Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 21, 1999
Head: Interview with Composer Philip Glass
TERRY GROSS, HOST: In Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.
We're listening to music by Philip Glass, one of the founders of what's become known as minimalist music. He's written film scores and operas. You can hear echoes of his music in pop and even TV commercials.
On today's FRESH AIR, we hear Philip Glass interview on stage by his second cousin Ira Glass, the host of public radio's hit show, This American Life.
Philip and Ira Glass coming up on FRESH AIR
MUSIC OF PHILIP GLASS
GROSS: First the news.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When we heard that Philip Glass, the composer, and Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program, This American Life, were going to share the stage we wanted to hear the tape. Today we have the pleasure of playing it for you.
It's no coincidence that Ira and Philip have the same last name. They're second cousins. But they didn't know each other well when the Field Museum in Chicago asked Ira to interview Philip on Stage.
Philip Glass in one of the fathers of minimalist music although I think he hates the term. He started off writing for his ensemble and went on to write operas, dances and film scores including the music for "Condum," "Qwiana Odyssey," (ph), "The Thin Blue Line," and the "Truman Show."
Ira Glass hosts and produces the Peabody Award wining This American Life, from WBEZ in Chicago. It's a show so important to its listeners, many wouldn't dream of being away from a radio during the broadcast.
Before we hear the Glasses, let's hear the opening of Philip Glasses new "Dracula," featuring his new score for the 1931 film staring Bela Lugosi.
ORCHESTRAL MUSICAL SELECTION OF PHILIP GLASS COMPOSITION, FROM CD "DRACULA"
GROSS: Music from the Philip Glass CD "Dracula."
And now from the Field Museum in Chicago, Philip Glass and Ira Glass.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS: I should say before we start that we barely know each other.
PHILIP GLASS: But we knew our relatives.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
We are first cousins once removed, which means you are my dad's first cousin.
PHILIP GLASS: That's right.
IRA GLASS: And the conversation that we had before this show was just long enough to play some Jewish geography.
To relieve you all of the burden of hearing it. And our families both lived in Baltimore. By the time I was old enough to sort of be awake to anything, you had moved, first to Chicago and then here...
PHILIP GLASS: I was here in Chicago for about five years.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: Fifty-two -- '52 to '57.
IRA GLASS: And that was before I was born.
By the time I was sort of awake enough to know that you existed, you were in New York and then in Paris.
PHILIP GLASS: Yes.
IRA GLASS: And then back in New York.
Our topic -- the topic that we have been given by the museum is "Creativity and New Directions." And I would like to start by talking about your musical development, your own musical development because at the beginning it was very traditional. And I called up my dad and my uncle Ernie (ph) this weekend to ask if they had any special insight into your very early musical career.
PHILIP GLASS: What did they say?
IRA GLASS: They both produced exactly the same memory over the phone from opposite sides of the country. And it was you in a band uniform.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, I was a flutist, so I taught people to play the -- to play these little metal flutes.
IRA GLASS: And what was your repertoire?
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, I don't remember. It was just tunes that the bands played. It was just whatever was around. And then we had a -- we had to have someone to play the Glockenspiel so after I taught everyone to play the Sliceland Ice (ph), I was the leader and I played the Glockenspiel and then we had the drummers. So, that was our way of going to the games.
And then after that I began playing in the school orchestra. And you know, this was actually a very important -- I realize it in retrospect, because I played in the pit orchestra. In the schools in those days, they did little operettas and things of that kind, Gilbert and Sullivan, or whatever it might have been. That was the kind of fare that -- but I was playing in the orchestra. And I am convinced that my first contact with theater music was that was how -- and you know would play through these pieces and I began to understand how themes worked, and how intermissions worked and...
IRA GLASS: How the music would interweave with the (OFF MIKE)...
PHILIP GLASS: How the singers worked with the players and I did that from a very, very early age. And then years later when I was writing for opera orchestras I had a physical memory of being in the orchestra pit. And of course I was one of the two or three flutists in the orchestra. And just seeing the music from that, from being down there.
IRA GLASS: Yeah.
Your father owned a record store. First off, I've heard that you actually worked in the store sometime...
PHILIP GLASS: I worked there from the age of 12.
IRA GLASS: Really.
PHILIP GLASS: I worked there until I was in my '20s.
IRA GLASS: And do you remember what music was playing and what music was...
PHILIP GLASS: Well, all kinds of music. In those days you could -- these were the old days of 78s and no one worried about all the (OFF MIKE) scratching anyway so you could play anything.
So, we played music all the time.
I eventually became -- by 15 I became the classical record buyer for the store and I learned a lot about it because I was the one that ordered the records because my father, Ben Glass -- that would have been your great uncle -- he, he was a self taught -- he knew a lot about music, but he really learned it all by himself. He didn't have a music education background.
