At 82, Philip Glass may be America’s most celebrated composer. His innovations, widely canonized as “minimalist” (Glass actually prefers the term, “music with repetitive structures”), have long since entered the mainstream. His operas have been sung at the Met and beyond; his symphonies have entered the repertory of orchestras around the world. His film work has been nominated for Academy Awards. Earlier this year he became a Kennedy Center Honoree. And, right now, his newest score is onstage as more than mere accompaniment in the Glenda Jackson-led production of King Lear.
How did this happen? What brought Philip Glass to Broadway this season?
Philip Glass: I got a call from Scott Rudin, Lear’s producer. I had worked with him several times before on films and on Broadway. I worked with him on The Crucible just last year. So, he called me up and asked if I would write music for King Lear. I thought it was a very good idea.
The first thing I did was I read the whole play. I knew Lear, of course, I’d seen it performed many times. I actually love Lear; if Scott hadn’t asked, I would have had to find someone to commission it for me. I was very happy to do it. But I’d never actually sat down and read it. Then I also began reading more about Shakespeare himself and that period of English history. I became very quickly knowledgeable about the politics of London at that time, how King James was the start of it all, and “The Gunpowder Plot” that tried to remove him. I began to look at King Lear from the point of view of what was going on when Shakespeare wrote it, and all the ways he wove that very fraught political stuff he was living through into his play.
It isn’t an easy play. There are 12 major characters on the stage, most of whom die at some point; there are very few left standing at the end. Yet it is the favorite play of so many people, including myself; it is just a towering work.
How long did it take to write the music?
Scott called in December. They started rehearsing almost immediately after that, in January, and I started attending rehearsals. By the end of February, we were in previews. And we just opened in April.
Are you saying that you wrote most of the music for King Lear over a single month or so, during rehearsals?
Yes, pretty much. I was going to rehearsals in the daytime and then I was writing in the afternoons and evenings. I decided right off that I wanted to compose for a string quartet. I know how to write for string quartet. I love its range of emotion. At the beginning, though, I had just a piano version written. We didn’t get the quartet until maybe 10 days before the first preview. Once we had the quartet, the director, Sam Gold, immediately put them onstage as part of the action. Then he quickly began to find places for the musicians to move around the stage. That was a pleasant surprise. The technology is such now that musicians can move and the instruments are wirelessly amplified. It’s so liberating not to have wires trailing after them like in the old days. Sam used that freedom a lot. He had very good ideas about the placement of the musicians onstage. But he left the music to me.
There is about an hour of music, all told. That’s a lot for a play. The Crucible had maybe 20 minutes. No string quartet ever plays a piece of music this long, this much. It’s so much music that the score really becomes part of the bone and the muscle of the piece. I was working on it right up to the end of previews. And so was Sam. We were both really trying to do the same thing; understand what Lear is about, understand where its emotional climaxes are, understand what it is trying to say. Lear has been in production for 400 years. It really speaks to us. But people are still trying to figure it out.
And, what about working with Glenda Jackson?
Well, a constant concern for Sam and for me was making sure the music didn’t overwhelm; that the text can always be heard. I frequently scaled things back, and even reduced the quartet at times down to duets, to make sure nothing was ever drowned out. But Glenda has a voice like a trombone. I never had to worry about drowning her out. Glenda’s is the loudest instrument we’ve got.