This article appeared in the 1986 ‘Backstage’ magazine from Belgium. The interview was done by Willy Heijnen with pictures by Mark T’Syen. Please note that the original text was in Dutch and we scanned the pages and OCR’d and translated it with help of Google to English. Also note that the original pictures with the article were not of great quality, we have scanned and included them, but we thought to include some other pics to enrich the text. The (c) are with Backstage magazine and its authors.
Since the music business evolved into a Billion Dollar industry in the 1960s, pop chart listings became the only standard by which to measure an artist ‘s success. That’s where the records are sold, that’s where the prizes are handed out. Jazz musicians and classical performers, who also wanted a piece of the cake, turned to fusion and saw their sales figures tenfold, even with ridiculously low charts. The compromises they made often made them bitter, but it seemed the only way to get the attention of a wider audience. A few years ago, however, a group of composers came forward who, without any concessions, worked themselves in the spotlight, namely to minimalists.
While the works of Stravinsky (more specifically “Petrouchka”) and the scores of Hollywood composers of the 1950s are full of minimal techniques, it is generally accepted that this tendency was developed in the 1960s, at the prestigious Juilliard School. Of Music in New York. About 12 composers studied there, including Jon Gibson, James Terry, Meredith Monk and Tom Johnson, and, of course, the triumvirate that would later be recognized as the true founders: Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The term “Minimal Music”, writing as much as possible with as little material as possible (Less is More) is primarily a name given to it by the critics. Although the composers don’t like labels, they prefer the definition of ” Repetitive Music” and call the system “repetitive-additive”.
The most profiled of these composers is without a doubt Philip Glass. Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland, and began his music studies at the Peabody Conservatory at the age of eight. Later, the University of Chicago and Juilliard followed. He then came to Europe, first briefly with the composer Darius Milhaud, then for two years with the greatest pedagogue of Western music: Nadia Boulanger, a lady who also taught, among others, the American composer Aaron Copland and the jazz musician Dave Brubeck. In 1966 Glass meets the master sitar player Ravi Shankar, goes with him to the Indies, learns to play tabla and discovers the solution to the problems of his latest musical concept in Eastern rhythm. Back in the USA he founded the Philip Glass ensemble in 1968. And The Rest Is History, as they say. A large number of operas, ballets, film scores, orchestral pieces, theater compositions and songs later, his latest album in 1986 “Songs From Liquid Days” entered both the classical and pop charts. Philip Glass is the prototype of the anti-vedette: real and close bonds of friendship with the members of his ensemble, no pop and certainly no classical image (rib velvet pants and red checked shirt), no ideological but musical approach to his work and above all a large dose of self-knowledge and occasional criticism bordering on hellishly humble. In the context of the latest European tour, an in-depth and enlightening conversation about the origin, evolution and future of his music.
Backstage : Most European composers in the “serious” circuit usually immediately turn to serial, dodecaphonic or aleatory music. The “group of 12” who studied at Juilliard apparently thought otherwise.
Philip Glass: As a study material, a discipline such as the 12-tone technique is excellent. I actually started it when I was 16. But I doubt if that makes any sense today. The whole serial movement started around the turn of the century, the Second Viennese School with Schönberg as godfather. The concept is almost a century old, so you might as well start writing baroque music again. You might be able to integrate some elements of the sequences, but frankly I don’t see the point. We live in 1986. And I certainly have my reservations about the free atonality or the Aleatorics, where the musicians are given a number of options, for example. I doubt whether someone like Penderecki, who writes quarter-tone clusters more carefully, can indeed hear in advance what is on paper. Once I was in the performance var.i. a work by Xenakis between the brass players and those boys played very different things at times than what was on the scores. Xenakis, who actually conducted the work himself, simply didn’t hear that, so see. Of course there is an appropriate explanation for this, namely that it is not about the notes themselves, but about the “sound experience”, but still. I just don’t see the point in it.
Backstage: But did you see yourself as composers of what is called “serious music”?
