Philip Glass: ‘Everyone needs a technique, whether they’re a plumber or a cook’
The composer on febrile 1960s New York, working day jobs into his 40s and the term ‘minimalism’
Philip Glass: ‘Moving furniture was a perfect job.’ Photograph: Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
In late October avant-garde composer, opera creator and musician Philip Glass will undertake a residency at the National Concert Hall that will include performances of his minimalist masterpiece Music in 12 Parts (on the 26th) and the Godfrey Reggio film soundtrack Koyaanisqatsi (27th) as well as several other specially curated events.
The 82-year-old is looking forward to it. “I’ve worked with so many Irish writers,” he says. “I’ve visited everybody’s house. All the literary places. Dracula was written there also?” I tell him Dracula writer Bram Stoker lived in Marino.
Music in 12 Parts was composed between 1971 and 1974, and Koyaanisqatsi in 1983. “I’ve been out there performing now for over 50 years,” he says. “What I’m discovering over the last few years is that people who weren’t even alive when I wrote it are finding this music. So, I’m playing this music and – this is a curious thing – for some reason it doesn’t seem that old.”
“I think the reason is partly that it’s been mimicked by other people in different ways but none of them ever sounded anything like me,” he says. “Sometimes people think things that sound like me are me. ‘Oh, they stole it from you.’ ” He chuckles. “‘No, no, no. I stole it myself.’ It never really bothered me that people did that. What I noticed is there was no one working in my area too closely, so when we play these old pieces it sounds like no one has ever played them.”
He’s been relearning how to play a lot of his old work, he says. “I wake up in the middle of the night and instead of going to watch television, I just go to the piano. I’m playing pieces I wrote years ago. I’m relearning them and I’m playing them a little differently. When I hear the early recordings I recognise it’s me but I don’t play it the same way any more.”
He has always worked very hard on his technique when it comes to both performance and composition. Just after graduating from the Juilliard School in the 1960s he sought out new teachers. He learned a lot from Ravi Shankar, he says, who, he worked with on the soundtrack to a Conrad Rooks film called Chappaqua. “I didn’t really even know who Ravi Shankar was when Imet him,” he says.
He also spent 2½ years in Paris working with the acclaimed French teacher Nadia Boulanger. “After finishing [at Juilliard], I was not completely happy with the skills that I had acquired,” he says. “I found out that one of the great teachers, Nadia Boulanger, was still living in Paris and I got a fellowship to go over there and I went to study with her. And that was extremely important because I ended up with a very solid technique. Everyone needs a technique, whether they’re a plumber or a cook. You have to know how to make things happen.”
A cursory look through Glass’s memoir Words without Music will show you that he certainly has a knack of making things happen. When he was living in Paris he also worked with Samuel Beckett. “Beckett was living only a few blocks away,” he says. “We found he was there, and he started a little theatre company, and I think I wrote eight or nine scores for pieces of his during those years … It was a very good thing to do. It put me in touch with not only performers but also with the audiences. There’s nothing theoretical about music when you know you’re going to be playing it [in front of people] in the next two months. It’s not an intellectual exercise at all – it’s a practical matter.”
I ask him about the origins of the minimalist music he and the likes of Terry Riley and Steve Reich pioneered when he returned to New York in the late 1960s. He’s not a fan of the term. “Minimalism was a useful word at some point,” he says. “It doesn’t describe things very well but it’s okay.”
He segues instead into a discussion about collaboration and the artistic community in New York. “When I first came back to New York at that time in 1968 I wanted to live where I would be working, so I came to the place where the theatre and the off-Broadway shows were being done,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since. You have to understand that where I live, I’m only a few blocks away from CBGBs where all the punk rock was done, and a block away from La Mama, where all the theatre was done. If I had been living in Iowa or some place I probably wouldn’t have met anybody, but I meet people just going to the grocery store around here, photographers, poets, all sorts of people. I even saw Arvo Pärt last year. He came through and he called up. All in all, I would say that living in New York for the last 60 years has definitely shaped what I ended up doing … I grew up Baltimore, Maryland. At that time there wasn’t any artistic community there really, you had to leave. One thing I noticed was how many people were just pouring into New York from Texas and from Rio de Janeiro and from Paris. When I was driving a cab, I could see them pouring in.”
It was this febrile, churning atmosphere, he says, that allowed him to work in so many fields and with so many different kinds of artists. He worked with painters and film-makers and theatre practitioners such as Robert Wilson with whom he created the opera Einstein on the Beach. And he worked with rock musicians such as David Bowie and David Byrne. This was a consequence of playing in the same venues as them, he says.
He was always a performer as well as a composer. This wasn’t always the norm. “I was a flautist when I went to Juilliard, and they told me, ‘You don’t have to play the flute any more, we have plenty of people who do that here.’ But actually I continued to play the flute in my ensembles into my early 30s.”
He continues, to this day, to perform as a keyboard player. Why was it important to do that? He laughs. “I had to make a living,” he says. “The [Philip Glass] Ensemble started in 1968, and by ’72 or ’73 we were touring in Europe and America. I didn’t become free of my day job until about ’78 or a little bit later. There is a financial return immediately from playing live. Besides that, it helped me to understand who an audience was … You get to the point where backstage before a concert you can tell from what you hear what the audience is going to be like. Any performer can tell you that. [You know] before you step on the stage.”
Glass still worked in day jobs into his 40s. “I’m sure there are artists doing that in Dublin too,” he says. “Almost everybody [in the arts] has day jobs. I got out of working day jobs when I was maybe 41 or 42, which isn’t too bad, because I expected to be doing it for much longer than that. But for 10 or 12 years I had a day job the whole time.”
Did it bother him?
“No,” he says. “I thought I was in the right place, doing what I wanted to do. I thought I was a very lucky person. I mean, I didn’t mind working.”
In his biography Words without Music, he notes that it was possible in the 1960s and 1970s to work the equivalent of a three-day week in a blue-collar job and pay rent and keep a family. He also notes that he’s not so sure that this is possible any more in a city like New York.
What jobs did he do?
“Cab driving was a good one because I could do it at night,” he says. “There was a lot of driving, delivering things and building. [artists were] moving into living places that had been factories for clothes and things like that, so someone had to put in the fixtures and run the gas lines. It wasn’t that hard to do. I started off working with other people and then my cousin and I ended up with our own business for a while. I did a lot of the artists’ places. I doubt the hot-water gears are still there. They only last for 10 years. But some of the things we did last for a long time.”
So there are some lofts in New York that still have building work done by Philip Glass?
He laughs. “There were very few things I wouldn’t do,” he says. “The tricky thing was to find jobs where you could go out on tour for three weeks and come back and the job would still be there. That’s why, for example, moving furniture was a perfect job because you mostly did it on the last three days of the month and the first four days of the next month. So if you just did 20 hours a day at those times, you didn’t have to work the rest of the month. You figure those things out. It’s not that complicated.”
Perspectives: Philip Glass Residency at the NCH: Philip Glass with Philip Glass Ensemble – Music in 12 Parts, Saturday, October 26th; Koyaanisqatsi Live!, Sunday, October 27th