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How SuperPACs Are 'Gaming' The 2012 Campaign

Journalist Joe Hagan says the upcoming election will be "the ugliest campaign ever." He details how superPACs have changed the election game, bringing an unprecedented flood of outside money to fund opposition research and negative ads.


Other segments from the episode on January 31, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 31, 2012: Interview Joe Hagan; Interview with Philip Glass; Review of Leonard Cohen's album "Old Ideas."


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest: Joe Hagan- Ira Glass & Philip Glass

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've followed the Republican presidential primary, you're aware of the barrages of negative ads aired in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida primaries.

One analysis concluded 92 percent of the ads in Florida have been negative. Our guest, investigative reporter Joe Hagan, says that's just the beginning of what is likely to be the most negative campaign in history. Hagan says a big factor in what he calls the tsunami of slime is the emergence of so-called superPACs.

They're political committees closely associated with particular candidates, often run by friends and former staffers of the candidates they support. But unlike candidates' committees, whose contributions are limited by federal law, superPACs can take donations of any size, like the $10 million a wealthy couple gave to a Newt Gingrich superPAC.

Hagan says the flood of money is allowing superPACs to hire armies of opposition researchers and ad makers who are changing campaigning and the reporting on those campaigns. Joe Hagan is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and New York Magazine, where he recently wrote about superPACs and negative campaigning. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Joe Hagan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you say that the superPACs are really mini-campaigns themselves - I mean M-I-N-I, small campaigns, or maybe not so small - and they employ all kinds of professionals who are prepared to slime the opposition. What kind of people are we talking about?

JOE HAGAN: Well, yeah, I say these are like mini-campaigns, and campaigns are composed of - you have pollsters and focus groups that go out and try to test messages, get info information about the opposition about: What do people know? What can we say that will be novel and new that they haven't heard before?

They have researchers, you know, teams of researchers who are just - since last spring, 2011, have been digging and digging and digging, going through archives, video archives, print archives, looking at their - what they call votes and quotes: anything they ever voted for, anything they ever said. And they are organizing it all and preparing it for negative ads, leaks to the press, you know, all the different things they could tell surrogates to say on TV, ways in which they can show that the opposition has contradicted him or herself and, you know, is therefore a hypocrite.

You know, the heads of these are former campaign advisors to the candidates they're supporting. Their job is to go on TV and give quotes to all the press and keep the press fed with all the information that the press needs to kind of churn the news cycle.

DAVIES: So campaigns always had opposition researchers. Now, in addition to them, we have the superPACs with even - you say even bigger armies of opposition researchers?

HAGAN: Oh yeah. See, the superPACs in many ways have displaced or are doing a lot of the work that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee used to be doing. You know, those people are doing it also, but these guys are doing it with much more money. And so they can afford to hire more people to do more digging, to buy more advertising - that's another one I forgot to ad. There's advertising consultants, advertising makers. You know, they're buying air time.

And, you know, if Mitt Romney wants to do a certain attack on Newt Gingrich and say that he is grandiose, well, the superPAC supporting Mitt Romney, Restoring Our Future PAC, can begin to just go through its opposition research archives, quickly slap together a bunch of ads and air them in Florida. And they have millions of dollars to do it.

DAVIES: Now, the people who make negative ads and do all this opposition research have sort of made this into a science. And one of the interesting things you write about is the extent to which the effectiveness of a negative ad campaign depends upon the media's treatment and reaction to it. Explain that.

HAGAN: Well, what these guys realize is that you can dig up all this negative information, but if it's coming from, like, a Romney press release, let's say, about Gingrich, it's going to have a lot less gravity with people than if it comes out in a newspaper like the New York Times, or it comes out on MSNBC or CNN, or what have you.

So a lot of what the opposition research is about is getting the information to reporters, getting them to report it and put the imprimatur of, you know, an objective outlet around it. And so this is the kind of warfare that's going on between these campaigns, is trying to fight each other in the earned media, what they call it, the free press, trying to get their message to win.

And that's why money is such a big part of this, because the press pays so much attention to how much you're spending on these ads and what the message is in these ads, and that often gets that information deeper into the press cycle and into the press narrative.

DAVIES: And so it's one thing when you have the ability and the money to repeat a negative ad and reinforce the message. But there's this other phenomenon, where you go to reporters quietly and say do you know about this, this unflattering thing about my opponent, in the hope that they will then print it, and then eventually you have an ad which quotes them, the reporter, as the objective purveyor of this information.