Philip Glass: Yes, ” seriously” as opposed to pop, rock, entertainment and jazz music. We saw ourselves as an experimental strain within ” classical” music and we were always accepted as such. The classical musicians and people may not like it, but we did get recognition.
Backstage: That is not the case in Belgium, the music of Wim mertens and of the minimalists in general is registered as “Light Music”.
Philip Glass: Yes, I know the phenomenon. It has, as is the case, only to do with money. That is the political aspect of music and such associations and authors ‘ rights organizations are generally run by a bunch of old men who just claim the money for themselves. A composer of light music receives only a fraction of royalties from a composer of serious music for the same amount of time for a work. And of course the old guys don’t want to change that, because their works are registered as serious.
But in addition to the financial side, there is also such a thing as public recognition and in the end that remains the most important. If the public accepts Wim Mertens’ music, he has achieved his goal. He shouldn’t try to fight those lobbies. You can’t win. You can only wait for a few to drop dead.
Backstage: You went to India in 1966 but it was mainly the rhythmic and not the melodic aspect of the music that interested you.
Philip Glass: Yes, things like the 18-note scale, quarter tones and microtonality are things that will always sound strange to Western ears, so my aim is to write good Western music. But the building up of the rhythmic structures was the most important thing for me. Then I started using simple western harmonies and melodies. With the emphasis on “easy”. You have to keep one of the two really simple, otherwise it will be impossible for the average listener to understand the music. So I consciously opted for a structure in rhythmic structures. And now I can already see your next question coming: Then why did I go to India and not to Africa? Well, simply because I first learned to discover Indian music through my personal contact with Ravi Shankar. When I was back in the USA I played together with a group of Ghanaian musicians in New York for quite some time. Last year I discovered that you can listen to all kinds of ethnic music in New York. You don’t have to move anymore. When I was in South America last winter, I was told: If you want to hear real Salsa, you have to go to Jamaica. Not the island, but Jamaica, New York. All forms of music are represented among the ethnic communities in New York, and are just as authentic as in the country of origin. But I hope to go to Africa this winter to hear some things in their natural environment.
Backstage: Terry Riley, Steve Reich and you went on to perform your works yourself, bringing the composer back into the music. Another important precedent was the creation of your own Ensemble.
Philip Glass: The composer’s place is first and foremost in the music itself. history’s greatest composers also proved to be the main interpreters of their work. In the last hundred years this has fallen into disuse in the classical western world and that is a pity. The ensemble was simply a necessity. First because people didn’t want to play my music, later because the average musicians couldn’t play it. especially for the wind instruments, this kind of repetitive music requires a very special discipline from the musicians. It has nothing to do with the fairly free interpretation possibilities of the existing repertoire, on the contrary, the first requirement is to perform exactly what has been written. Over time, musicians from my ensemble, especially Jon Gibson, Paul Dunkel and Michael Riesman, have managed to give their parts such a personal stamp that others will probably never be able to play them again. By the way, when I compose I don’t refer to the parts as “flute” or “soprano sax” but with “Paul” and “Jon”. I started writing more and more to the ensemble and that is why those works never I don’t want anyone else to play them. It’s completely different with the operas and the ballets. Then I write for existing ensembles or symphony orchestras and try to adapt as much as possible to the traditional idiom. And then I send Michael Riesman to conduct or at least lead rehearsals because I don’t feel like a conductor at all, I hate conducting.
Backstage: Yet it is not a unique phenomenon. Frank Zappa also has difficulties in having his classical works performed correctly. The conductor Pierre Boulez has even said that it will take another 10 years before the music of Zappa can be played. Doesn’t musical education have something to do with it ?
Philip Glass: In any case, the musical education of the youth has a lot to do with it. The conservatoires are much too traditional in this area, even dogmatic. Instead of forbidding other forms of music, people should be encouraged to study all kinds of music. Jazz is now gradually being tolerated, although I can vividly remember a few years ago that people were banned for playing jazz. The moment they open the “holy houses” for entertainment, a lot will change in the music world.
Backstage: And where does Philip Glass move in that music world?
