Anderson were wont to marvel when it sold out two performances at the Metropolitan Opera house in November of that year.
Glass immediately set to recording the opera at Big Apple Studios with Kurt in 1977 for a small label called Tomato. Unfortunately they went bust, and the recording wasn't properly available until 1979 when Glass signed to CBS Masterworks. Now on quadruple CD, Einstein On The Beach is a mandatory purchase for all those with a serious interest in new music. It also serves as the best introduction to Glass, with excellent sleevenotes by Robert Palmer, and of course copious elaborations on his own music by Glass himself.
By this stage Glass had honed his style to perfection. In many ways, after 'Einstein' his work has been a deployment of his ideas throughout the marketplace, as even today his new work is not far removed from the core of his '60s or '70s experiments. Of course the best way to get music out into the world at large was to have a smash hit album, and considering that 20,000 is considered a big seller in the classical scene, the idea of a 'serious' album of new music selling like a pop or rock hit was unthinkable until 1982's Glassworks. One of the first digital recordings, its six tracks are by far Glass's most accessible and tantalising music. Delivered in pipingly brief passages of smooth horns, cellos, violas and a myriad of electronics, Glassworks became everybody's favourite Glass record, appealing across the board. In the studio Kurt Munkacsi went to great pains to ensure its state of the art sound; he even plugged a pair of Walkman headphones into the mixing desk to ensure that the mix was suitable for cassette users.
"That was our first digital recording, and since then everything has been digital. You must remember that the damn machines then were hardly working. They were constantly breaking down. Recording that way in the small Big Apple Recording studio was very expensive. That studio, partly owned by my associate Michael Riesman, specialised in rock music and jingles. So we got the night hours."
Maybe that's why the fleeting, almost hypnotic tones of 'Facades' and 'Closing' have such a soporific quality, entrancing the hundreds of thousands of listeners who've made Glassworks the most visible new music album of the '80s. Of course, Glass was by then working at quite a rate of knots. Having completed an impressive collaboration with Lucinda Childs (the choreograph star of Einstein) and artist Sol Leitt entitled 'Dances 1-5' in the late 70s, he again threw himself into opera. By 1980 'Satyagraha' (Sanskrit for "life-force"), a 3-act work for orchestra and performance based on the life of Gandhi, was premiered in Holland. Here Glass drew on the life and work of both Tolstoy and Martin Luther King to imbue his vision of Gandhi with universal force. Many believe the final eight minutes to be Glass's most emotive writing ever.
Describing the 1985 recording, Michael Riesman talks of the extensive use of overdubbing on a 32-track 3M digital multitrack ("almost never used for classical recordings") in preference to the established practice of taping several performances and splicing them together. Guide tracks, including keyboard, click and cue tracks were recorded on sequencers, so as to allow more control over the complex tempos of the polyrhythmic opera. Orchestral sections were then recorded in the sequence of strings, woodwinds, chorus, and then soloists. The keyboard guide was then replaced by the organ/synth parts, while additional synthesizers coloured in the original orchestration. Riesman talks of the 'intensity' of recording this way, erasing previous takes or guide material by overdubbing new parts, something he feels has a positive outcome.
"Making editing decisions on the spot means that they don't have to be made later, which avoids the typical problems of mismatched tempos and dynamics which plague editors of conventional recordings."
Glass's technical side was further developed by his association with Godfrey Reggio, an experimental filmmaker whose Koyaanisqatsi of 1983 was a remarkable fusion of speeded up images of urban man and Glass's robotic music. Glass worked for three years with Reggio in California, the final film being cut to Glass's work tape. In 1984 the composer worked in the same manner with Paul Schrader on a biopic based on the life of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer. By 1988 Glass was back with Reggio for the exacting Powaqqatsi, which presented the effect of capitalism on the third world. If the film was weakened by Reggio's use of cliched images, the score in contrast was Glass's first true deviation from his past as he explored the rich colours of ethnic music. Glass travelled to West Africa, Peru and Brazil where he sampled such instruments as the dousson'gouni, kora, balafon and tamboura for use in the soundtrack.
"That was a fabulously interesting record to do. It was the first time we really began integrating sampled sounds with studio sounds. When we went into the studio in California to do the mix we used two 32-track machines. It was a very intense multitrack recording. It represented a big jump, as Glassworks used only 24 tracks. Kurt, myself and Michael have developed a unique technique of overdubbing in our Living Room studio in New York, where Powaqqatsi was initially recorded. With that we knew we could do anything we wanted to do in the studio but the trick was to make it viable as a live performance. We had to deal with a lot of orchestration and a whole bunch of indigenous instruments and a lot of percussion. So we got involved with sampling. All the percussion is sampled, with a few exceptions. With that we found we could subtly re-tune it to make it somewhat compatible with the Western instruments. We had to try and miniaturise the whole orchestra into something that maybe 14 or 15 people could play.