HAGAN: No, absolutely. That's the whole sort of cycle - the cycle of life, as it were - of, like, a negative hit, which they - this is their language, a hit. If anybody who follows the Twitter feeds of all the political reporters, all day long, they're getting this information, little - it's like they're just dropping little drops of negative information to these reporters all day long, and they're tweeting them or putting them in their stories.

And they're just being bombarded all day long with all these opposition researchers who have good relationships with the press. And, you know, they see the press as their quote-unquote "missile delivery system." And so they're constantly trying to get them to kind of push this narrative, push some storyline that they're trying to get.

Just this morning, you know, I'm hearing from, you know, the Romney camp, from either a press release or talking to their people, and they're trying to push this idea of Gingrich is grandiose. You know, so they're just constantly trying to give you evidence of this, quotes from the past, things that he has said.

You know, as a reporter, you don't have to even do any work. You just receive this gigantic archive of, like, quotes that go back, dating back to the '80s. So this is why one of the oppo-researchers for Obama told me that, you know, opposition research has replaced investigative reporting.

Now, this is a bold claim, but to some degree it is true, that the speed of the news cycle is so fast now, reporters are under such pressure to deliver new information, you know, they don't even have time to do a lot of their own research. And they don't even have to, because there are these researchers who have been working on this since, like, last May, you know, just digging, digging, digging all the information. And they have it all organized in these giant books, and they are just constantly drip-feeding the press with it.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, as, you know, media organizations have suffered economically in recent years, there are often fewer reporters. So it's maybe a little more tempting to pick up the readily packaged investigation.

HAGAN: Absolutely, and I think this accounts, to some degree, for the increasing focus on the consultants and the strategists of these campaigns. I mean, because there's such a tight relationship between the political reporters and these consultants who are, you know, giving them all this information, and all of their opposition researchers.

And I think this also is a part of this larger trend we've seen in the last 10 years, kind of a merging of politics and media. I mean, you've got Fox News, and now you have MSNBC that kind of represents the left. And the distinction between the messaging that is coming out of political campaigns and their superPACs and what's going on in the press is getting more and more blurred.

DAVIES: But, you know, I guess we should make a distinction here between the case where a campaign will tell a reporter something awful about the candidate, but do it on the record or, you know, will make a change. And in that case, the reporter might report it because if they don't, everyone else is, and to the extent you can vet the information.

But you attribute it to a candidate. It's - they're taking responsibility for it. It's a different circumstance when a campaign or some other political operative comes to a reporter and says you can get an exclusive scoop, here. You can have an investigation which breaks this thing wide open.

Now, in that circumstance, surely no reporter worth his or her salt would do that story without carefully confirming everything and seeing whether it's fair, whether the context is accurate.

HAGAN: Right, well, that's - that is absolutely true. You know, there was a lot of speculation about this last fall when Herman Cain came under pressure from charges that he had had sexual harassment claims against him, you know, whether or not that came from an opposing candidate. And Politico did a story in which they did a lot of due diligence around it, wherever it came from.

But a lot of what's going on now is not just secret stories like that. It's like I'm the campaign coming to you with a piece of video or some audio or things that they don't even really have to fact-check that much. I mean, it's like here it is, and why don't you run with this?

I mean, they're providing them not just tips about sort of, you know, radioactive, really negative, bad stories that could lead to the opposition being knee-capped for good, but video content and archival information that they can use in their pieces, like, you know, quotes and videos and things that they dug up that show Newt Gingrich saying something in, you know, 1998 that the reporter never would have found on his own.

So it's not just sort of Deep Throat kind of information. It's just a daily barrage of well-researched information.

DAVIES: And if the reporter takes the video, they can get some attention, have a little mini-scoop. If they ignore it, somebody else gets it.

HAGAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, what we're talking about right now, you know, in the past, I think that a lot of this was more secretive. It's always happened, you know, through the ages, like, you know, reporters getting something really - some damaging information leaked to them, and then they're going to go use that as a basis for research.

But you can go on Twitter now, and you can see - the Democratic opposition researcher that I follow has a Twitter feed. You know, his description of himself is I ruin lives. It's a living. You know, this is like - it's all out in the open if you can go follow it and find it.

Ben Smith of Politico and Buzzfeed, all day long, he's sort of churning this stuff from these people. Like on Friday, he posted a nine-minute audio clip of a phone call that Newt Gingrich had with his wife about some politics. You know, where did he come up with this stuff?