IRA GLASS: But he played you songs and composers and...
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, yeah.
IRA GLASS: .... said listen to this part, listen to this part.
PHILIP GLASS: You know what was interesting Art was that we had a very interesting collection of records at home. His (OFF MIKE) is interesting. He began actually -- this is how it began. He began as a auto mechanic. And then a certain -- people started putting radios into cars. And so he began fixing the radios just the same way he fixed the cars, he learned how to fix radios. And then he got interested in radios and got rid of the cars and just had a radio shop.
Then someone told him that he should sell some records in the radio shop and gradually over 10 or 15 years the part of -- the record part because bigger and bigger and bigger and at the end of his life, a tiny bench at the back of the store, and he used to fix radios there.
So, he came to music that way. And what he had a home, and he didn't know much about music, but he would buy these records and he would take them home. The ones that he couldn't sell, he would take home because he wanted to listen to them to see what was wrong with them.
You know he said well, what this means (ph), I could figure out what was wrong with it, then he would know what the other -- so like Shostakovich (ph) string quartets.
We had a lot of modern -- music that was modern for that time.
IRA GLASS: And why was Shostakovich not selling in Baltimore?
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, we're talking about the 1940s.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: When -- we're talking about pieces that were new at that time, and the idea of classical music was really the European 19th -- romantic tradition. So, anything that was modern at all was old (ph) time.
So, we had -- what we ended up at home with was a collection of very esoteric. And we would listen to this and what happened is that, the more he listened to this music, the more he liked it.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: And he ended up liking all this strange music that no one else listened to. And then he became an advocate for this music and the people -- I witnessed this many, many times -- people would come into the store and he would try to sell them all this new music that -- he would say I'll bet you've never heard this guy Britten. Now this guy Benjamin Britten is a really terrific composer and he would practicably give these -- push these records on people...
.... and he had any number of people in Baltimore whose music -- whose musical taste was formed by this kind of eccentric -- I can remember this -- these are the days when a record store, it was very different from -- this was before you had the Sam Goody's record stores.
IRA GLASS: Yes, kind and large and impersonal.
PHILIP GLASS: This was a really mom and pop record store. You had -- it wasn't very big. This whole stage was probably as big as the whole store.
IRA GLASS: You must have thought at some point about what your father would think of your music.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, I -- he died of a car crash -- an automobile accident I should say in the '70s. But he did live long enough to have -- I actually saw my records in his store.
IRA GLASS: So, what did he think of it? What did he say about it?
PHILIP GLASS: I don't know. I didn't -- I never, you know, a funny thing but I never asked him.
It's a funny -- you know fathers and sons have all kinds of things that they say or don't say. And I don't know, that was one of the things that we never talked about.
But I was in the store and I saw that -- and I looked in the modern music rack and it was there.
And so -- but you know, one of the reasons partly is that a lot of my orientation to music and my feeling about the way music functions in the world has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up that way.
IRA GLASS: Hearing the music often...
PHILIP GLASS: Well, it's not just hearing the music. I saw how music interacted with people. You know people would come in with a very simple -- people came in and they'd listen to music, and they'd learn by listening. And they -- they explored things they didn't know. And it -- and I witnessed this trans -- I will have to tell you a really interesting story.
Did I ever -- I should tell you what my very first job in the store was. This was a really interesting job. You see in those days, those days of 78s and every record store had what was called -- you had a -- you had an allowance, a return privilege it what it was called. That is actually what it was, it was a return privilege for broken records.
IRA GLASS: Wait, if you would take the record home and break it...
PHILIP GLASS: No, no, no, no. No it didn't work that way Ira.
No, if you were -- if you had the store and some records arrived and they were broken...
IRA GLASS: Oh, I understand.
PHILIP GLASS: So, the merchant could return the records. It was called the return privilege. And it was a strict -- it was something like -- the way they figured it out they made it something like 5 percent of the records could be returned.
IRA GLASS: Right.
PHILIP GLASS: Now what happened was that you didn't actually break 5 percent of the records, but you could return 5 percent of the records. So, what you had to do if you wanted to return records and get your money back, you had to break them.
That's cute, huh?
IRA GLASS: So, that was your job?
PHILIP GLASS: My first job...
.... my brother and I worked on the weekends. We went down to the store and we were sent to the basement and we jumped on records.
We were -- and we...
IRA GLASS: Good preparation for what was to come.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, that's a kind way of putting it.
IRA GLASS: Well, no, no.
PHILIP GLASS: So, I gradually worked my way up...
IRA GLASS: And classical music...
PHILIP GLASS: It didn't matter. It didn't matter what you broke.
IRA GLASS: Any...
PHILIP GLASS: They counted it by the label.
IRA GLASS: Right.
