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The Glass of '85

Philip Glass

Article from International Musician & Recording World, August 1985

The synthesist who knows no parameters discusses his works. Interview by Tony Mills

Visionary composer or monotony merchant? Philip Glass continues to thrive upon the controversy surrounding ever-increasing catalogue of Systems Music

Breakdancers bop to it, Pop stars love it or loathe it, classical critics swear by it or swear at it. Whatever you've heard about it, you can't ignore the music of Philip Glass.

In June London had a positive onslaught of Glass music with a concert of string pieces and a season at the English National Opera for his massive work Akhnaten. Later in the year there are three Glass albums due - the CBS set of his previous opera Satyagraha, an album of songs written with Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Talking Head David Byrne and others, and a soundtrack for Paul Schrader's film Mishima. The first Glass opera, Einstein On The Beach, has just been re-released to great critical acclaim, and the Francis Ford Coppola/Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi which is entirely devoid of words but which boasts an amazing electronic score from Glass, is still illuminating Londoners after over two years. So what drives the man who used to drive cabs to pay the rent? Why are most of his titles unpronouncable? How did he come to play on Paul Simon's last album? And what on earth is "extended instrumentation"?

For some of the answers I went to meet Glass at London's Coliseum, where Akhnaten is being staged. The last time we met was almost two years ago when Koyaanisqatsifirst came out, so I knew that the man was classically educated, became interested in Indian music, started to compose slowly-developing systems pieces, formed an ensemble which recorded on his own label and completed pieces with titles such as Music In Similar Motion which he used in concert to sort the men from the boys in terms of audience stamina.

The turning point was Music In Twelve Parts, released on Virgin, or maybe Dance, the result of a collaboration with an American choreographer. Suddenly Glass was hot property, the aged Farfisa organs of his ensemble were replaced by Prophets and later Emulators, Glass was commissioned to write the massive Opera Einstein On The Beach and later the 'musical theatre piece' The Photographer. He'd released an album of shorter pieces, North Star, on Virgin, and now a piece called Floe from the CBS album Glassworks came out as a single and even found its way onto some of the TV advertised compilation albums. Koyaanisqatsi, 87 minutes of dazzling visual imagery backed up by Glass music, was the finishing touch. Glass completed his second Opera, Satyagraha (never performed in the UK but well-known from a Channel 4 showing, and concentrating on politics in the person of Mahatma Ghandi rather than science in the form of Einstein) and went on to the third in the Portrait trilogy, Akhnaten a study of power and religion based in ancient Egypt.

Glass got us up to date by commenting "the last piece I did was Mishima, Paul Schrader's film, which opened at Cannes about three months ago. I've also done a theatre piece, The Juniper Tree, based on The Brothers Grimm, and a ballet score for Twyla Tharpe, which she hasn't rehearsed yet.

"My current projects are the song album, which was lyrics by David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon (a returned favour for Glass' playing on Simon's Hearts and Bones album) and a young singer called Suzanne Vega, and I've just finished Act 1 of an Opera written with Doris Lessing, from her book 'The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight'.

So Glass has had a busy year, with the London Production of Akhnaten as just one of the high points. But compared to his more synthesized works, Akhnaten must be a very conventional piece?

"Well, we do have some keyboards here — the company's using a Yamaha DX9 and I've even written a short solo for it, but compared to some of my other pieces it does seem trad because it's written for a repertory Opera company. But if you ask the musicians who have to play it, it appears very different to them. Any Opera company could play the piece, but even apart from the synthesizer it doesn't use a conventional orchestra. There are no violins and I've made Akhnaten a counter-tenor, so the combination of very high voices and very low strings makes the piece very gloomy — I like that!

"But the orchestra and chorus are very enthusiastic about it, and let me tell you, it's very hard work if you don't have that enthusiasm. I've gone to a lot of places where people just don't get the point of the music — even if they do it's still hard work for them, and to see them working hard at it is terrific. One guy at rehearsals said how pleased he was to be playing it, and that he'd watched Satyagraha on TV even though there was a John Wayne film on the other channel!"

On the subject of synthesizers, don't you often use them to double the acoustic instrument parts to give them more power?