And I myself have received these calls. I mean, you get a call from an opposition researcher, hey, you want a little photograph or a clip or this or that, and you can post it on Twitter or write a little item about it? I mean, all day long there's this churn going on. And the reporters have these, you know, day-to-day conversations and relationships with these opposition researchers.

They go out for drinks with them. They learn things. And, you know, this has been going on in the past, but now it's much more out in the open. There are more of those opposition researchers, and there are maybe less of the reporters. So, you know, the power here, in many cases, you know, on the day-to-day reporting in the news cycle, is with these opposition researchers. They're very powerful.

DAVIES: Our guest is investigative reporter Joe Hagan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with investigative reporter Joe Hagan. He's just written about the growth of superPACs and negative campaigning in the presidential campaign in New York Magazine.

You know, some of the really powerful messages that we've seen in the Republican primaries have been, you know, Gingrich attacking Mitt Romney as, you know, a filthy rich 1-percenter who doesn't, you know, pay enough taxes and who got rich, you know, laying people off. He attacks Gingrich as a consummate Washington insider who has kind of a history of maybe some self-dealing and some character issues.

Are - do these ads deal in inaccuracies, or simply kind of selective recitation of stuff that's out there?

HAGAN: Those ads are more about emphasizing a label onto the opposition and make it stick. I mean, and as soon as the - you know, the press is sort of like the moderator in this, you know, over whether this is going to stick. And the, you know, I talk about in my story this availability, heuristic - which is a term they use in psychology. It's about like if you repeat a message over and over and over again, and it's the most available message that the voter or viewer or reader has about a subject, then that will stick in their mind, as that is the sum total of what they know about a person.

For instance, if I say that Gingrich is a Washington insider a million times, and I can afford to put it on TV a million times, at some point, the viewer just decides, well, that seems to be what's true. I don't know any better than that. You know, you've said it so many times to me, it's the most available piece of information I have.

So they're simplifying storyline attack lines so that they will travel. And...

DAVIES: You know, I have to ask you, since you spent so much time talking to these folks, how do they feel about what they do - I mean, people who just go about the business of grabbing whatever they can, taking it out of context, messing with people's reputations. What kind of people are they?


HAGAN: Well, they are - they're a mix of different kinds of people, the truth is, but some of them are real cowboys. You know, they're like mercenary characters who see themselves as, like, it's like a game, a game of strategy and warfare. And they kind of love the juice of playing the line and causing controversy and doing all these things.

DAVIES: And they take none of it personally and expect nobody else to take anything personally, right?

HAGAN: Well, that's the thing. And you - I mean, they are - they are definitely a different breed. Let's put it that way. I mean, Stuart Stevens, who is one of the top strategists for Mitt Romney, is a true character. I mean, the guy is an extreme sports nut who has written for television. He really sees himself as a storyteller.

I mean, at the end of the day, he has very - talk about grandiose. I mean, these guys have views of themselves as like able to steer history with their, you know, creative storytelling. And they see - you know, seeing the candidates as so much of like a, you know, the actor in their big Hollywood production.

But let me just - you know, in the end of my story, I talk about the - what I call the presidential election industrial complex. You know, these people, they come and go every election cycle. It's the same, you know, dozen consultants, strategists and ad-makers working for these people all the time, doing the same things.

And, you know, one ad-maker, Fred Davis, told me, you know, we're not in the cause business, right. You're in love with whoever's paying you. I mean, that's how mercenary these guys are.

You know, I think some of them do believe in what they're doing, and there may be a price over the long term for some of this negative stuff. It may turn out that people are so sick to death after this primary is done with of all the negative ads and all the attack and all the sort of blustery reality TV show stuff that they'll be ready for, you know, some kind of positive message or to hear something other than the latest attack.

But, you know, given the sort of American public's attention span and the bar for entertainment is pretty high at this point, it's hard to know.

DAVIES: Another thing I wanted to ask was, you know, with a lot of people, particularly younger people, watching TV less and getting videos from, you know, other media, Facebook, YouTube, whatever, I mean, will that undermine the effectiveness of the 30-second TV spot? Are the consultants thinking about that?

HAGAN: Oh, definitely. I mean, the Romney camp sure showed me a report that kind of gets into all this. And they recognize that people between, you know, 18 years old and into their 30s are not getting most of their video content from live television.

And so the suggestion was we need to drill down more into other kinds of media: video online, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. But these guys are very old-school and traditional people in many ways, and they recognize that they have all this donor money, like the - especially the superPACs. They have all this donor money that they need to spend, and they need to show that they have spent it.

