Glass on Glass: an extended interview with the composer

Pub date June 22, 2012

Few living composers can claim more influence over the landscape of modern classical music than Philip Glass. A glance at his expansive discography — comprised of symphonies, operas, ballets, film scores, and a broad range of collaborative efforts — reveals a restlessly creative artist, with little regard for categorization. Even after turning 75 earlier this year, Glass continues to work as prolifically as ever.

The latest installment in Glass’ storied career finds the composer joining forces with acclaimed singer-songwriter-harpist Joanna Newsom, for an exclusive, one-off performance Mon/25 to benefit Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library.

In a phone conversation with the Guardian last week, from his home in Manhattan, Glass detailed the evolution of his creative alliance with Newsom, his burning desire to work with Ornette Coleman and Wynton Marsalis, his likeness to Brian Eno, and his refusal to be labeled a “minimalist”, among a host of other topics.

Our interview was much too extensive for Wednesday’s feature to contain, so read on for more words of wisdom from Glass.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Are you working on any of your own material recently? Anything you can share with us, that you’re working on for your own purposes?

Philip Glass I finished an opera for Linz, Austria, based on a story about [Austrian novelist-playwright Peter Handke], and now I’m working on another opera, based on… well, that’s a Walt Disney. Besides that, I’m working with Godfrey Reggio on one of his new movies. He’s the one who made Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Besides that, I’m doing concerts. The one [in San Francisco] of course… and I have three in New York this week, and one in Chicago next weekend.

SFBG Solo piano performances?

PG They’re mostly ensemble concerts with my own group. There will be one in New York called the River to River Festival. That’s a group that’s been together for about 35 years or so, and we’re playing pieces that are retrospective of music from those years. Then, I will be doing some collaborative pieces. One concert I’m doing, I’m playing with Laurie Anderson. And I did one last night with Stephin Merritt. The concert in Chicago, which is next weekend, I’m doing with a wonderful violinist named Tim Fain [accompanying Glass and Newsom Mon/25], which is mostly chamber music of mine.

So, I tend to do a variety of things. It keeps everything very interesting for me. It means I’m always practicing and rehearsing [laughs], but it’s more fun to do that than to just play the same thing over and over again. I don’t do that very much.

SGBG Moving on to the show in San Francisco coming up: I spoke with [Magnus Toren, executive director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library] on the phone the other day, and said he’d heard that your rehearsals with Joanna Newsom and Tim Fain are going very well.

PG Yeah, we got along very well, and I’ve known Tim a long time. I knew Joanna from her records when we met for the first time. She spends a lot of time in New York. We met very recently, and we had two sessions here. We’re going to have another rehearsal out there.

What we’re doing, basically… it’s her music and my music. I’m playing one of her new songs, and then she and Tim are playing a number of songs together. Then, we’re playing some of my trios that I adapted for harp, piano, and violin. We’re also doing solo pieces. Violin, harp, and piano: it’s kind of a classic combination. They’re instruments that go very well together, and we found … she’s an excellent player, anyway, and a wonderful singer. But, we found that our music works very well together.

SFBG Are there any songs of [Newsom’s], or just elements of her music that you really connect to?

PG She has a unique way of approaching the harp. I’m not a harpist, so I can’t give you the technical details, but when you hear her play, she has her own style. The way that certain pianists have a certain way of playing the piano. You know, you hear them, you say, “Oh, that’s so-and-so.” You know right away who it is.

She has a bigger tonal range than harp players usually use, because she can change keys very easily, very rapidly. And so, that gives her a lot of flexibility in terms of the tonality. That’s the one thing that I noticed right away. She has a command of the whole range of the instrument, and she can adapt her voice to it very, very well.

SFBG In a recent interview, you said, “all the collaborations I’ve done, have been a way for me to put myself in a place where I haven’t been before.” Based on the time you’ve spent rehearsing with Joanna and Tim, where is this collaboration taking you, that you’ve never been before?

