Years from now, I will probably look back on this as my weekend of Philip Glass. Today I got to sit in on a discussion with him at Carnegie Mellon University, and tomorrow evening Elise and I will be attending a performance of Orphée, an opera of his that I’m not familiar with. Now, if I could only find time to watch Koyaanisqatsi...
The discussion was fascinating, and Glass was a lively conversationalist. Even though I have some issues with his music (more on that later), it was invaluable to spend an hour or so listening to him talk about himself and his music. Here are some highlights from the afternoon:
1. Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time. This isn’t something that Glass explicitly said, but it was tough to miss. Two stories that he told illustrate this: (1) He once gave a concert in New York City where only six people were in attendance, and one of them was his mother. Seven years later, his music was being played before a sold-out crowd at the Metropolitan Opera. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t because he or his music was particularly brilliant; it was because he was writing music at a time when there was a real need, almost a hunger, for new music. I think he’s absolutely right. I’m not saying that anybody could have been as successful as Glass was (or has been), but it helps to be writing new music at a time when people actually want to hear new music. (2) When he was studying with Nadia Boulanger (!) in Paris, he was introduced to a musician who needed help with a film score. This was Ravi Shankar, the legendary sitar player. But this was before he was legendary, before he had met the Beatles, before much of the western world had any idea what Indian music sounded like. I don’t to discount his considerable talent, but it’s obvious that Glass has had some pretty good luck, and while luck clearly isn’t everything, it also doesn’t hurt.
2. Philip Glass is an absolutely phenomenal musician. This may seem obvious, especially to those of you are stark raving Glass fans, but let me elaborate. He largely credits Nadia Boulanger (!) with teaching him how to “hear” music, and what this really means is that he got into the habit of writing his music directly to parts. In other words, when he wrote Music in 12 Parts, Einstein on the Beach, etc., he was never making a score. He simply wrote out the parts and handed them to musicians. In fact, if I remember correctly, he didn’t make any scores at all until about eight or nine years after he moved from Paris back to New York. I’ve never even considered writing music in this way, and just thinking about it turns my brain inside out. On the other hand, it makes sense that he would have a very different compositional method than I do, because...
3. Philip Glass is a dinosaur, in the best possible way. Glass admits that he’s not good with computers, and he still writes all of his music by hand with pencil and paper. He made a point of how important it is for him to have a good pencil sharpener, and he also told a story about how much of an issue it was when his favorite sheet music company went out of business. I, on the other hand, write all of my music on a computer, often skipping paper entirely. I’m not saying that there's a right or a wrong way of doing it; it’s just indicative of the time period that we’re living and writing in. For Glass, he’d rather write music by hand then spend the time to learn software, and I can’t say that I blame him. But for me, who grew up using computers, I can’t imagine going back to paper and pencil. To each their own.
4. Always say yes. Philip Glass has a policy of always saying yes when people want to work with him. This may seem risky, but it has worked wonderfully well for him. His list of collaborators is long and eclectic, including Aphex Twin, David Bowie, David Byrne, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, and of course, Ravi Shankar. All because, when given the opportunity to work with them, he said yes. And this (apparently) includes when people ask to arrange his music. In his own words, “It didn’t hurt Bach, so it can’t hurt you.” Wise words.
5. And yet, I wish I liked his music better than I do. I think I’m finally starting to make peace with Philip Glass’s music, and it’s this: I think he writes brilliant film music, particularly the Qatsi trilogy, but also Mishima and his collaborations with Errol Morris. His concert music, however, never quite works for me. I used to say that his music lacked structure, but after listening to a performance of his String Quartet No. 5, I don’t think that’s the issue. The best I can come up with is that he has developed a fairly specific musical style, and it’s one that I have a difficult time relating to. (Oddly enough, I feel that Steve Reich and John Adams, two composers he’s often compared to, have done the same thing, albeit in their own ways.) He’s a gifted, learned musician, and he clearly is intentional about what he’s doing, but it’s something that I tend to find frustrating. Still, if nothing else, listening to him speak has motivated me to go back and revisit some of his music, to give it another chance. And that, I think, is all a composer could really ask for.
Now, for Orphée...
Chris Massa is a US-born musician based in Durham, England. You are on his site right now.