PHILIP GLASS: And you did it by the -- you did it by the companies so that it would be -- and there would be companies like OK Records, or Blue Note Records, or RCA Records. They all a return privilege. And the only thing is that all the RCA records had to be in their box, and all the broken OK Records had to be in their box and all the broken Blue Bird Records had to be in their box. You couldn't mix boxes.
But they didn't really care what was on the record. They just had to be broken.
Any way, so I -- that as my first pay -- well, I wasn't actually paid -- but that was my first professional job in the music world.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: We're listening to composer Philip Glass, interviewed by Ira Glass, the host of public radio's This American Life. We will hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Back to Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, interviewing his cousin composer Philip Glass on stage at Chicago's Field Museum.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS: And in 1954 you moved to Paris and you studied with Nadia Golenchea (ph). Could I ask you to talk about what she was like and what you learned from her?
PHILIP GLASS: Well, she was a -- you know I don't like to talk -- are there any (OFF MIKE) students here in the room? I always get into trouble when I talk about it because actually she wasn't a very nice person. She was a wonderful teacher. She was probably one of the two or three wonderful teachers I've had.
I consider Ravi Shankar to have been a wonderful teacher, and I still consider myself a student of his in a way. And we've done records since the days when I worked with him, and about the same time I was working with Golenchea (ph).
IRA GLASS: But Golenchea, (ph)...
PHILIP GLASS: What?
IRA GLASS: ... but Golenchea (ph), what was she like?
What was the...
PHILIP GLASS: Well, she was -- she was -- she was extremely difficult. For example if you -- if you had to the door. I studied -- she was on the faculty of (OFF MIKE) but actually you took lessons at her home. I had three or four lessons a week, one on different subjects. And she have me enough work.
By the way, I went there after I finished my work at Julliard and I was 26 or so when I went to Paris. That made me one of her older students. She really had younger people. So I went to Paris to study with who was the great master of music technique, or counter-point, or harmony, of analysis. And she was extremely -- how can you say -- demanding from the first moment you walked in.
For example if you arrived at the door of the apartment, if you were as much as a minute late, it was better just to go home.
Because if you came in late, you were -- you got such an abuse. You were criticized on every level of your being and character and...
.... and how could -- what kind of person are you? And what kind of -- who, you mean coming to -- just to -- but basically, the metro was slow that day, if you got off at the wrong stop, you just went home.
IRA GLASS: And there was something that the students called black Thursday.
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, yeah. That was the black Thursday class. That was when she put -- well we were convinced -- well, I had a private lesson for counterpoint and harmony and I had -- and it was a general lesson of analysis that all the students went to, maybe 30 or 40 people. It was not a very large living room, but she taught it. And then there was the black Thursday class. And we were convinced that she put together her -- eight of her students. She took the four best ones and the four worst ones, and put them together.
IRA GLASS: But you couldn't tell which you where?
PHILIP GLASS: But you couldn't tell which was which.
By the time she got done with us, we were just -- those lessons were devastating. They would go -- those classes would go on for three or four hours. And they'd begin at about 9:00 and went to about 1:00.
IRA GLASS: Describe a typical exercise.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, I'll give you one. There were some very funny. This is one that I was very fond of because it was so -- it was so sinister.
You walked into the class and into the room, and we were all there for some time for sure, and on the piano would be a line of music written in tenor clef which is not a common clef, but you're supposed to know it. So, first of all there are seven clef, probably most of know two if know any -- you may know three clef, but you're supposed to know clef and the first thing you do with here, is you learned all seven.
And she said, Danielle, before we begin the lesson today, would you just play the harmony that goes with this melody. And Danielle would play the first chord and she would say, oh, my God, how can you play that chord?
And she would say, OK, Paul you play it. And so she went through the room until we got the first chord right, and then we did lithe second chord, the third, the fourth and fifth. And finally, three or four hours later, she had beat us into completely this four part harmony exactly the way it was supposed to be. And then she said, well you know, she said my dear children. She said I really didn't expect to spend the day like this because in fact I thought you would know this and she'd behind the music rack she pulled out -- it was the second movement of Beethoven's own piano sonata and basically she merely expected us to replicate exactly the voice (ph) leading that Beethoven had done.
IRA GLASS: From one of the melodies...
PHILIP GLASS: I said (ph) well, of course if you knew the piece it would have been easy.
But she picked -- she picked something that no one knew. And then and the fact that she had done it -- actually it was kind of a miracle that we had done it at all. She succeeded -- let's put it a different way. She succeeded in eliciting from us the exact voice leading (ph) of the original. It took four hours.
IRA GLASS: Do you think that there's a pedagogical efficiency to terror?
PHILIP GLASS: You know, I'll tell you -- I don't know why she was like that, but she was. But I'd finally, after I had been there about two years, I finally figured out why I was there. It took me so long to -- and we were having a lesson and I had come in with my harmonics (ph) and we came to a place in the music and she said it's wrong here. And I said, Madam Golenchea, it's correct.