PG I’ve used the harp a lot in orchestral music, where it becomes part of the orchestra. It might not stand out that much. But now, with a harpist right in front of me, there were parts of the instrument that worked very well with parts of my music, and I was able to hear it. Although I knew the instrument, in terms of a large ensemble, 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.

SFBG Besides Newsom, are there any other new artists you’ve been listening to recently, or any currently working musicians who you admire, or take inspiration from?

PG I’m going back to working with a wonderful kora player named Foday Suso. He’s from the Gambia. We toured a lot in the late ’90s, and the early part of this decade, and we’re just trying to start touring again. We haven’t played in a few years. There will be a new percussion ensemble, and we’re going to be playing with them. But, we have concerts coming up in Seattle, and Mexico City, and actually one in Carmel.

I would guess, in terms of a new player, I think Joanna is the newest of the new, given the people I know. I just, last night, was doing a concert with, and played one piece with, Stephin Merritt. I liked playing with him. He’s a very good singer. Do you know his work?

SFBG Magnetic Fields, right?

PG Yeah, that’s right. So, he’s another person I’ve just worked with very recently, who I enjoyed working with.

SFBG So, you’re really known for your collaborations. You’ve done a lot of them. Is there any kind of consistent contribution that you feel you bring to collaborative projects?

PG One of the things that interests me the most is when I work with people who don’t have a background in Western music, as such. Wu Man, who is a wonderful pipa player (it’s like a Chinese mandolin, you could say), we’ve done work together. I’ve worked with Mark Atkins from Australia. He’s a didgeridoo player.

A percussion group from Brazil called Uakti. What I really like, is going outside of my home base. You know, my home base is basically central European art music, as it grew up in Europe and then took root in America. I find, when I’m playing with people from Africa, or Australia, or China, or Japan, or Korea, I find it very stimulating.

SFBG Are there any artists in particular who you’d love to collaborate with?

PG I did a very extensive piece with Leonard Cohen recently [The Book of Longing], and I liked that. I could go back to that collaboration again. But, it’s been four or five years since we did that piece. There are two people I’ve talked to, we’ve never had the time to do it: one is Ornette Coleman, and the other is Wynton Marsalis. We keep on talking about it, but you have to get in the same room long enough to do some work [laughs].

I’d love to go back and do some more pieces with Ravi Shankar, who is still alive, and still writing. I got to know his daughter, Anoushka. Wonderful sitar player. So, that’s a young person I would like to work with. But, she knows that. Ever since she was eight years old. She’s become a wonderful player, these days.

SFBG A few other questions about your music. You seem to reject the “minimalism” tag…

PG Well, here’s the problem: if you would like people to come to a concert of minimalism, and they come to the concert, you’re not going to hear it [laughs]. The reason I object to descriptions that are not going to be found [is that] instead of helping the audience, it creates a kind of obstacle.

The pieces I wrote in ’73, ’74, ’75, ’76: yeah, sure! But, I’m not playing any of those pieces in the concert in San Francisco. I can, and I have. I played Koyaanisqatsi with Godfrey Reggio’s film at the Hollywood Bowl last year. And, that’s close to that period. It was written in 1979. So, it wouldn’t be so outlandish to call it minimalist, but actually, the pieces I’m writing today … it’s misleading.

I don’t know what your situation is, but often, editors will try to find something to sum it up and make a headline of a piece: “Minimalist composer arrives with Joanna Newsom.” But, that’s not going to happen! [Laughs]. So, those are catchy lines, and they’re maybe good journalism, but they’re actually poor preparation.

Look: I’ve been writing music for 40 years. It’s not the same music. So, when people ask me about that, I say, “well, let’s talk about what the concert’s going to be.” Now, in this particular concert, I’m doing pieces with Joanna, and with Tim, that have been written in the last ten years. So, there’s no minimalism in it at all.

When people talk about [Einstein on the Beach]: of course. It resonates with reality. That was the heartland of minimalism in the mid-’70s, and Einstein was one of the apotheosis pieces of that time, that caught that spirit, caught that technique. But, we’re not doing Einstein. We will be doing Einstein at Berkeley, at the Zellerbach, in October.