And what they often do is default back to TV. They default back to the 30-second commercial, because it costs a lot of money. You can show your donors, hey, we spent your money, and look what we spent it on, and maybe it moved the needle a little bit. And as we talked about before and as we've seen, they're just running more TV ads, not less.

And they're still spending money on, you know, putting ads way down into the sort of like, you know, niche social media things, like they're going to have ads in, like, Mafia Wars on Facebook, you know, trying to reach younger people.

One person at Priorities USA, the superPAC supporting Obama, was telling me, you know, they recognize that a lot of people, grandparents are reaching their kids and grandchildren through Facebook. So they're going to try to, like, you know, really hone in on that older crowd on Facebook with ads.

But bottom line is money has to be spent, and it costs more to spend - it costs more to run TV ads. And so they kind of end up defaulting to running more and more TV ads.

DAVIES: You know, Karl Rove is an interesting character in all of this because he, of course, is a, you know, a legendary political operative who has organized these vehicles - you know, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS - which have contributed tens of millions to candidates. He's also a media figure. I mean, is - does what he - do his appearances on Fox News - how do his appearances on Fox News fit into what he does?

HAGAN: Oh, I think they're integral to it. You know, I profiled Karl Rove last year and wrote a little bit about this. His - he has - his main interest is keeping his ties to donors. You know, he's got a huge Rolodex of very wealthy Texas oilmen and women who are sort of the life's blood of, you know, the political process on his - in his neck of the woods.

So a lot of them - and when conversations I had with them - were given confidence to give money to any kind of organization that he would be leading because he's constantly telegraphing strategy on Fox News. They saw him as, like, you know, he's got the smart way forward for our party.

And so he's in both the position of using his media platform to collect money and to kind of lead as sort of strategic captain of that money and where to direct it. Now, he's always saying that I'm the co-founder of it, but I'm not - you know, he's an advisor to it. He's not running it, right. But he is the one creating the strategy for how to go about, you know, directing that money at Obama, for instance.

You know, if you read his columns in the Wall Street Journal or listen to things he says on Fox, he's constantly outlining a strategy for how to go after the opposition. And clearly, the superPAC that he is associated with is prepared to carry out those strategic plans.

So there's a real, I think, synthesis here, maybe a questionable one, between his platform that he's been given by Rupert Murdoch's news organs(ph) and his ability to direct millions of dollars in donor money.

DAVIES: Well, Joe Hagan, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HAGAN: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Joe Hagan spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Hagan's article about superPACs, "The Coming Tsunami of Slime," is published in New York magazine. You'll find a link on our website: I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today. That's why this evening was chosen for the U.S. premiere of his "Symphony No. 9" at Carnegie Hall. Glass was one of the founders of what is often called minimalist music. He started off writing for his ensemble and went on to write operas, dances and film scores.

Here's an excerpt of his new symphony, performed by the Bruckner Orchestra from Linz, Austria conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, who is also conducting this evening's performance. The recording was released today on iTunes.


GROSS: Philip Glass was interviewed by Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life" in 1999. Ira is Philip's second cousin, although they didn't know each other well when they spoke on stage at the Field Museum in Chicago. Lucky for us, Ira didn't broadcast that interview on his show, but he gave it to FRESH AIR to play, which we did back in 1999. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of it.

IRA GLASS: We are first cousins once removed, which means that you're my dad's first cousin.

PHILIP GLASS: That's right.

GLASS: And the conversation that we had before this show was just long enough to play some Jewish geography...


GLASS: 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, then to New York.

GLASS: No, I was here, I was in Chicago for about five years.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: Fifty-two - '52 to '57.

GLASS: That was before I was born.


GLASS: By the time I was sort of awake enough to know that you existed you were in New York and then in Paris and...

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: ...and then back in New York. Your father owned a record store. First of all, I've read that you actually worked in the store sometimes.

GLASS: Oh, I worked there from the age of 12.

GLASS: Really?

GLASS: I worked in there until I was in my 20s.

GLASS: And do you remember what music was playing and what music you liked?

GLASS: Well, all kinds of music. In those days you could, those were the old days of 78s and no one worried about, all the records were scratchy 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 because I was the one that ordered the records, 'cause my father, Ben Glass - that would've been your great uncle...

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: ...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.

GLASS: Would he play you songs and composers...

GLASS: Oh, yeah.

GLASS: ...and say listen to this part, listen to this part?