And she said, no it's wrong. And I said, but -- and we took out the -- I cited the rules of voice leading (ph) and said all these things are correct and there's nothing wrong with this. And she said, yes, but if Mozart had done it he would have done it like this. And she played the correct version which was that perhaps the soprano was in the -- the third was in the soprano instead of the root of the chord -- whatever, I had done I had done it wrong.
And she said but Mozart would have -- and then I said -- and I looked at her and said, but the rules are right. She said, yes, but it's still wrong.
And I, and I was astounded -- it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching. And it was very interesting. I realized that she was teaching the relationship between technique and style. And the most -- and without any doubt -- then she succeeded. And I realized that hate she was telling me then was that the style of Mozart is a special case of technique, that the technique was right, but what made it sound like Mozart was the choices, the predilections that he had to solve the problem in a particular way.
IRA GLASS: In a different way than the rules would have you solve it.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, no. He was in the rules too. He followed the rules as well, but he -- and she pointed out to me that whenever Mozart was in that situation he resolved the chord in this way. And even the rules said it was possible to do it the other way, he -- his particular -- for example now let's put the question another way. If you listened to say let's say a measure of Rachmaninoff and a measure of Bach. And you know which is which without -- you know immediately.
And the question is why do you know that? And the answer is because they both are following basically the same rules of harmonic -- voice leading for the -- but what happens is that you have in your -- in the course of your listening, you have taught yourself, you recognize that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem a certain way. You may not say that to yourself, but your ear will tell you that.
And that Bach will do it in his say. And you say, oh that sounds like Bach or that sounds like Rachmaninoff, or that sounds like Stravinsky. And what you're hearing is -- let's put it this way. You're hearing the predilection of the composer to resolve the technical problems in a highly personal way.
So, in other words, now let's...
IRA GLASS: From that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way of solving it?
PHILIP GLASS: Well, this is the point. The point is and this is the other thing which she didn't say in words that day, but which I understood totally, was that in order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have the technique to begin with. In other words when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique. You have to have a place to make the choices from.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: If you don't, if you don't have a basis on which to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all. You will have a, you will have a series of accidents.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: We are listening to composer Philip Glass interviewed by his cousin Ira Glass, the host of public radio's This American Life. Their talk was recorded September 7th at Chicago's Field Museum in conjunction with their exhibit Sounds from the Vault. We will hear more in the second half of the show.
(END OF AUDIO CLIP)
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Working with Ravi Shankar. We hear more of Philip Glass's on stage interview with his cousin Ira Glass, the host of This American Life.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're bringing you a unique event,Ira Glass interviewing his cousin Philip Glass on stage at Chicago's Field Museum. Ira Glass is the host of public radio's Peabody Award wining program This American Life.
Philip Glass is a world renown composer, one of the originators of minimalist music.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS: Talk about your first collaboration with Ravi Shankar because that's one of the first times when your music took new direction.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, that was another -- it seemed to me, at that point, it was at the same time I was doing (OFF MIKE)...
IRA GLASS: And you were hired to...
PHILIP GLASS: I was hired to notate. He was hired to write music for a film score and I was hired to be the translator and the notater on the music. And eventually the conductor.
IRA GLASS: Because they had western musicians who were supposed to do the...
PHILIP GLASS: We had a -- were in a studio the Champs Elysees some where and there were a little orchestra of about 16 French musicians and they were waiting for their music.
IRA GLASS: And they were supposed to play this Indian music, but they needed somebody to write it down for them.
PHILIP GLASS: Exactly. I had to notate the music for them. And of course this -- this was the second terrifying experience. The first terrifying experience was being being with Nadia Golenchea (ph). The second terrifying experience was being with Ravi Shankar.
And these were happening at the same time by the way, because I was in Paris with Golenchea and I was also working with Ravi so I was between the two of these musicians (ph) and they scared me to death. I had met Ravi. I had no idea what Indian music sounded like. I -- don't forget this was 1963, 1964. By this time I was a -- I was a master's degree graduate from Julliard and I had been studying with Golenchea already for a year.
I was not -- I mean I thought I knew -- I thought I knew a little bit about music. And something, and listened to this music and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. And so I went to see Ravi and said Mr. Shankar I'm going to be notating music. Could we start -- and he said -- and the session was like in three or four days, and I said I'm a little worried, could you start showing me how this music works.
And he said, oh, yes, yes, we'll start doing that. And be begin, and then we begin talking about music and a lot of other things. And he completely forget and we never got around to notating it. And then I came the next day and I said, I'd like to start writing the music that we're going to be recording and he said, yes, yes, we will do that later. Let's have some tea first and then we can -- and basically what he wanted to do was talk about modern music. And he was asking me to explain to him how Stockhasen (ph) worked and he wanted to know who John Cage was and we were -- and I was getting into these kind of impromptu discussions about contemporary music. Meanwhile, I was trying to write this music down.
