The Guardian OCTOBER 13, 2007 - by Nicholas Wroe


Once confined to art galleries, Philip Glass's minimalism now attracts huge, mainstream audiences. Now seventy, he celebrates a bright future for serious music.

The idea that the musical avant garde irrevocably separated itself from the general listening public some time in the early years of the last century is long established and persuasive. Persuasive that is, until you apply it to the career of Philip Glass. In the early part of his career in the 1960s and '70s, Glass's music was so esoteric that it was rarely played in music venues - art galleries took him in - and he earned virtually no money. Today, his work if not ubiquitous - although sometimes his astonishing fecundity can give that impression - has very few doors closed to it. Last week his new opera, Appomatox, about the American civil war, was premiered in San Francisco. Such was the demand that an extra performance has been added to the run. A few weeks before that his music reached an even larger audience when it featured in the soundtrack of the Catherine Zeta-Jones Hollywood romantic comedy No Reservations.

It is easy to assume that Glass must have somehow gone soft in making his music seemingly appeal to allcomers. But his new work, whatever the intended audience, is recognisably part of the same project he embarked on half a century ago. The hypnotically pulsing rhythms and endless repetitions in which the tiniest variations acquire maximum impact - branded "minimalism", to Glass's increasing irritation - remain defiantly intact. Even the corny musician's jokes that attached themselves from the beginning - "Knock-knock. Who's there? Philip Glass. Philip Glass. Philip Glass. Philip Glass..." - still work as well, or as badly, as they ever did.

"When I was a young boy I worked in my father's store where he sold records," says Glass by way of explanation. "I listened to a lot of music and liked nearly all of it. People forgot to tell me that some stuff was better than others." He was exposed to Mozart and Schubert, but also to Hindemith and Bartok. There was jazz and popular dance music and later folk and rock. "So when I started playing the flute and classical music, you could tell that I also liked popular music. I never saw it as slumming."

This eclectic approach has been reflected throughout his career in a string of collaborations with musicians ranging from the classical world to the more thoughtful end of pop - David Byrne, David Bowie, Brian Eno - as well as novelists - Doris Lessing and JM Coetzee - poets, theatre directors, choreographers, and visual artists. "I always liked poetry and dance, film and different types of music," he explains, "but I couldn't do too many of them, so working with these people was a way of bringing me closer to their work."

Glass was seventy earlier this year and the long celebration comes to the UK next week with him in performance at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and then at a festival at the Barbican. Glassworks includes his song cycle based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, The Book Of Longing, a concert with Patti Smith celebrating former collaborator Allen Ginsberg, and a rare performance of his epic Music In 12 Parts, the early-'70s four-hour work that established his reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation.

"I'm not a great worshipper of the past," he says. "And even this year I've been too busy to look back, although people seem to want me to. But I do like to play the old music. It has a lot of energy and it keeps the band fresh. When we started playing Music In 12 Parts in 1971 we found it difficult. The good thing is we can actually play it better now, but we still have to work at it."

Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937 and was quickly identified as something of a musical and academic prodigy. He studied flute at the prestigious Peabody Institute in the city before moving, aged only fifteen, to read maths and philosophy in an accelerated programme at the University of Chicago, where he also came into contact with the work of contemporary American composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. He then got on the composition course at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he met fellow minimalist Steve Reich, before moving to Paris to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

Glass says it is widely assumed he "rejected" the leading composers of the time - Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis - but that was not quite the case. "That generation wanted disciples and as we didn't join up it was taken to mean that we hated the music, which wasn't true. We'd studied them at Juilliard and knew their music. How on earth can you reject Berio? Those early works of Stockhausen are still beautiful. But there was just no point in attempting to do their music better than they did and so we started somewhere else."

More important influences were the Parisian theatre, which included new works by Beckett; films from Jean-Luc Godard; and, most strikingly, encountering Indian musician Ravi Shankar when Glass was asked to transcribe his music for western musicians. Shankar's structured approach to rhythm and repetition fed into Glass's own music and led him to explore wider non-western musical traditions. And Glass was with Shankar in India in 1967 when he was working with The Beatles - "Although Ravi and George Harrison were in the Taj Mahal hotel and I was two blocks away in the Salvation Army hostel. But that was fine. I never made a dime before I was forty and never really expected to."