We are able to reproduce in an amazingly faithful way the original soundtrack using 13 or 14 musicians all playing sampling instruments. There are four or five synthesizer players, and the percussion is all on pads. There are still some double keyboard set-ups, it's not completely computerised, although we do use two Mac IIs for sequencing. When we perform the film, we reproduce the synchronised soundtrack by Michael Riesman conducting as he views the film in real time."
Glass's output in the '80s was prodigious to say the least. Between the Reggio movies came the Egyptian peace opera 'Akhnaten' (1984), another Robert Wilson collaboration 'Civil Wars' (1984), 'The Juniper Tree' opera (1984), based on Grimm's fairytales, The Photographer (LP, 1984) based on the 1982 theatre portrait of Edward Muybridge, the album Songs From Liquid Days (1986) where Glass worked with Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne and Suzanne Vega, his opera 'The Making Of The Representative Of Planet 8' (1985-1986) with a large input from its author Doris Lessing, the 'Pink Noise' acoustical art installation at Ohio with Richard Serra (1987), cadenzas for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (1987), the Dance Nos 1-5 CD and 'The Fall Of The House Of Usher' theatre piece (both 1988).
There were also quirky pop projects with Irish singer Pierce Turner, and with the dance music explosion. Glass found himself being sampled like any other innovator. As it happened, he didn't mind this at all and actively promoted such odd collaborations. On the serious side, post-Powaqqatsi, the composer kept creating at a breathtaking pace. In 1989 there were no less than three albums: 1000 Airplanes On The Roof (electronic sci-fi piece); Thin Blue Line, another film soundtrack; and Solo Piano, a disc which recalled the subtle nuances of Glassworks and stands as Glass's quietest latter-day recording.
"In fact I've done about 60 concerts of that music and we've published a book of the music. I did this for the people who find electronic music very difficult, and after all what I've got at home is just a piano. The aesthetic of hearing and recording for us, in Kurt's words is 'not the taking of sonic photographs'. We don't hang a mic in front of an orchestra. It's carefully constructed overdubs. What you think is a trombone is in reality a trombone and a synthesised trombone. Almost every instrumental section is extended electronically. The acoustic piano record was a break from that way of working."
Having just completed the exceptional Passages disc with Ravi Shankar, Glass has a number of projects already under his belt. 'Hydrogen Jukebox', an opera collaboration with poet Allen Ginsberg, and 'Itaipu' a chorus/orchestra piece based on South American Indian legends. With 'The Voyage', 'White Raven' (another project with Robert Wilson) and 'Orphee', a concept based on Jean Cocteau's classic film, all in the pipeline one question that must be on everybody's mind is how does Glass create and produce so much work?
"You see, I'm a very traditional composer. Even with all my Ravi Shankar experiences and samplers, I still work with pencil and paper. Where I live in East Village I've got a grand piano and an electric pencil sharpener. Of course there's the 64-track Living Room studio on Broadway and Bleecker St., which Kurt built. It's got everything, everything I can afford. It's the state of the art, and the latest thing I know is that we've switched to the Macintosh — but there's so much there that I forget the names."
Given that the operas are so huge, how long does it take to complete just one? Two to three years?
"I'd never get anything done if every opera took that long. The process takes the following pattern. I spend about a year talking through an opera with a director, a designer and a librettist. During that time I'm also working on other projects. Then I give myself about a year of writing, maybe eight months because I'm touring for the other four months. The third year of an opera, which is the stage I'm at now with 'The Voyage', is very interesting. The designer and director really need to hear it and it's not like 'Cosi Fan Tutte' which you can go and buy in a record store. So we do a complete synthesised reproduction of the opera on tape. And that may sound incredible, but it's there with all the string sections, brass and percussion. The only thing we do live is the soloists who sing all the solo parts, and they also sing chorus which is backed up with synthesizers.
"In fact a couple of months ago I invited a few friends over and I said 'we're gonna have a premier of 'The Voyage' from beginning to end'. We had intermissions for food, and we blinked the lights and when it was over one friend asked where had it been performed. I said it has never been performed. She said it sounded as if it had. That's what I can do with this studio!"
From there Glass hands the tapes to the Metropolitan's director and designer, who have a year to plan and design the staging.
"Therefore the studio comes in at a crucial stage. When it comes to rehearsals everybody knows what the piece is. We don't go through that difficult period when people don't know what the opera sounds like. For the singers they learn their parts in the context of the tape, then we re-mix it without vocals so they can rehearse with the orchestra adding their learnt parts in. It is an extremely useful way to work.
"People say, 'how does one man produce all this?' The answer is I don't. Six to eight people work full-time for me. That means there's a tremendous pressure on the studio to produce work which in the end I find rather good. My organization gives me a tremendous leverage in the music business, and we work harder than bankers. If we worked bankers' hours we wouldn't get anything done. The amount of work I can turn out is only limited by the amount of music I can write, and I can write a lot of music. If you don't have a way of getting the music out of your house then it backs up and when that happens you start gearing your productivity to how quickly you can get the work produced. And that's not the way to do it. The way is to have the production geared to how much I can produce!"
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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