Finally, the say of the session, the first session we hadn't written a note of this music. And I knew the musicians were going to be there when we got there. So, I said we have to start doing this work and I mean -- but what I didn't realize -- I discovered this years later, that when Ravi was working in for example Bombay on Medrossi's (ph) recording, this is exactly what he did. He would walk into the studio. The musicians would be sitting there, and he hadn't written a note of music and they would wait for him, and he would just give it to them.
So, in fact he didn't understand what my problem that I had to have this music written down, but I didn't know how to write it.
IRA GLASS: What were some of the problems that found? And what were some of the things that you...
PHILIP GLASS: Well, the biggest problem was how to organize the music. The pages weren't that hard to do. Because in fact he took the raga (ph) that was easy for us to play on (ph). But you know, but getting the right rhythmic feeling in the music, had to do with where in Western music, you would say where the bar lines goes, where the strong beats and weak beats, where the rhythmic structure, how that was -- how that developed in the music.
IRA GLASS: When I picture a piece of music, it's where each measure begins.
PHILIP GLASS: Basically.
IRA GLASS: Yeah.
PHILIP GLASS: Of course this music wasn't written that way. It wasn't written with measures. And when we finally began, we got to the studio that morning, and I said, oh, thank God we're there two hours early. And then we spent two hours tuning -- the moor (ph) which I ended up playing, and he spends two hours teaching me how to be the accompanist which is fine. And then finally the session started, and he began, and so then everybody was sitting ready for the music and Ravi -- then they projected the film. He looked at the picture and he began playing the sitar and I had to write down what he was playing.
Well, the difficulty was writing it down in the -- in a notation that would reflect the rhythmic feeling that he was playing. And it took -- you know to be truthful we solved the problem very, relatively quick. It was three or four hours that I figured out that there were new bar lines. That took me an hour at least to figure out -- to get rid of the bar lines.
IRA GLASS: So, there are no distinct measures?
PHILIP GLASS: There weren't any measures, so I got rid of them entirely.
IRA GLASS: This is an entire string of...
PHILIP GLASS: There were a string of notes. However, I grouped them and I bracketed them by subgroups of twos and threes and fours, and then I discovered with -- he never explained this to me -- that there was a cycle of beats that kept recurring and that every time I came to the end of the cycle the whole thing began again. And then after I realized that, that the cycles would be divided into four, four, four, four, or sometimes five, five, two, two, two, or sometimes three, three, four, three. All this would add up to sixteen.
So, by the afternoon, I realized that the trick of notation was that every line would add up to sixteen, and that what I had to do was make sure that I organized the groups of notes in such a way that the accents came in the right places.
IRA GLASS: And then what did you carry from that into your own compositions?
PHILIP GLASS: Well, what I was interested -- was this, what was interesting was that I had, the same day that I was doing that and his
Telater Alarocka (ph) kept saying to me -- I kept making a mess and we would -- I would write something down and we would play it and it didn't sound right. And I would write it again and it didn't sound right.
It was a trial and error. And Alarocka (ph) kept saying all the notes are the same, all the notes are equal. But he kept saying -- I had not idea what he really meant.
And then finally I realized that in fact it wasn't a question of taking a cycle and dividing it up. It was a question of adding it up. So, it was a question of adding instead of dividing. In other words the cycle consisted of a unit that was added on to each to other. And that instead of taking, for example taking -- I use this example -- in sort of making a loaf of bread -- slicing a loaf bread by taking half, then quarters,then eighths and so forth. Why, you make a loaf of bread by taking a slice and then adding another slice, and another slice, and other slice, and at the end you would have the whole loaf. It's a very different way of slicing bread.
IRA GLASS: When you go get...
PHILIP GLASS: Did you get that?
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: So, but the point was that -- that the point was this, that it was a different way of organizing rhythm. And I saw that within a few days of working with Ravi. I understood something which was -- I found completely astonishing, is that music could be organized in a completely different than what I had thought. And that was -- and in fact then I began listening to other music, and I realized that the tradition of western classical music or popular music for that matter, was only one description, one way of describing the way music can be organized and from that moment on I got interested in music from other parts of the world.
IRA GLASS: Looking at your career from the outside, one of the things that is striking is the number of different collaborators you have worked with. And I wonder if part of the reason why you do that is because is because you had this Seminole experience of confronting somebody's else's work...
PHILIP GLASS: That's exactly, that's exactly -- what happens when you find your place, yourself in a place of total ignorance of that kind and that's the place where you begin again. You can begin learning again.
