BBC Music FEBRUARY 2017 - by Brian Wise


The American Philip Glass, who turns eighty this month, is a composing trailblazer whose impressively wide range of styles and works has helped shift the course of western music. Brian Wise meets him in New York.

As Philip Morris Glass celebrates his eightieth birthday on January 31, musicians and concert presenters have been confronted with the increasingly daunting question of how to recognise such a wide-ranging, entrenched and influential force in music. If Glass had lived only to Mozart's thirty-five years of age, concert presenters could easily fashion career retrospectives around Music In Contrary Motion, Music In 12 Parts, and other early scores that helped establish the style known (to most of Glass's chagrin) as minimalism. Had Glass lived to Beethoven's age - fifty-six - he might be recognised for Einstein On The Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, his trilogy of 'portrait' operas on themes of science, politics and religion.

Add another decade and the music world might focus on Glass the Hollywood composer, following the successes of The Truman Show, Kundun and The Hours, from about 1997 to 2002.

But in 2002, Glass had only just begun writing concertos and symphonies, and a second wave of operas was on its way, with Appomattox (2007), Kepler (2009) and The Perfect American (2013). This year, his Symphony No. 11 premieres at Carnegie Hall on his actual birthday and a third piano concerto, for fellow New Yorker Simone Dinnerstein, arrives in September.

Glass himself declines to identify the music that best defines his career. But when pressed, his body of more than thirty operas stands front and center. "The main thing about writing operas that interested me was I was able to introduce issues of social justice and social change," Glass says as he gazes out over Lincoln Center's plaza from a studio high up in the Juilliard School, his alma mater. "With opera, I could enter a dialogue with my contemporaries about what was happening in the world. If you did that and you write a string quartet, you might not get your ideas across so clearly."

Though it would be vastly reductive to call Glass an opera composer - his solo piano pieces yield his biggest sales numbers - he's turned to the theatre at key points in his career. He cites his revolutionary late-1960s period that followed studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Forming a self-titled, amplified septet comprising keyboards, vocalists and woodwind instruments, he performed for tiny audiences in draughty SoHo art galleries. Yet by 1976, his five-hour Einstein On The Beach played to sold-out audiences at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976 (it was revived in 2012 for a seven-city international tour).

"What was so striking looking back on it is how I came back to New York in 1968, started my own ensemble and, eight years later, I'm at the Met," he muses. "I was in the right place at the right time. But it wasn't just that. The time for change was well over. And the future of music was not where we thought it was going to be." Glass's early veneration of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris gave way to interdisciplinary collaborations with artists including Steve Reich, Lucinda Childs and Chuck Close, all of which fuelled a rebellion against the modernist orthodoxy that dominated so many concert halls. "It was like a forest fire that was ready to happen and someone struck the match."

For all its conceptual daring, Einstein On The Beach - a plotless opera about Albert Einstein - left the composer and co-creator Robert Wilson with a $90,000 debt after spending $900,000 to create the work. To make ends meet, Glass returned to his job as a taxi driver, in which he once escaped a violent mugging (during this period he also worked as a steelworker, plumber, dock labourer and furniture mover). It wasn't until the 1978 commission from the Netherlands Opera to write Satyagraha, his sumptuous meditation on the life of Gandhi, that he made enough money to support himself through his music.

Glass's business acumen seems to have developed in fits and starts. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1940s, his father Ben helped run a car repair shop and then opened a record store in a scruffy downtown neighbourhood. "The constant theme of the store was someone would give him money and he would give them a record," says Glass. "Art and commerce were connected. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with money. That's what we did. I was free of those invented complications that people have about art and commerce."

As a teenager, Glass spent his summers working as a classical music buyer in the shop, displaying an enthusiasm for modern music. He once ordered four sets of the complete Schoenberg string quartets, far exceeding local demand, and angered his father. ("Hey, kid, what are you doing?" his dad roared. "Are you trying to put me out of business?") It took seven years to sell them.

Having never held a full-time teaching post, a key piece of Glass's job security involves his closely guarded performance rights. To this day, his publishing company, Dunvagen Music Publishers, has final say over where and by whom his music is played. "If you wanted to hear it you had to hire us," says Glass, referring to the Philip Glass Ensemble. "Being the publisher, I realised there would be more income from performances than from print. I had to make a living, so that's what I did." (Dunvagen has recently loosened some restrictions on early scores.)