Glass returned to New York the same year and found inspiration from people "who didn't quite fit in. Remember Moondog? He was this blind street musician" who Glass later invited to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. He was "a fantastic character and musically very interesting. He'd sit outside Birdland and duet with the jazz players inside. They didn't know he was there, but he was playing with them anyway. And I got to know John Cage. He wasn't mad about my music and always said there are too many notes and it's too busy. But he was very friendly and kind to me and I did admire him."

Glass formed an ensemble and performed in the art galleries springing up in the emergent downtown scene. "I had no problem getting my work performed, but it didn't bring in any money. New York was a much easier place to live then. My first loft in SoHo cost me thirty dollars a month. Any sort of job will cover that." Glass loaded trucks, drove cabs and took plumbing jobs. There is a famous story of him being sent to an apartment to install a dishwasher. The customer was the art critic Robert Hughes, who was aware of Glass's work and was incredulous at his situation. "But it was a more benign environment, artistically and economically. The culture was a bit more open. For my first record we borrowed John Lennon's recording truck. He probably only vaguely knew who we were but we parked up, ran a few cables, recorded all night and gave it back to him. Those things seemed possible then."

But Glass is wary of looking back on a golden age. "SoHo is now a shopping centre. And so is Paris. You wouldn't go to Paris to learn anything about music or movies in the way I did. You'd go there to shop. But if you stand at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York even today, you will see many young people coming in every hour. They're going to be dancers or songwriters or artists. They can't afford to go to SoHo like we did. But back then SoHo was a working neighbourhood, very cheap and not that desirable. And there's always somewhere like that."

In New York, Glass was a regular at rock venue Fillmore East where he was struck by the possibilities of amplification. "I got onto a sound engineer and began building equipment for my own ensemble and while we weren't a rock band, we looked like one because there were synthesizers and saxophones. And a lot of the same people were interested in my music." He says it was no coincidence that when he first played in London in the early '70s he was put on at rock venues like the Roundhouse. "There was this whole mish-mash of art, serious music and rock music. That's when I first met people like Brian [Eno] and David [Bowie] who were both from art schools. When I first met David he spoke as if he was an artist who did some music. So that integration between worlds was always there and then I discovered that by working with different people the music would come out different. I needed something different for Leonard Cohen than I did for Allen Ginsberg and I learned that collaboration was the engine of change in my music."

He says the creation of Music In 12 Parts - which is being re-released on iTunes, one part per month throughout his seventieth year - between 1971 and '74 was only a significant breakthrough in hindsight. "The first concert of the complete work was in a three-hundred-seat house which we only just filled. But by 1976 I was doing Einstein On The Beach at the Met and by then things were really moving on." Glass and director Robert Wilson's five-hour, no-interval meditation on Einstein, which allowed for the audience to drift in and out of the performances, was not intentionally the assault on the operatic form or the modern opera house it was subsequently cast as. "We were just trying to get this piece done which needed a proscenium stage and an orchestra pit and a fly. The only place it would fit was an opera house, but oddly enough Bob and I took a while to figure that out. But then people said, 'this is an opera', so we said, 'why not?'." Since then Glass has written Satyagraha, about Gandhi, which recently enjoyed an acclaimed revival at ENO, and Akhnaten, about the Egyptian pharaoh, to complete what has become known as The Portrait Trilogy

There have been another seventeen operas, eight symphonies, concertos, string quartets, piano and organ works as well as the film scores and stage pieces. But he brushes off his productivity and points out that it is a wonderful time to be composing. "As far as I can see serious music is in terrific shape. The borders in my time were non-western music, technology and experimentation. Each one of those was dangerous and now they are right in the mainstream.

"When you ask someone what they're writing now they hardly know how to describe it. That's a great thing. And it's not about style or schools, and things like race, gender, age or education matter much less. It's talent that counts and there is a lot of it about. When we were young my generation were interested in changing the direction of music. We were faced by these fantastic composers and what a bunch of snotty kids we must have been to even attempt it. But much to our surprise, we seem to have done it."