You know the difficulty with any -- with not just artists or musicians -- but with anybody in ordinary part of life, walk of life, the difficulty we have is how we continue to learn. I mean I think everybody has this problem, because if you get what we all our training and education certain and we spend the rest of our life changing gears in the same way. We're driving that same car. The car can be a Model T Ford and you drive it all your life. You never learn how to drive anything else.
And it's with great effort that you learn that you learn to change. And the biggest -- this is particularly true of composers. They pick up a style or a way or working a certain way but the real issue I've always said to younger composers, it's not how do you find your voice but how to get rid of it. Getting the voice isn't hard; it's getting rid of the damn thing.
Because once you've got the voice, then you're kind of stuck with it.
IRA GLASS: You said to Terry Gross in fact -- she's asked you, do you ever try to compose so it doesn't sound like Philip Glass...
PHILIP GLASS: I do it all the time. And I fail all bathe time.
I was ready -- I think that -- I had a wonderful experience when I did my first record for CBS Records, and I did a piece called opening, and it was for a piano and I sent -- we finished this record and I sent it up to the master works -- at that time it was still master works, and they called up and they said well, would they -- and they didn't want to start -- and I started the record with a piano piece, and then the ensemble begins playing and they said we can't put out a record like this because no one will know it's you.
And that was actually the point. I was trying to -- I learned that the only hope of shaking free of your description of music was to place yourself in such an untenable position that you had to figure out something new. That happened with Ravi Shankar in 1964. And I repeated that experience -- I do it whenever I can.
And that means constantly finding new people to work with. The other thing is that the thing is that as much as try to do it, how rarely I've actually succeeded. It's very humbling actually when you realize how hard it is to break out of your own training.
It's very, very difficult.
IRA GLASS: And how do you feel about that? I mean if (OFF MIKE) one paradigmatic shift in their lifetime, you know.
PHILIP GLASS: How do I think about it. I think it's very difficult. I think that. Think of it this way. If I looked at the body of work over the last 30 years, and there are about 30 CDs, and if I look at it that way, and if I take piece that I wrote in 1969 let's say, or 1970 my music, was changing parts to music and new parts, and I compare it to -- I heard you playing a little bit of "Dracula" something I wrote last summer. If I listen to those two pieces together, they do sound like they were written by different people practically.
And that actually is -- that was -- but on the other hand if I look at pieces that were written within three or four years of each other, I don't hear that. It takes a span of 10 or 15 years for me, because the changes are so incremental that I don't -- I can't notice them.
But I can notice them. But I can notice them over 20 or 25 years. I don't notice them over two or three years.
IRA GLASS: Like you say one of the things as a listener that is striking about the newer pieces is that they seem much more romantic and melodic.
PHILIP GLASS: Exactly.
And you that was -- you see that depends where you start. Had I started perhaps with the romantic, I would have ended up writing minimal music, so I ended up writing romantic music. Basically wherever, whatever pint I started was, I left that point.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: You're listening to composer Philip Glass interviewed by Ira Glass, the host of public radio's This American Life.
We will hear more after our break. This is FRESH AIR
GROSS: Before we get back to Ira Glass interviewing his cousin Philip Glass on stage at Chicago's Field Museum, let's listen to an excerpt of Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten. This is the Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Dennis Rufle Devies (ph).
MUSIC AND VOCAL BY PHILIP GLASS, PERFORMED BY THE STUTTGART STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS, FROM AKHNATEN
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS: I've read that you said that there are operas that you've wanted to do with Robert Wilson for 15 years and can't...
PHILIP GLASS: Yeah...
IRA GLASS: get...
PHILIP GLASS: I have really wanted to do it. I will tell you want it is. It's called the Pass of the Arabian Knights (ph). I thought that would be a good piece for Bob and I to do. They actually have a libretto. No one has done it.
IRA GLASS: And why? What would you have to do? Like how well known would you both have to be?
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, it's not a question of that. The trouble is I think it's actually, that is the problem. For one thing, to be truthful there are a lot of young, good composers around who deserve to have their operas done. And now you take an opera house in even a major city like San Francisco, or Chicago or New York -- at the Met for example. They will do one new opera every other year.
IRA GLASS: Yeah.
PHILIP GLASS: Now one opera is not very many operas. So you say well why what's the difficult is. The difficulty is that the there are a lot -- to be truthful there are a lot of interesting composers, and you only get to do one a year and so, in a lot of places, they said well we did Phil Glass. They did me in '87 so they're not ready to do it again.
IRA GLASS: Do you think it matters if, new artists create new work?
PHILIP GLASS: Do you know who it matters to? It matters to the people that listen. It matters to people who want to hear the new work.
IRA GLASS: I wonder if artists like you and other composers ended up, end up doing more work where they're combining image and music, and text, in film or in other places where do you it. I mean if it really matters, if it's an opera stage.
