The Glass Bead Game
The man the man who the man who makes the man who the man who the man who makes repetitive music.
"I want the music to go where my fingers can't." Philip Glass, the best known unknown in music, describes the journey to John Morrish.
You may not know the name Philip Glass. You may never have heard his records, or his film soundtracks, or seen his shows. But you've probably heard his music.
Glass is just about the most "borrowed-from" of all contemporary composers. His crisp synthesiser arpeggios and bold harmonies have charmed everyone from Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer (remember 'I Feel Love') to the Human League and David Bowie.
Not that he minds very much. These days he's quite at home collaborating with David Byrne, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson, or knocking out the odd single. His latest, with vocals by Linda Ronstadt, has even appeared on Radio One. It's a long way from the Juilliard School and 20 years of classical training, but Glass realised a long time ago that he didn't want to make music for music teachers. He enjoys his popularity.
"I wanted to make my way in the music world with music that was living and not part of the academic world. That meant playing the music as well as writing it. I formed my own ensemble in 1968/9. We were a lot of keyboard players, and where do you get three or four pianos together? Well, you don't. What you do is get electric pianos and electric organs and you put them together.
"And we discovered that if you want to have saxophones playing with these instruments, you have to amplify them too. Within one week we had an amplified ensemble. What I discovered was, the better the quality of the sound, the louder I could make the music without it becoming painful.
"And I discovered that when the music got loud you began to hear things that you never heard when the music was quiet. It would take on a kind of shine."
How would you describe the music?
"One way is to say, well, it's loud and it's fast. A more complicated way is to say it's very tonal, with long stretches on one chord, it's built on repetitive structures and there's the idea of a repeated figure that slowly changes over a long time. And the third element is the idea of a very steady beat.
"You'll find it quite a lot on 'Glassworks', where the metres change very quickly from 7/8 to 6/8 to 5/8, and then you get these very irregular beats. That becomes the beat of the music, and it may then go on to harmonic changes within that.
"Should you have a singer with it, you can put a whole lot of other melodic material on top."
The method derives originally from Indian forms, but your early work with titles like "Music In Similar Motion" suggests an obsession with technicalities and rules.
"The rules create opportunities to make choices, but if you don't avail yourself of them, you don't have a piece. A piece should create the impression that it couldn't have been written any other way.
Do you improvise?
"I'm a pencil and paper composer, basically. I can play my music at the piano, or I can play parts of it. The operas simply don't fit on the piano. The piano has never been a primary composition tool for me. I guess if I was a better pianist it might be.
"Sometimes I want the music to go where my fingers can't. I hear it, but I can't play it, so I write it. And then I can play it. I like to hear the music in real time.
"I wrote some of my early pieces like this: it sounds amazingly simple, but this is what I actually did. I would take a 5/8 melody like this: (sings) da-da, da-da-da (D-E, D-E-Fsharp). Then I add a note to make it 6/8, like this: da-da-da, da-da-da (D-E-Fsharp, D-E-Fsharp). Then I might make it a seven note melody: da-da-da, da-da, da-da (D-E-Fsharp, D-E, Fsharp-E). Then I would take them all together (same notes as above): da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da, da-da. Every time you add a note, you change the rhythm: (claps on the bold das) da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da, da-da.
"We've just got a Macintosh computer, which we use now as part of our recording process. Michael (Riesman, conductor of the Philip Glass ensemble) plays into the Macintosh and we store all our data (what we used to call a score we now call data) and we use that to generate the basic tracks."
The ensemble uses a wide range of synthesisers including DX7s, Prophet 5s, both Emulators, an OBX and an ancient double keyboard Yamaha. What are your favourite strings?
"The best string sound is a composite one. We'll use a sound from the OBX, then combine it with the Prophet 5 and the DX7. No one company makes a perfect programme. I prefer real people, but the synthesisers can definitely do things that real people can't. We can smooth out a string section. We'll take a string section with 12 strings, and put our MIDI'd-together string sound and we can pump that out to sound like 28 strings. The Mishima soundtrack is a good example. That's a small section, maybe 18 strings, but you listen to it, it's gorgeous."
"One of the nice things about playing live is that people say 'My God — you mean you do it for real!' You couldn't do our music on a sequencer. There hasn't been a sequencer invented that's as clever as Michael Riesman."
Interview by John Morrish
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