audiotrack Phillip Glass

reviewed by Eric Weld

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

It’s late on a Sunday night and Philip Glass is tired.
It’s obvious from the way he digs at his eye sockets with thumb
and forefinger and pushes a hand through his crop of curly hair. He
lapses into an opaque gaze that freezes his eye movement and focuses
on nothing. For a moment, he is silent. Then his face comes alive and
in his conversation – or, more accurately, his lecture – Glass
is animated and exuberant again, filled with energy as he meanders
without transition from topic to topic, rarely staying on message.

On this night, Glass teamed with renowned Mandingo griot (a person
trained from childhood to memorize, perform and perpetuate the music
of his culture), Foday Musa Suso, for a concert of Euro-African
classical works under the title “The Screens,” a collection of
collaborations by Glass and Suso based on a play by the controversial
French writer Jean Genet. Only ten minutes earlier, Glass guided his
four-man ensemble toward a faded out conclusion of its encore piece at
the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. A second standing
ovation ensued in the audience and the musicians walked off stage to
cheers of “More, more.” Now, changed and waiting backstage for the
crew to strike set and pack for the ride back to New York,
Glass’ enthusiasm for talking music contradicts the fatigue set
in the circles under his eyes. He rubs his eyes again, then continues.

“It’s a most interesting time,” he says, helping himself to
backstage, post-concert fruit and cheese and crackers. “On the one
hand, it’s a horrible time to be alive. On the other hand,
it’s the very best time to be alive. On a social level,
it’s a complete disaster, of course. But the funny thing is,
there’s never been a time when an individual had more available
to him in terms of history, culture, a kind of global view of
humanity, civilization. From the point of view of the individual, the
opportunities of understanding transformation have never been

Labeled one of the four founders of compositional “minimalism” in the
1960s, Glass has since left behind the despised moniker by producing a
succession of monolithic harmonic constructions and elaborate
music-theater works. And while he has slowly come to be respected in
the stuffy circles of “legitimate” classical music, he continues to
contribute to what his critics would call popular art. Though his fame
has become international, Glass has had to consistently evolve in the
creation of his art and career strategy. In the process, he has
confounded some of his critics, won over others, and gave some of his
harshest detractors plenty to write about.

Never mind about them, Glass says of those who criticize him for his
choices to work across cultural gaps. “I’ve been taken to task
by different writers,” he says. “But I don’t pay much attention
to it. I don’t worry about it very much. I’ve learned that
the culture of writing about music and the culture of listening to
music aren’t the same. What Verdi used to say about his music:
he said, ‘No one likes it but the public.'”

The same could be said of much of Glass’ music. Despite some
bland reviews, the public swarmed to his concerts in the 1980s when
Glass gained cult popularity after his release of “Songs from Liquid
Days” and “Glassworks.” He appeared as a musical guest on NBC’s
“Saturday Night Live” in 1988 and has collaborated with a succession
of popular musicians, such as Paul Simon, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega
and Linda Ronstadt.

Perhaps more than any contemporary composer, Glass has arrived at a
stage in his career in which he can successfully cross back and forth
between these serious and mainstream realms. During the past 15 years,
that artistic latitude has resulted in his “Low Symphony,” an
orchestral work based on music by David Bowie and Brian Eno; and film
scores for Hollywood movies such as “Kundun,” a Martin Scorsese film
about the life of the Dalai Lama, and for “The Truman Show,” starring
Jim Carrey. At the same time, he has produced a resetting of libretta
to the Jean Cocteau film “La Belle et La Bete”; and created “Monsters
of Grace,” a massive multimedia theater event, among numerous other
classical works, including symphonies, string quartets and dances.

Though he knew since age 6 that he would be a musician, Glass toiled
for years in obscurity, performing his works for “a roomful of
people,” he says, audiences smaller than the ensemble on stage. During
those years, he drove a taxi and worked as a plumber. “It took 10 or
15 years for the audience to grow into anything big,” he recalls. “It
didn’t happen until about 1983. This was not an overnight
success. It was something that happened slowly and I was able to watch
it grow. As it grew, I learned to work with audiences in different

It wasn’t until “Einstein on the Beach,” first produced in 1976,
then “Koyaanisqatsi,” that he burst onto the international stage of
contemporary music and paved the way for his high-profile popular
collaborations on the 1986 album “Songs From Liquid Days.” Now at 64,
Glass is well-established as a popular cultural icon, if laughingly
lauded by parodies of him on television’s “Southpark” and “The

Philip Glass understands the advent of technology and its place in the
creation of art as well as anybody. His career has spanned an era in
which technology has established an essential foothold in art’s
position in society. He has necessarily (and readily) come to rely
increasingly on the advantages of modern devices. His approach to
modern technology and its place in the production and perpetuation of
art is somewhat contradictory. He’s well-known for his solo
piano works and performances with the mostly acoustic Philip Glass
Ensemble and says he immensely enjoys the purity of non-electronic
musical performance. But he is aware of the necessity of technology in
producing, recording and performing his works.