PHILIP GLASS: It doesn't and I never describe things as operas for a long time. I discovered in the end the opera companies were the best -- that's the place where they had the -- all the -- that's where all the materials were. That's where the orchestras and the choruses and the...
IRA GLASS: Big stages.
PHILIP GLASS: And everything was there. And you know when we did The Knights of the (OFF MIKE), people asked me why I thought it was an opera, and I always said I never thought it was an opera. But, but if you want to put on Einstein (ph) you need a pristinean (ph) stage. That's the kind of stage, an orchestra pit. You need fly space for the stuff to come and down. You need lighting. You need -- and I said you can do Einstein (ph) anywhere you want to but, if you -- the only place you will find all the stuff together in one place is in an opera house. And you end up in an opera house.
But you don't always have to be in an opera house.
IRA GLASS: When you perform a piece, over and over again, do you get to a point you know like when one buys a record, you know even a record one loves, or especially a record one loves, you know, you play it over and over again in the car, and in the house. And it gets to the point where you know the song gets like gum that's been chewed up. You know it's half flavor.
PHILIP GLASS: No, in fact it works quite a different way. It works quite differently. People like to do the world premiere because they get the glory of the world premier, but in fact in my view and I've done this a lot, I've done this numerous, numerous times. I consider the first performances, just learning the piece.
And think about it this way. If you think of a pianist who plays Schubert sonata through his whole lifetime, if you listen to Rubenstein in his later years, or Horowitz playing, their repertoire later in their life, and you understand the richness with which they play that music.
And how differently they must have played it when they were younger.
IRA GLASS: As you go through your tours, do you find yourself falling in love with different sections as it goes on and understand...
PHILIP GLASS: We finally, we finally begin to understand the work and I think it's only after -- (OFF MIKE) I feel it's only after about 20 performances that we really begin to understand what the dynamic structure of the piece is. You know writing the piece is only one insight into the quality of the piece.
Performing the piece is a whole other way of looking at it. And when the composer is also the performer, he has an opportunity to come to an understanding of his work, which I would say, is the only way he can do it is through performing it.
IRA GLASS: Performing something like Einstein on The Beach which you performed throughout all of its early performances, and in rehearsals. At the end of that process, what did you see (OFF MIKE) at the end of that?
PHILIP GLASS: For one thing, by the end of the performance, is that we could actually play it.
I would hate -- I don't know if anyone ever recorded that first night. But I'm sure it was a mess. We could barely play the music and that's true for a lot of new music.
IRA GLASS: And in terms of the way that, that you saw what the music was doing, did you come to...
PHILIP GLASS: Let's put it this way, in order for musical language that's new, is that we have to find a new way of playing it. There is no such thing -- this is a little bit similar to what we were talking about before.
This is no such thing is that you can play it the same way. In other words, there's a performance technique that goes with the language. The language comes first because you think it up, but the performance technique comes afterwards. And that can take, that can take years to develop that.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: We are listening to composer Philip Glass interviewed by Ira Glass, The American Life.
We will hear more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
GROSS: Let's get back to Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, interviewing his cousin composer Philip Glass on stage at Chicago's Field Museum.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS: I've wondered, listening to some of the music, if there are times when you're writing music and because the music is so complicated and what it's doing in different keys, and the way that the rhythms interlace, if there are times when you're writing that you actually aren't exactly sure what it's going to sound like and feel like...
PHILIP GLASS: Oh, let me tell you, I just did a piece in Salzburg, Dennis Dessel Davis (ph) conducted it, and we -- I finished the piece last January. It was a symphony in 12 movements. It's a 100 minutes long. It's a rather large piece. It was commissioned for the millennium, and until the night of the performance -- it's not that we didn't know what it sounded like, we could hear what the music sounded like, but we didn't know what it felt like to hear it.
We didn't know what it added up to. I mean I can -- it's like reading the recipe in a cookbook and you still have tasted the food.
IRA GLASS: Are there times when you feel like you've guessed wrong. Where you wrote something that...
PHILIP GLASS: That's when you do the rewrites of course, but surprisingly -- you would be surprised -- I am surprised at how little, because very often, and I said to Dennis when I was doing this piece -- we just did it about two weeks ago in Salzburg and I said to Dennis before the performance, with this piece, it's a piece with a 100 minutes long, with a very complicated text. And I said to him I'm working at the limits of what I can conceptualize. And I said frankly, I don't know -- I said I took the music when I got there. And it's in 12 movements. I put the 12 movements on the floor. I made 12 piles of music. You know so there were -- each pile of music was a movement, and I went from movement to movement trying to listen to the piece to see what -- it couldn't fit on the piano. It was 800 pages.