SFBG Do you have a way, maybe a shorthand, to classify what you’re doing now?

PG You kind of brought it up, yourself. I work with musicians from many different areas, so I’ve become a collaborator. In a way, that informs more about what I do than almost anything else. I don’t care how I’m remembered, in a way, but how I might be remembered as someone who worked with a lot of different people, from Allen Ginsberg, to Twyla Tharp. [That’s the distinctive thing], and it’s definitely reflected in the form of the work.

SFBG A lot of people who were brought up on popular music, even jazz, see a certain exclusivity in classical music. But, looking at your body of work, in contrast, you’ve produced a wide range of work on commission, from operas…

PG Yeah, I got over that label right away! [Laughs].  I’m not even a new music composer anymore. I’m just a composer.

I mean, part of my agenda was to get out of the ghetto, 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. I could work with anybody, 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!” [laughs]

SFBG You’ve collaborated with Brian Eno in the past.

PG Yes, that was part of the collaboration with David Bowie, because during the days where they were doing pieces like Heroes and Low (I turned those into symphonies) Brian was a collaborator, for sure.

Also I had a record company at one time [Point Records], and we produced a new performance of Music for Airports [with Bang on a Can]. So, I’ve been involved with his music more than casually. I mean, I’ve actually been involved in recordings, and working on scores with his music. Very interesting composer. Very interesting guy.

SFBG Along those lines: he’s is another artist who’s really made a reputation on versatility, on working within a lot of musical settings. So, do you feel like you might have more in common with, perhaps, someone like Eno, than some of the more traditional figures in Western art music?

PG Well, I think that’s a very good point, because Eno crosses lines very casually, very easily. He wasn’t interested in being in any particular [genre]. I came up at Juilliard, and then [I had] a very high-end academic teacher in Paris called Nadia Boulanger. People who come from that background don’t usually do a lot.  [Pauses]. Trying to think. There was a great producer who produced some Michael Jackson [Quincy Jones]. He was a student of Nadia Boulanger as well. People turn up, but it’s not that common, to be truthful.

SFBG Another quotation from a recent interview, concerning your philosophy on music: you said, “music is a place, and is as real as Chicago, or Indianapolis, or the city you live in. It’s an absolute place, and once you know where that place is, you can go there.” Do you try to bring your audience, your listeners, to a certain place with your music?

PG Well, it’s not that I try to. I’m there already, so if they’re coming to my concerts, they’re going to be there, too. I think that it’s not so much the intention. It’s, more or less, a result of how I work, and who I am. If I tried to do it, I couldn’t do it any better than just, naturally doing what’s natural to me.

I think that’s not uncommon among musicians. We live in this world. It’s not a pastime. It amounts to, almost, an obsession for most musicians. They almost can’t think of anything else, to be truthful. They’re probably boring people to be around if you’re not a fellow musician [laughs]. But, the allure of the world of music is very powerful, and when you’re caught up in it, that’s what it is.

SFBG The place in music that you occupy: do you form any visual associations with it?

PG Not really, though in dreams, I can see things. The language of music is aural. It’s not about seeing; it’s about hearing.

SFBG Is there a piece, or even a section of a piece of yours, that you feel really succinctly encapsulates your approach to music, or what you strive for?

PG Einstein was the piece in the ’70s that captured that for me. But then, six years later, I was doing Koyaanisqatsi. Before Einstein, there was Music in Twelve Parts. Then, after that, there were three operas I did, to the work of Jean Cocteau. These are things that come up throughout my life. Certain pieces kind of sum up everything you’ve been thinking about, and you become aware of it afterwards. It’s hard to know it when it’s happening.

When I look back on certain pieces, [in the mid-’90s there was] Symphony No. 2, which, I didn’t think very much of when I wrote it. And the violin concertos from that time. They both became emblematic pieces of a certain kind.

I can see pieces that way: pieces that seem to sum up a period of search and work, and they seem to be the contestants of those ideas. And then, you move on to, then maybe three, four years of experimentation, of working through things. And then, another piece will pop up, that kind of sums it up. That happens to everybody.

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