GLASS: No. You know what was interesting, Ira, was that we had a very interesting collection of records at home. His introduction was interesting. He began actually, this is how it began. He began as an auto mechanic. And then at a certain point in the 1920s, 30s, people started putting radios into cars. And so he began fixing the radios just the same ways he fixed the cars he learned how to fix radios. Then he got interested in the radios and got rid of the cars and just had a radio shop.


GLASS: 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 became bigger and bigger and bigger. And at the end of his life the radios were just a tiny bench in the back of the store and he used to fix radios there. So he came to music that way.

Now what he had at 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.


GLASS: You know, he said well, there must be something wrong with this music and he figured well, if he could figure out what was wrong with it then he would know what the other - so the music we had at home were like Shostakovich's String Quartet's music that was modern for that time.

GLASS: And why Shostakovich not selling in Baltimore at the time?

GLASS: Well, we're talking about the 1940s.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: When - we're talking about pieces that were new at that time.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: And the idea of classical music was really the European 19th, 18th romantic tradition, so anything that was modern at all was, had a difficult time. So we had, what we ended up at home with was a collection of very esoteric music. What happened is that the more he listened to this music the more he liked it.

GLASS: Yeah.

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 people - I witnessed this many, many times -people would come in the store and he would try to sell them all this new music that, he said - you know, I bet you never heard this guy Britten, Now this Benjamin Britten is a really terrific composer. And he would practically give these, push these records on people and he...


GLASS: And he had any number of people in Baltimore whose musical taste was formed by this. It was very simple - people came in and they'd listen to music and they learned by listening, and as they explored things they didn't know. And I witnessed this. Well, I have to tell you a really interesting story. Did I ever tell - I should tell you what my very first job in the store was. You see, in those days, those are the days of 78s, and every record store have always called, you had an allowance, a return privilege it was called. That was actually what it was, a return privilege for broken records.

GLASS: Wait. If you would take the record home and break it you could bring it back?

GLASS: No, no, no. No, it didn't work that way, Ira.


GLASS: If you were, if you had the store and some records arrived and they were broken...

GLASS: Oh, I understand.

GLASS: So for you...


GLASS: So the merchant could return the records.

GLASS: Right.

GLASS: It was called a return privilege. And it was a strict, it was something like, the way they figure it out they made it something like 5 percent of the records could be returned.

GLASS: Right.

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.


GLASS: That's cute, huh?

GLASS: So that was your job?

GLASS: My first job...


GLASS: brother and I were, on the weekends, we went down to the store, and we were sent to the basement and we jumped on records.


GLASS: We were - and...

GLASS: It's a good preparation for what was to come.


GLASS: Well, that's the kind way of putting it.

GLASS: Well, no, no.


GLASS: So, I gradually worked my way up - what?

GLASS: And classical music, right?

GLASS: It didn't matter.

GLASS: Yeah.


GLASS: It didn't matter what you broke.

GLASS: Eddie Fisher.

GLASS: They counted it by the label.

GLASS: Right.

GLASS: And you did it by the, you did it by the company so there would be, and there would be companies like OK Records or Blue Note Records or RCA Records, they all had a return privilege. But the only thing is that all the RCA Records have to be in their box and all the broken OK Records have to be in their box and all the broken Blue Note 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.


GLASS: Anyway, so I, that was my first pay - I wasn't actually paid. But that was my first professional job...

GLASS: In music.

GLASS: In the music world.


GROSS: We're listening to composer Philip Glass, speaking to his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." We'll hear more of their 1999 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Composer Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today. Let's get back to the interview he recorded in 1999 with his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life."

GLASS: Now in 1964 you moved to Paris and you studied with Nadia Boulanger. Can ask you to talk about what she was like and what you learned from her?

GLASS: Oh, she was a, you know, I don't like to talk - are there any Boulanger students here in the room? I always get into trouble when I talk about her because actually she wasn't a very nice person.


GLASS: She was a wonderful teacher who was a great master of music technique, of counterpart of harmony, of analysis. And she was extremely, how can I say, demanding from the first moment you walked in. For example, if you arrived at the door of the apartment, if you are as much as a minute late it was better just to go home.


GLASS: Because if you came in late you got such an abuse. You were criticized on every level of your being and character and - so basically if Metro slow that day, if you got off at the wrong stop, and then you just went home.

GLASS: And there was something that the students called Black Thursday, something like that?

GLASS: Oh, yes. There 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 that she taught in, 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.

GLASS: But you couldn't tell which you were.

GLASS: We couldn't tell which was which.