“I love it,” Glass said of technology. “It’s a very special
tool. That’s how music starts with me: I write it down and then
it leaves my house and goes to the studio. And then various things
happen to it. I have a very complete state-of-the-art studio in New
York. We have every effect and we use it. The whole presentation of
the work, apart from live performance, takes place in the studio.”

While Glass is quick to emphasize that technology – in the form of
electronic instrumentation, computerized recording devices and
performance-enhancing sound effects and mixers – has been integral
to the production, realization and presentation of his art, its value,
in his case, seems to be corraled in the practical side of creativity:
recording multiple tracks, simulating large orchestrations in live
performance and syncing soundtracks with lyrics. When it comes to
creating the music, traditional acoustical instruments often hold

“While I say I love [technology], I also have a whole arena of
acoustic music that I do,” he says. “Solo piano music, string
quartets, symphonies, the operas that I do are all acoustic and done
in the traditional way. One of my favorite things is the acoustic
piano concert. If I were just in that hall and I just had the piano,
that’s what I prefer to do. But when I want to take a film score
and I want to put it on the road, if I didn’t have the
technology, I couldn’t do it. Our live performances are very
technically enhanced.”

Glass is careful not to characterize electronic machinery as limiting
in the production of art. “There are conditions for electronic music,
there are conditions for acoustic music,” he says. “There are things
you have to do just to get through life. That doesn’t make them
bad. Everything’s limiting. I mean, putting on my clothes in the
morning is limiting. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put
on our clothes.”

And one of his more noted works, the soundtrack for the Godfrey Reggio
film “Koyaanisqatsi,” reflects the film’s cynicism of the
erosion by technology and modern society of some ancient cultures. But
as Glass points out, even that film, produced in 1983 as part of a
trilogy, ironically employs technology in its very production.

Its use of technology notwithstanding, the “Koyaanisqatsi” soundtrack
is typical of some of Glass’ work in its attempt to comment on
social mores and the modern human condition. As in that work, Glass is
aware in many of his pieces – especially the large-scale
works – of his ability to bring attention to concerns of humanity
present and past.

“I chose theater work for a number of reasons,” he says. “I found out
that, when I worked in the theater, I could address social issues and
bring them into the purview of the work; that I could connect my own
ideas with the world I live in and ventilate whatever thoughts or
questions I might have. I feel that, like many artists, I’m very
lucky, in that we do make a contribution to the world.”

His opera “portrait” trilogy, which consists of “Einstein on the
Beach,” “Satyagraha,” and “Akhnaten,” is an example of his tendency
for social commentary. Each of the operas represents a reflection on a
timeless aspect of humankind – science, politics and religion,
respectively – through its profile of three men in history who
revolutionized thoughts and events in their time: Einstein, Ghandi and
Ahknaten, personifications of science, politics and religion.

Among all the contradictions and ironies in Glass’ life and
work, his music itself, in its form and sonic shape, is perhaps the
most prominent. The scores of music in his vast library of operas,
dances, symphonies, chamber music, theater works and a list of popular
collaborations often consist of repeated phrases, particularly in his
early pieces, that weave among one another and are put through various
permutations. The repetitions are usually very simple in and of
themselves. But when combined in a mélange of orchestration and
layered instrumentation, Glass’ trademark repetitions become so
much more than the sum of their parts, an infinite collection of
serendipitous polyrhythms and harmonies that swim about in a wash of
notes and sounds all competing to contribute to the effect. His music
is contradictory. It’s simple in its construction but complex in
its presentation.

“My motivation for writing music is not necessarily to impress people
with my brilliant intellectual acheivements,” he says. “I
haven’t purposefully chosen an abstract language. My motivations
to write music are very much about engaging in this fantastic
transaction that happens between the composer and the performer and
the audience. I address that in a very serious way. I take my audience
very seriously. I write up to the audience.”

After 54 years of composing and performing his own brand of music, a
brand that always unmistakeably bears his signature, Glass has come to
be considered among the late-20th century’s most important
composers. He is certainly one of the busiest. His early critics were
quick to label his music as so much avant-garde minimalism, limited in
its harmonic theory and sure to be short-lived in its appeal. That was
more than 25 years and thousands of performances ago.

At the Calvin Theatre, Glass is wrapping up another 50-concert tour,
this one which took him and Suso all over the United States and
Europe. His road crew and tour managers are ready to go. He promises
to be back in Northampton next year for a solo piano concert, then
rubs his eyes again and yawns. For a moment, he looks exhausted, and
mumbles something about sleeping on the bus back to New York. He
mentions some of the projects to which he must soon give attention,
among them the completion of the third film in Reggio’s trilogy,
titled “Naqoyqatsi.” Glass takes one last sip of backstage soda, then
heads toward the stage door. Just before he heads out, his eyes light
up and he launches into another excited anecdote about his childhood,
his tour manager looking impatient. “I remembered the other day, I
began when I was 6. And I was talking about…”

His manager nods, escorts him out, still talking, and closes the
theater door.

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Eric Sean Weld is a freelance writer and musician in Northampton, Massachusetts.