Philip Glass and Joanna Newsom’s one-off concert to save the Henry Miller Memorial Library

Pub date June 20, 2012

He’s worked with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, and Allen Ginsberg. Next week, one of the most influential living composers, Philip Glass, will add singer-songwriter-celebrated harpist Joanna Newsom to his list of collaborators.

On Monday, they will take the Warfield stage, along with violinist Tim Fain, in a one-off performance to benefit Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library.

A fixture of Northern California’s artistic heritage, the library will face closure this fall unless it manages to raise $150,000 to upgrade its water system to existing code. Glass and Newsom, both proponents of the library, have joined forces to secure its future.

Dedicated to the acclaimed author of Tropic of Cancer, who moved to Big Sur in 1944, the Henry Miller Memorial Library isn’t a library in the conventional sense.

The small wooden cabin, serving as a bookstore and community center, is nestled in a redwood grove on the Big Sur coastline, right beside a grassy area where concerts are held. The stage has drawn performers as varied as Laurie Anderson and Fleet Foxes, all of whom have found something special in its intimate, picturesque setting.

According to executive director Magnus Toren, the library “ties into what Big Sur represents for many people, which is… getting out of the hustle-bustle of regular life, oftentimes urban life. It’s a little bit of a sanctuary… As soon as you enter through the gate, you feel transported into a different kind of world.”

Glass, a Manhattanite, was inspired by the library’s setting when he gave his first concert there in 2008, describing it as, “a very, very idyllic place to perform.”

Yet, his attachment to California didn’t stop there. In 2011, Glass established the Days & Nights Festival, a two-week multimedia arts showcase held in Carmel Valley, which will present the upcoming benefit at the Warfield, along with folkYEAH!.

Given their respective backgrounds, the thought of a collaboration between Glass and Newsom has raised some eyebrows.

Credited alongside Steve Reich and Terry Riley for radically altering the direction of 20th century classical music, Glass is celebrated for his early minimalist works (Einstein on the Beach; Music in Twelve Parts) his film scores (Koyaanisqatsi), an immense collection of symphonies, operas, and ballets, and of course, his many collaborative projects.

Glass’ symphonic renditions of David Bowie’s Low and Heroes are a testament to his “maverick” status in the world of composition.

Newsom too has an individualist appeal. The native Californian has garnered a large following over the past decade for her innovative, highly percussive approach to the harp.

Noted for her eccentric, high-pitched voice (she can recall a young girl and an elderly woman in the same breath) and genre-bending songwriting methods, Newsom is esteemed as any singer-songwriter of her generation. “She has a command of the whole range of the [harp], and can adapt her voice to it very well,” Glass explained during a phone call last week.

On her most acclaimed album, Ys, (co-written with revered pop-collagist Van Dyke Parks) Newsom filtered extensive “songs” through a flowing set of dynamics, more befitting of a classical composition than an indie-folk record.

“Artistically, and musically, [the collaboration is] just so interesting,” Toren says. “They’re both iconoclastic. They’re both on the outer edge of certain areas in music. And so, I felt… there could be some synchronicity, some kind of chemistry. And, I think that’s what’s happening.”

Based on the success of several rehearsals in New York, Glass speaks enthusiastically about the collaboration, and the new places it has taken him as an artist. “[Although] I’ve used the harp a lot in orchestral music, I’ve never been in such an intimate relationship with it… It brings out a texture in the music I write… which I’m hearing, almost for the first time.”

Next Monday, the audience should expect solo material from Newsom, Glass, and Fain, in addition to collaborative renditions of Newsom’s songs and Glass’ trios.

When asked if he accepts the title of “classical composer”, Glass was quick to identify himself as a collaborator, above all.

“Part of my agenda,” he explained, “was to get out of the new-music ghetto, into a bigger musical world, where I could work with David Bowie, or Emmylou Harris, or Joanna Newsom… and it wouldn’t be a surprise. No one’s going to say ‘what is he doing now?’ because I’ve done it so much that it’s more like, ‘there he goes again!'”

A Benefit for Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library
Philip Glass and Joanna Newsom with Tim Fain
Mon/25, $62.50-$140
982 Market, SF
(415) 345-0900