Glass's alertness to the marketplace turns up in other ways. When he signed a contract with Sony in 1982, he composed Glassworks, an effort to create a pop-focused, 'Walkman-suitable' album, with shorter, accessible pieces. More recently, he resisted distributing recordings from his Orange Mountain Music label over Spotify and other streaming services, citing their artist payment models. But having recently met with Silicon Valley executives, Glass has struck streaming deals.

And just as the young Philip was tasked with monitoring his father's record store for shoplifters, he became alert to advertisers using imitation Glass. "What I discovered is that, if I didn't write the music, somebody would steal it and write it for me," he says. "They would get the money and I would get nothing." Since the early 2000s, he's either composed or licensed music for American Express, Verizon and the Super Bowl, among other brands. "I've done commercials with zip guilt," admits Glass, who encourages young composers who apprentice in his Lower Manhattan studio to take a similar approach.

Glass's almost bewildering capacity to churn out new music at a rapid pace has polarised critics, with some complaining that he writes too much, too often, with too many of the same gestures. New York magazine critic Peter G Davis described Glass in 1995 as "a crafty entertainment packager with a canny understanding of this middlebrow audiences and how to cater to them." Glass doesn't care much for his critics. In his colourfully funny 2015 memoir, Words Without Music, he writes, "Luckily I have a wonderful gene - the 'I don't care what you think' gene. I have that big-time. I actually didn't care then, and to this day I still don't care."

"Life is a compromise," Glass tells me. "The question is, was I writing the music I wanted to write?" In 2012, the composer took the first of several trips to a remote village in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains to collaborate with indigenous musicians from the Wixarika, a native people. The result was The Concert Of The Sixth Sun, a folk-centered album passion project. "I was poking around in places where other people hadn't been poking around," he said with a chuckle. "These are people who have no experience with concert music at all. Their music is ceremonial, or it is something that is related to their belief systems. We were able to find a way to play together." Musicians are reportedly paid in bags of pesos, as wire transfers and other methods are not feasible.

Glass calls the lineage of African, Latin American and Asian music a "very important part of my training," dating back to 1965, when he was hired in Paris to transcribe a Ravi Shankar film score into Western notation. "Once that door was open, I was playing with [Gambian kora player] Foday Susa, didgeridoo player Mark Atkins or Wu Man, the pipa player." In nearly every non-Western venture, Glass found that hurdles weren't so much cultural as logistical. "Once you figure out how to tune the instruments, you already have learned a lot," he reveals. "You have to find a compromise tuning that works. Ravi Shankar did that when I was working as a very young man. He tuned his sitar down from F-sharp to F because we were working with French musicians."

Before Shankar, Boulanger or even Juilliard, a fifteen-year-old Glass went to the University of Chicago to study mathematics and philosophy. Despite somewhat mediocre grades (averaging a B- in his first year), the precocious student absorbed biographies of scientific explorers, the films of Jean Cocteau (which planted the seeds for his 1990s Cocteau-inspired theatrical trilogy) and the strains of Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk playing in south-side jazz clubs. It may not be a stretch to go from a driving Charlie Parker solo to propulsive scores like Floe from Glassworks or the Train section of Einstein On The Beach. Says Glass: "Jazz certainly revealed an emotional landscape which was not going to be heard in Boulez and Stockhausen."

What prompted Glass's interest in unfamiliar spiritual practices is more opaque. As a child in a secular Jewish household, he, his brother and sister attended Quaker schools and summer camps, which emphasised ideals of pacifism and tolerance (he sent his children from his first marriage to similar schools). After coming in contact with Tibetan refugees on a trip to India in 1966, Glass began to gravitate towards Buddhism. He has since studied with a Tibetan Buddhist lama, a Qigong teacher and Taoist healer. When one interviewer asked him about his religious beliefs, he remarked, "No particular culture seems to have a copyright on profound ideas about the world."

Since 1992 Glass has organised and hosted an annual Carnegie Hall benefit gala for the charity Tibet House. "Some people will play their hits at the concert and some won't," he observes. "With the Philip Glass Ensemble, we play the hits all the time. The last time we played Koyaanisqatsi in Amsterdam, five thousand people came on the first night. On the second night, six thousand people came. These were people, around twenty-five or thirty, hearing it for the first time." Glass says he was offered a teaching post several years ago, but is too committed to touring, with forty to fifty concerts annually.

Michael Riesman, the Philip Glass Ensemble's music director since 1976, and one of several veteran members, says that auditions for the ensemble place a particular emphasis on endurance. "You have to pace yourself," Riesman says of pieces like the four-hour Music In 12 Parts. "The trick is to use the least amount of energy that you need to. We use keyboards without touch sensitivity, so keys don't have to be pressed hard. The goal is to be efficient and relaxed. Of course, there's a mental strain. You need to be aware, relaxed, and know where you are in the pattern."