GLASS: By the time she got done with us we were just - those lessons were devastating. Those classes went on for three or four hours and they began at nine o'clock and went to about one.

GLASS: Describe a typical exercise.

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 sinister.


GLASS: You walked into the class and into the room and we were all there, of course, on time, for sure. And on the piano would be just line of music written in tenor clef, which is not a common clef, but you're supposed to know it. OK, so first of all, there's seven clefts. Probably most of you know two if you know any, you may know three clefts, but you're supposed to know seven. The first thing you do with her 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 says oh my god. How can you play that chord? And she's like, OK, Paul, you play it. So she went through the room until we got the first chord right, then we did the second chord, the third, the fourth, the fifth. And finally, three or four hours later, she had beat us into completing 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 like, she says I really didn't expect to spend a day like this because, in fact, I thought you would know this. And she behind the music rack she pulled out, it was the second movement of a Beethoven viola and piano sonata. And it was, basically, she merely had expected us to replicate exactly the voice leading that Beethoven had done.

GLASS: From one of the melodies to re-create the entire...

GLASS: And she said well, of course, if you had, if you knew the piece it would have been easy.


GLASS: Well, she picks something that no one knew. And then and the fact that we had done it - actually, it was kind of a miracle that we had done it at all. She succeed - let's put it in a different way - she succeeded in eliciting from us the exact voice leading of the original. It took four hours.

GLASS: Do you think that there is a pedagogical efficiency to terror?


GLASS: You know, I find, I tell you, I'd finally after I'd been there about two years I finally figured out why I was there. We were having a lesson and I had come in with my harmony. We came to a place in the music and she said, it's wrong here. And I said, Madame Boulanger, it's correct. I cited the rules of voice leading and said that all these things are correct and there's nothing wrong with this. And she said yes, she said, but if Mozart had done it he would have done it like this. And she plays it 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 was in - whatever I had done I'd done it wrong. And I looked at her and I said but look, the rules are right here. And she said yes, but it's still wrong. I was astonished. And I - it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. I realized that she was teaching the relationship between technique and style.

For example, now let's put the question another way. If you listen to let's say a measure of Rachmaninoff and then a measure of Bach, you know which is which without, you know immediately. And the question is well, why do you know that? They both are following basically the same rules of harmonic, of voice leading. But what happens is that you have in your, the course of your listening, you have taught yourself - you've recognized that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem in 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 way. 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 a technical problem in a highly personal way.

So in other words, now let's...

GLASS: And from that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way to solve it?

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 a 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.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: If you don't have a basis on which to make to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all, you have a series of accidents.

GLASS: Looking at your career from the outside, one of the things that's striking is the number of different collaborators that you've worked with and I wonder if part of it is because you had the seminal experience of confronting somebody else's work.

GLASS: Well, 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 can begin again, you can begin learning again. You know, the difficulty with any - well, it's not just artists or musicians but with anybody in any ordinary part of life - walk of life - the difficulty we have is how we continue to learn.

I mean, this is - everybody has this problem. Because you get what we call our training and education to a certain point and we spend the rest of our life changing gears in the same way. And the biggest - this is particularly true of composers, they pick up a style or way of 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.

GLASS: You've said to Terry Gross - in fact, she's asked you - do you ever try to compose so it doesn't sound like Philip Glass?

GLASS: I do it all the time and I fail all the time.


GLASS: I learned that the only hope of shaking free of your own 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 thing is, is that as much as much as I try to do it, how rarely have I 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.

GLASS: And how do you feel about that? I mean, is a person only allowed on paradigmatic shift in their lifetime, you know?

GLASS: How do I think about it? I think it's very difficult. I think it's - let me put it this way. If I look 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 music that I wrote in 1969, let's say, or 1970 like music, with changing parts, of music, new parts, and then I compare it to "Dracula," something I wrote last summer; if I listen to those two pieces together they do sound like they were written - 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 over 20 or 25 years. I don't notice them over two or three years.

GLASS: I have to say one of the things as a listener that's striking about the newer pieces is that they seem much more romantic and melodic.

GLASS: Exactly. And you see that was the - you see, it depends where you start. Had I started perhaps with the romantic music I would've ended up writing minimal music. But I started writing minimal music so I end up writing romantic music. Basically, whatever point I started was, I left that point.

GROSS: Composer Philip Glass and his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "The American Life," recorded on stage at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1999. Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today, which is why this evening was chosen for the U.S. premiere of his "Symphony No. 9" at Carnegie Hall. You can hear the first movement on our website, Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Leonard Cohen's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

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.

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