I mean, the whole thing was just unreal, you know trying to figure this thing out. And -- and for me it was -- I guess it would let's say if a sculpture was trying to conceptualize a piece, that you can't walk around the piece all at once.
You know you can only see one part of the piece at a time. And I was having that problem with this piece. I was only able to hear three or four parts at a time, and then I moved on to the next part. And the -- and I wasn't familiar enough with music to be able to hear. By the time I was at part five, I kind of forget what two was like. I mean we're talking about 30 minutes later.
And this is -- this maybe sounds strange to you, but if that...
IRA GLASS: This part of what you're saying is utterly familiar as somebody who makes radio stories, by the time -- you work so heavily on any given small section, to get the whole thing, sometimes you have to finish and then like listen through it and...
PHILIP GLASS: And then you...
IRA GLASS: ... leave (ph) it for a while in the middle.
PHILIP GLASS: And the first performances, we did get to hear it, and even the first dress rehearsal we didn't really hear it. Because we -- the room -- the acoustics in the room wasn't good enough. We heard the first dress rehearsal and by the first night we really got to hear it.
IRA GLASS: The theme that we've been presented with is creative and new directions...
PHILIP GLASS: I didn't know that was the subject.
Ira said before, he said, you want to know what we're talking about and I said, no, no, tell me later.
IRA GLASS: And a...
PHILIP GLASS: Are we covering it?
IRA GLASS: I think we've done fine, yes.
PHILIP GLASS: I said it won't make any difference if you tell me.
IRA GLASS: Do you find this -- do you find this to be an enormously open time, that is a fertile time for artists to do new work and explore...
PHILIP GLASS: Relatively...
IRA GLASS: ... new productions (ph).
PHILIP GLASS: It depends who you talk to. If you're a producer of operas and films and if you're involved productions that involve large amounts of money, it's not a very open time. People are terrified of making multi-million dollar mistakes in film and in opera and in everything.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: And it's very physical. If you talk to the people that are making the work, it is very open. And I think what we're all feeling, is that that we're coming to that -- an exquisite moment that's happening right now which is at the whole -- we have the feeling that the whole system is distribution (ph) of music and books, is going to change.
We're talking about of course the Internet. And of course if that one (OFF MIKE) changes, things that are beginning -- it may be that composers will be able -- certainly they can do it right now. They can make the recordings of their work, and make it available in a general way which is not available way and the kind of openness that you're suggesting,which actually exists will become apparent.
IRA GLASS: But even before that, I mean it's possible for you to tour and do your work and get an audience, even if you...
PHILIP GLASS: I did it with great difficulty and with relentless energy, and I don't -- I hardly know any one else to be frank who has done it the way I have.
It's extremely difficult to -- I do about 120 concerts a year. I...
IRA GLASS: Is that for business, is that to keep the work out there? Is that because you love...
PHILIP GLASS: It has nothing to do with business. Because in fact I could stop working right now. It has to do with understanding what the nature of music is.
It's only through the constant -- for me immersion in the process of creating and recreating music, that I begin to understand what music is really about. I'm really talking about what the essential nature of music is and I find that the experience of performing music in front of people, it is the essential experience for the composer. It's at that moment when the whole, let's say transaction of music, when we see it clearly what it is, that it's not a conceptual activity. It's not -- music doesn't exist in the library. It exists in the air. It exists in something we hear.
When someone -- if you go a library and you see hundreds of scores and you're not actually looking at music, you're looking at notations of music. You know, the actual music exists when you play it.
John (OFF MIKE) was a very important part of -- I knew him quite well and being around him and Murth (ph) and people like that, and they were very aware of the fact that, that art exists as a transaction between people.
IRA GLASS: Yes.
PHILIP GLASS: That, that it exists -- that music is a kind of sublime currency that's passed among people. And perhaps the most sublime that you can imagine, perhaps poetry, or whatever you might say, you might have your own favorites. But for me of course, it's music.
So the point of performing is to reaffirm the essential characteristic of music, which is that it's, as I say, it's a sublime currency that is passed between people.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: Composer Philip Glass, interviewed by his cousin Ira Glass, the host and producer of the public radio program This American Life, which originates at WBEZ in Chicago. Their interview was recorded September 7th at Chicago's Field Museum, as part of their exhibit Sounds From the Vault which runs until March of next year.
Our thanks to recording engineer, Mary Gaggney, WBEZ, the Field Museum and of course Philip Glass, and Ira Glass.
I'm Terry Gross. We will close with music from Philip Glass's new CD, "Dracula".
MUSIC WRITTEN BY PHILIP GLASS, FROM NEW CD "DRACULA"
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Philip Glass
High: An interview with composer Philip Glass by his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." The conversation was recorded on-stage in Chicago earlier this month.
Spec: Music industry; Art; Composers
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Composer Philip Glass
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.