This year, the ensemble will present its first concerts without Glass in his familiar keyboard role. Glass is said to be a model of good health, but constant jet lag takes a greater toll. In addition to composing concert music and picking up prestigious awards - last year he was recognised with a National Medal Of Arts and a Glenn Gould Prize - he produces one or two film scores a year.

For audiences who may know nothing about contemporary classical music, Glass's fifty-odd soundtracks may go down as his most-heard works. From his first Hollywood effort, Paul Schrader's 1985 film Mishima, he has made a point of attending location visits, film shoots and visual edits, determined not to exist as a postproduction afterthought. He admits it hasn't always worked out. "In the old days we used to write in reels," he recalls. "There were six reels to a movie. After one or two reels, they'd say, 'this wasn't working' and I would get fired. And that was fine with me, because I didn't want to work with people who didn't want to work with me."

In the weeks after the US presidential election, the cable network Turner Classic Movies showed Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi during a spasm of counter-Trump programming. Seeing the dazzling visual poetry of 'life out of balance' can feel like one has discovered an early-1980s time capsule. Yet the film also seems modern. Images showing the effects of mankind's pillaging the planet are merged with Glass's whirling arpeggios and convulsive harmonic changes. In a sign of its cult appeal, in 2012 the score became the first piece of Glass's to be performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Glass's socially conscious theatre works are a particular point of pride for the composer, including the revised version of the Civil War-themed Appomattox, which Washington National Opera presented in 2015 with new material about the civil rights era. When Satyagraha (Sanskrit for 'truth-force') was revived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, the company plastered New York with posters that read: "Could an opera make us stand up for the truth?" Glass acknowledges that political art "can feel like preaching to the converted," but he also insists that the world needs Gandhi's ideas more than ever (the Egyptian language Akhnaten will debut at the Met in an upcoming season).

"Society is in the toilet and the artists are the ones who will start to find their way out," he says. "I've seen it before." Just as Glass has seen America's fortunes rise and fall, his own career has experienced downfalls, but none have stuck. "I have my own trajectory, which is based on my understanding of the language of music," he says. "My work isn't finished. But it's not going to resemble what some young people feel. The roots of it are going to be in me. It would be unseemly and unproductive if I were to suddenly become a different person. On the other hand, the language that I began uncovering for myself in the 1960s is still going on. My instinct is to follow what I know and where I think it's going."


MUSIC IN 12 PARTS - Composed between 1971 and '74, the longest and most ambitious piece for the Philip Glass Ensemble is a summation of the composer's early style and essential listening.

EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH - To get a full experience of the 1976 Philip Glass- Robert Wilson opera, go for the DVD of the 2012 Théâtre du Châtelet revival, released in October by Opus Arte. But as an aural experience, the Philip Glass Ensemble's 1993 recording will evoke those mesmerising images.

KRONOS QUARTET PERFORMS PHILIP GLASS - For Glass at his most intimate, the Kronos Quartet's survey of the Quartets No.2-5 is a must-own, and a revealing counterweight to his large-scale theatre pieces.

PHILIP ON FILM - This five-CD box includes scores to Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, plus his Dracula score performed by the Kronos Quartet, and extracts from The Thin Blue Line, Mishima, The Secret Agent and Anima Mundi.

VIOLIN CONCERTO NO.1 - Composed in 1987, Glass's first minimalist concerto had a bumpy inception after some particularly bad reviews. But Gidon Kremer ably captures the piece's sweep and energy.

ETUDES FOR PIANO VOL.1 - A long-term project recently finished, Glass says that his Etudes were an effort to give him music for his solo piano concerts and, more practically, to "enhance and challenge my playing."

"HEROES" / LOW SYMPHONIES - Glass has, he says, been a longtime admirer of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and this two-CD collection couples his heartfelt symphonic tributes, both written in the 1990s, to each artist.

GLASSWORKS - In 1982, Glass joined the CBS Masterworks label (now Sony Classical) and produced this satisfying collection of short, accessible 'starter' pieces, from the potent Floe to the lyricism of Facades.

NORTH STAR - Written for a documentary film about sculptor Mark Di Suvero, this is classic 1970s Philip Glass Ensemble, heavy on Farfisa and Hammond organs and spotlighting the ethereal voice of Joan La Barbara.

GLASS BOX - This 10-CD retrospective is an art object in itself, released in 2008 and spanning four decades of chamber music, symphonies, concertos, opera excerpts, film scores and music for dance.