Philip Glass: In many areas. And I undergo a metamorphosis every time I start another project. When I write an opera, I feel like an opera composer. The opera has a very special meaning for me. First of all, you can develop the musical ideas sharper and slower due to the larger space of time, or you can interweave a large number of ideas, something that you don’t have the time for with a work of say 5 or 6 minutes. But also working with voices intrigues me, especially the interaction voice-instrument. And lyrically you can proclaim certain views or messages that would come across as too political or pedantic in another structure. Working with a director and a stage builder is also interesting because they usually have well-defined ideas about time and time. On the other hand, if I write for ballet, I feel like a real ballet composer, the same for film, which is a unique medium of our time. Something that really reflects our society. I think you should use all those modern means of communication. That’s why I produced, for example, a record by a pop group like the Raybeats. When it comes to communication, you learn a lot from that. That’s why I composed that music for the Olympics. The so-called “serious” composers look down on this kind of “utility music” or “program music” as it is called, but then they forget that, for example, Bach wrote a lot of music for special occasions, or Handel with his “Feuerwerksmusik” or Hindemith who the death of the English king George composed a requiem in 2 days. In addition, the Olympics are a dream opportunity to reach an enormous listening potential with your music and that is the dream of every composer. Finally, writing for the ensemble is an enormous challenge. We’ve been playing together for a long time, so the musicians are critical and commentary. Added to this is the unique atmosphere, the enormous feedback that there is between the members. Unbelievable, I think you can only compare that to a rock group, that kind of spirit. You know each other through and through, trying to build something together, we’ve had the bad times and now the good times, we’ve evolved together with my music… I think I’m in a unique position as a composer.
Backstage: If we had to describe the evolution of your music in a few words, we would say that the center of gravity has shifted from rhythm to harmony and melody.
Philip Glass: Indeed. From 1968 to 1974 I was only concerned with the rhythmic aspect and I was therefore a real “minimalist”. Now I’m personally against those kinds of labels because they put restrictions on you. Look, can you imagine a composer sitting down and saying: “What shall I write as a minimalist today?”. You are already pushed into a box in advance and that is often detrimental. Anyway, everything that What interested me for years was the rhythm, in an attempt to write a kind of perfectly structured music.The pattern worked additively, ie constructive or with shifting voices, or with contrasting figures, but always in function of the rhythm. my work you should actually listen to “Music in 12 parts” This pretty much contains my complete rhythmic vocabulary, you could call it a sort of catalog of the first 6 years. And at that point I wrote “Another Look At Harmony”, trying to reconcile rhythm and harmony by my standards and actually I’ve been doing that for 12 years now.The main point was that with the harmony and the melody also comes the emotion in the music, although I dare not say that the earlier work was completely without emotions. But the emotional aspect actually started to dominate from then on.
Backstage: Listening to your work since ’75, we have the impression that you are making the complete: recap of the traditional harmony.
Philip Glass: That may well be true. Of course when I started the transition it didn’t happen with the most crazy harmonic structures but with the traditional, easy I – IV – V connections. And actually, looking back, I have indeed followed the path of the harmony book, relationships between minor and major chords, substitute chords, delayed solutions and so on. Until I finally arrive at chromatic connections via the middle voices of the chords.
Backstage: After the clear chromaticism of your last record “Songs From Liquid Days” you probably now come to the polytonality.
Philip Glass: I’ve actually been thinking about that. But not the well-known polytonal method where you clearly hear two different chords one above the other. I never really think or write in chords, I always work horizontally, which is another consequence of my classical studies. But what I’m looking for now is a way to write horizontally polytonally. So that it seems like you are writing in 2 different keys at the same time, which change depending on how you look at them one way or the other. It may all sound a bit cumbersome and it’s probably too early to talk about it now, but that’s the direction my music will go in the future.
Backstage: Another evolution, and at least as important, is your handling of the melody.