"That's what I call 'extended instrumentation' and it is used here, although there is a little tiny synth solo in one part as well. Because it's not a large orchestra, about 40 people, keyboards help to smooth out some places where the wind and brass sections don't get much time to breathe. Since I wrote the piece in '83 I've found different ways to do that; the thing about the music that remains distinctive is that it just goes on and on and on, so it's a matter of endurance and concentration to play it. I use a synth as a way of bridging that, and it makes a nice sound, it fits in."

"The thing about the music that remains so distinctive is that it just goes on and on, so it's a matter of endurance and concentration to play it."

So when Glass writes a synthesizer piece, what sound does he ask for on the score?

"I work a lot with synths, and I've got nine in my band now. I didn't realise how they'd crept up, because we didn't use them until about '78 when they were really polyphonic. Even now you'll lose notes if you play more than six at once on some models. But now I've got Emulators, two DX9's, an Oberheim, a Prophet, a Roland JX3P and so on, and I'd say at this point that the synthesizer has a generic sound of its own. When I write parts for the synths I used to write 'woodwind' or '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.

"I've done a lot of recording with synths — even when you think you're hearing, say, a trombone, there's a synth doubling it a couple of octaves below to thicken the sound. The score for Mishima was basically for strings and harp, but the harp was a DX9 and played parts no harp could ever play. Then when I write for the real instrument again I have to make that adjustment".

Does it surprise you that more classical musicians haven't used these techniques?

"I am surprised that more people haven't done what Michael Riesman, Kurt Muncaski and myself have done. This kind of experimentation in acoustic and synth combinations isn't really done in the classical world, and in Pop they don't use this instrumentation, so it's a real breakthrough area.

"For instance, the whole of The Photographer was recorded with a click track, and we even applied that technique to the album of Satyagraha. We have the conductor and the rehearsal pianist play the score, then set a click to it with a Dr Click or one of these damn things. Then we took off the piano, put on the high strings, the winds, the chorus and so on. People used to think you couldn't get the feel of a live performance in the studio and used to hang a single mike over the orchestra and do lots of takes. But artists have learned to give a performance in the studio — the singer 'performs' with the click, people aren't afraid to do that any more.

"We've had this technology for 12 or 15 years, but it's only now that I can bring people into 'perform' and still have a very controlled mixdown. Other people do endless takes and you have to match pitch and tempo with takes and its a fucking nightmare. We just do each piece horizontally then vertically, and 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 start! Satyagraha will be out on CBS in July, and it sounds like a performance — because it is performance".

So what equipment do you use in the studio now?

"Well, my studio at home is a Baldwin Piano and a big desk! But we've jointly built a 24-track with a couple of other guys so we no longer have to face the terrible bugaboo of studio time. There's an MCI tape machine, two Soundcraft desks, a whole shitload of noise reduction and digital delays, and a new computer system which Michael and Kurt are using for percussion patterns and word processing on scores. The control room's about 15x30 feet and has all the synths in it, and there's a smaller 10x12 room for about a dozen string players. I always record in sections, and now we're not worried about hours we can break recording down into the smallest units we want.

"We have an Emulator 1 and 2 and we've made our own samples, although I'd only use an unaccompanied sampled sound for percussion or for a working tape for the choreographers or set designers. Otherwise, particularly on strings and choirs, it's always under a recording of the real thing. I have done string quartets on the Emulator though, always one track at a time."

How about computers and sequencers?

"Michael Riesman is such an extraordinary keyboard player that he's better than most machines, and he doesn't breakdown or forget his programs. It seems to be quicker to work that way — in any case sequencers aren't much use because each part in my music changes every few bars. People thought that it was just repetition in the early days, but in fact the problem isn't that it doesn't change, but that it changes all the time. If it didn't change it would be unlistenable; it's the accretion of small changes that gives it life."

Check out the life in the music of Philip Glass for yourself over the coming months. Certainly there's plenty to choose from - the Opera Einstein On The Beach and Satyagraha on CBS, the song album on the same label, the film Mishima and its soundtrack on Elektra Asylum, and the film Koyaanisqatsi on video. Glass himself can't be easily categorised - but if you think classical music ground to a halt around the time of The Barber of Seville, you've got another think coming.

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Aug 1985

Donated by: James Perrett


Philip Glass


Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Terry Riley

Steve Reich

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