Nothing minimal about this composer's eventful life

 

As he prepares to perform two Irish concerts in June, influential composer Philip Glass talks to JIM CARROLLabout his long and varied career, which has taken him from working in a record store to driving a cab to sunbathing with Leonard Cohen

IT HAS been a very full life. Philip Glass is one of the most influential living composers, a minimalist giant amongst his modern classical peers.

Since his initial public works in the 1960s, Glass has been a hugely prolific music-maker and performer. Through collaborations, film work and record labels, he has also brought a huge number of other artists into the limelight. Here, he talks about five key events from his career.

1 THE RECORD STORE APPRENTICESHIP

‘It was normal for me to be the store’s record buyer by the time I was 15’

“My father had a record store and I worked there from the age of 12, so I heard everything you could imagine there, from musicals like South Pacificand Oklahomato what was then cutting-edge contemporary music like Shostakovich and Bartók – very, very modern in the 1950s. In terms of popular music, this was long before Elvis Presley and The Beatles and Bob Dylan, it was crooners like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.

“Back then, the kids went to work in the family business, so it was normal for me to be the store’s record buyer by the time I was 15. I knew quite a lot about classical, pop and soul music, so I’d a very broad interest.

“These days, you can’t find record stores because everything is downloaded. You’ll buy an album piece by piece and people can buy, say, Etudes for Piano one or two pieces at a time for a buck each. You don’t have the physical CD or album any more, which means you’ve lost the sleeve artwork, which I always thought was a huge part of the experience.

“Some record sleeves were really beautiful. The visual artist Don Christensen works with me on my Orange Mountain record label and we have beautiful covers, but 40 per cent of our sales are downloads now.”

2 THE TAXI-DRIVING YEARS

‘I wrote most of Einstein on the Beach after I returned the cab to the garage at night’

“During the Seventies, I wrote and performed a lot of music, but I also had day jobs, that’s how I made money. I was a very enterprising fellow. My job as a cab driver is perhaps the most famous one, but I also moved furniture, I was a plumber, I did all kinds of things.

“I wrote most of Einstein on the Beach after I returned the cab to the garage at night. Einstein premiered in 1976, but I was still driving a cab in 1978. In the garage I worked in, there were a few painters. One of them was Bob Moskowitz, who ended up having a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art 25 years later. That’s still common today. It’s not like those countries in Europe where the governments give subsidies to young artists. We don’t have that in the States. You have to support yourself so it’s not unusual to be in a cab with a young driver who is also a writer or musician. That’s just the way it was. What doesn’t kill you makes you strong.

“But the problem with this is that we’ve lost a lot of talent along the way who didn’t survive. It takes a particular kind of stamina to get through this very difficult ritual of day job and waiting for a bit of success so you can live on the work. Not everyone can do it. Yet the countries where the artist is totally subsidised have not necessarily produced great work. There is a problem with that too.”

3 THE RECORD LABEL MOGUL

‘Arthur Russell was a very talented, eccentric, funny young guy’

“Over the years, I’ve had a few record labels because I knew the record industry top to bottom. I was probably the only classical composer who knew how the whole business worked. My first label was Chatham Square and I used it to release my own music and also the work of other artists.

“Arthur Russell was a very talented, eccentric, funny young guy who always felt that, one day, his music would be very popular. He’s still not as popular as some lesser-talented artists, but it has come much closer to how he imagined it would be than anyone thought at the time.

“I had put together my first recording studio at the time and we would give Arthur access to the studio at night. He would come in, turn on the recording equipment and record everything that happened in the room, some of which was music. When he died, there were hours and hours of material.

“One time, I wrote a solo cello piece for Arthur as part of a performance of Beckett’s Cascando by Mabou Minds, which ran for three months. I went to see the performance and hear my piece after about two months, and Arthur had totally rewritten it. I asked him what he was playing and he said it was the piece I had written. What had happened was he started adding and taking from it so that, after two months, it had become his piece. It was quite incredible and he was convinced it was still the same piece. The beauty of it was that he had personalised it so completely that I didn’t recognise one note of it. I guess some people would have been annoyed, but I wasn’t. To me, a person with that level of creativity should be let do whatever they wanted to do. It was a complete joy to be around him.”

4 COLLABORATING WITH LEONARD COHEN

‘Leonard and myself spent an afternoon sunbathing by the swimming pool’

“I’d always had a poet in my life. It used to be Allen Ginsberg, and we worked together on concerts and performances until he died.

“I’d met up with Leonard a few times in the past after concerts. Once, I was in Los Angeles and I called him up. Leonard and myself spent an afternoon sunbathing by the swimming pool in my friend’s house. It looked to me like he’d a book of poetry with him and he read the whole book to me. We had a great time. I said we should do something and he said that was a great idea, but I didn’t hear from him for five years because he went into the monastery.

“After five years, I heard he was out and we met in New York and we began the conversation again which had been interrupted by his five-year withdrawal from society.

“Leonard told me to pick out the poems I wanted to work on, and I selected 20 or so. He said he didn’t want the piece to be longer than 90 minutes because he thought no one would sit through anything longer than that.

“I asked him would he perform with us, but he was planning a big tour to recover some of the income he lost due to those unfortunate circumstances, so he couldn’t do that. I asked him to record himself reading some of the poems so I’d get the rhythm of his voice and, three months later, he sent me four complete CDs of him reading what was the Book Of Longing. I was amazed.

“I asked if we could use his voice on the show and he said yes. He came with us to Toronto, where we premiered the work, and coached the singers on how he thought they should sound. He was very, very kind. He told me at one stage that he was glad his poems could be used, which was a very modest, very astonishing thing to say. But that’s Leonard, that’s what he is like.”

5 THE NEW SCHOOL

‘Nico’s going to outrun me when it comes to the number of people he’s going to work with’

“The younger generation of composers are very different from my generation in many ways, and that’s very welcome. The composers who came after us sounded too much like us and I didn’t care for that very much. What’s the point? We’d already done that kind of what they call minimalist work and we’d moved on.

“I became the model of a freestanding artist who wasn’t connected to a school or institution or record company. My studio is my workplace. I have a recording room, a publishing office and so on. Composers come out of music school and, if I have time for them, they come work with me. They don’t become teachers, they become working composers and performers. They learn how to function successfully without any institutional protection, by using commercial music to fund and subsidise their concert music. They have no art guilt at all.

“Nico Muhly [above] came to me when he was about 18 and he stayed for about eight or nine years as an assistant. I was very happy when he left, not because I wanted to get rid of him, but because he’d got his feet on the ground and he understood that it was possible to live and work in the world of music through a tremendously diverse range of activities. He’s going to outrun me when it comes to the sheer number of people he’s going to work with. Even at his age, and he’s not even 30 yet, he has worked with so many people.

“After he left my studio, he did the music for The Reader and he came back and asked would we help with his publishing. Now, I work for Nico. Isn’t that a great turnaround?”

Philip Glass plays Dublin’s National Concert Hall on June 22 and Cork’s Mid-Summer Festival at Cork’s City Hall on June 26