Philip Glass: That’s right, yes. The melody in itself became important when I wrote the opera “Einstein on the Beach”. Sung parts always attract more attention than instrumental passages. But on “Einstein…” the melodies weren’t really written to the vocalists. Basically they were just instruments replaced by voices. The whole melodic evolution has happened between the period of “Einstein… ” and the moment “Glassworks” came out. The search is for a new kind of melodic approach. A melody that at first sight has little to do with the harmonic and rhythmic substructure, but which gives it a separate emotion, a completely different atmosphere. You see the same evolution in the work of, for example, Glenn Branca and your Wim Mertens and I am convinced that this is the direction we need to go. Emotion and atmosphere will determine the evolution of our kind of music in the coming years.
Backstage: On your latest record “Songs From Liquid Days” you reach a new high point in your oeuvre. Songs like “Changing Opinion” and “Lightning” are not only a different form in your music, they are without a doubt the most beautiful thing you ever wrote.
Philip Glass: I had never written a proper song cycle before and the idea grew through my contacts with David Byrne of Talking Heads. But I didn’t want to influence the authors with my music, so I went looking for good, contemporary text material that I could be inspired by. And then of course you end up with people like Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne. I have been accused of a deliberate commercial choice, but that is bullshit. Viewed objectively, these people write the most emotional, penetrating lyrics in a musical way. Poets, literati and Pulitzer Prize winners usually don’t have their feet on the ground and have no idea how to write good lyrics. Same with the performers. Janice Pendarvis, Bernard Fowler and Linda Rondstadt have a very special way of interpreting and a special voice. Very different from the classic voice of Douglas Perry on “Open the Kingdom” or the well-known operatic sopranos and altos. Those voices perfectly matched my intention: to make a record about emotions, romance, love and life in our everyday society, presented in a contemporary way. I believe I succeeded and your response gives me great pleasure. By the way, the record has been number 1 on the classical charts and has entered the pop charts at 90. Apparently I’m not that far from the truth after all.
Backstage: Unlike most composers in the “serious” genre, you are definitely interested in modern technology….
Philip Glass: Yes, but only in terms of sound and recording because when it comes to composing, I remain the traditional prototype of the composer who puts everything on paper beforehand. I don’t need computer combinations or chance discoveries with sequencers or triggering. The interest in technology started with the ensemble itself. When I saw the big rock bands at work in the ‘ 60s, I realized that their PA systems were not just for amplification. And I have now achieved that with the ensemble. The music installation has become an essential part of the sound and that is why the sound of our group is also unique. Even in an auditorium with excellent acoustics such as Antwerp’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, we need the PA to correctly convey the nature of the sound. And that is also one of the reasons why I do not want other companies to perform my ensemble compositions. As for the synthesizer techniques, I try to integrate them as much as possible and combine them with acoustic instruments and sound. On stage we use about 8 synthesizers, including an Emulator and several members of the ensemble try to follow all new developments. We spend about $10,000 a year keeping the installation up to date and I personally think that’s more than enough. There comes a time when you have to draw the line and not try to buy literally everything. One Yamaha DX-7 is more than affordable, but a rack with 8 modules is completely different. Besides, I can’t afford Synclavier either. The further development of my music will be in the field of combined synthetic and sampled sounds with the sound of acoustic instruments. You have to be open to everything. For example, I get a kick when I hear that my records are coming out on CD. And I’d like to see a video. That does not detract from the musical value of your work at all. I now also like to work with multitrack. The studio has become an essential element in the ensemble. “Glassworks” was my first work that was recorded completely according to the system of “overdubbing”, so you only hear the result when everything is mixed, but that’s no problem, on the contrary, I find it fascinating.
Backstage: You’re turning 50 next year, maybe an important milestone in your career ?
Philip Glass: When John Gage was celebrated with his 50th birthday in 1962, he seemed like a very old man to me. In the meantime I have come to realize that for a musician age is just an indication on your passport. Your vision of life, energy, ideas, dealing with women, Contact with other musicians and so on is never influenced by it, or only in a positive sense because you also have more experience. I’ve been composing, evolving and especially getting ideas for about 30 years now. N\J _I would like to have another 30 years to work it all out. –
Backstage: We make an appointment for 2016. Preferrably a Monday.