Philip Glass’s unmistakable sound has made him a cultural icon, reaching across generations and genres—and even outside the world of music. He has collaborated with artists from every discipline—including choreographer Twyla Tharp, poet Allen Ginsberg, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese—and has fascinated opera, concert, dance, pop, and rock audiences for more than half a century. His visionary works, known for both hypnotic and dramatic structures and shape-shifting motifs, are landmarks of a mid-century compositional movement that pivoted from serialism and atonality toward a more direct harmonic and rhythmic style. Glass celebrates his 80th birthday year as the 2017–2018 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. He recently discussed his multi-decade career with Jeremy Geffen, the Hall’s senior director and artistic adviser.
What is your first memory of performing at Carnegie Hall?
Glass: I think I rented the Hall in 1978. I played parts of Einstein on the Beach. For a long time, I had to rent venues myself because no one would take a chance on me except me. We sold out Carnegie Hall at six o’clock that night. I don’t know what we’d have done if it hadn’t sold out—we had to pay for it! But I remember that the Hall’s staff was afraid because the music was amplified. They really thought the paint was going to come off the walls. We told them it really wasn’t that loud. ... It was actually pretty loud, but the paint stayed where it was.
You studied at Aspen and Juilliard before leaving for Paris.
I studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris—wonderful teacher. I also met Ravi Shankar at that time. My first lessons in Indian music were working as his assistant on a film score—I had to notate his music. I also studied with tabla player Alla Rakha.
While you were there, you explored opposite musical poles.
Mademoiselle Boulanger was an internationally known expert on Central European art music—Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. She didn’t do modern music, though she knew a lot of modern composers. (She was friends with Stravinsky and quite a few others.) In my case, she didn’t teach composition, per se, but she taught the technique of composition, things like harmony, counterpoint, and analysis.
When you left school, the primary aesthetic for concert music was serialism, but you knew that your style—your compositional voice—was very different.
It had been formed a lot by my contact with Ravi Shankar. The combination of Boulanger and Shankar was wonderful because I got the basics all lined up with her. Then he introduced me to global music—the music that has its origins not in the concert halls of Europe and America, but in the streets of Africa or in the festivals of Brazil and all kinds of things in Australia. Through Shankar, I entered the world of global music and stayed there for a long time. If I hadn’t been in Paris working with Boulanger, I wouldn’t have encountered Shankar and Rakha. Life is full of coincidences. The people you sit down with at dinner—you may end up having three children with one of them. Things like that happen all the time. You go to a different school because you heard about it, and then at that school you meet somebody who gets you interested in biology. You end up becoming a great biologist. Life is full of that. That’s true for music, as well—the incidental, coincidental meetings. The best thing is to go to a place where those things can happen.
Some call your work “minimal music.” Do you agree with that classification?
It’s fine, except it doesn’t describe anything. You can call it what you want to, but if you call it that, the chances are you’re misleading the listener, which is not a good idea. My music was once called “sonic torture”—that was the headline of a review. That was actually much more endearing than being called a “minimalist” because the person who wrote that was expressing his genuine experience. That was an authentic and real review, but to call it “minimalism” means you haven’t even heard the music.
One of things that seems to be a recurring theme through your compositions is the interaction between high music and low music, art music and popular music.
When I worked in my father’s record store, we didn’t have high music and low music. We had concert music over here. We had jazz over there. We had blues in another part of the store. I liked everything, from Spike Jones to Beethoven to calypso—whatever was around. We didn’t think of high music versus low music—high art versus low art. We thought of good music versus lousy music. The only music that counts is the music that you love—no matter who you are.
Do you have a specific routine? Is there a time of day when you write music?
I just have to be awake—but not necessarily. [Laughs] I used to wake up hearing a piece of music and would refuse to write it. I’d say, “This is too much. I’m not going to do this in my sleep.” But it’s like having a dream that you can’t remember in the morning. If you wake up hearing a piece of music, it means you’ve been dreaming it, right? Now if I dream a piece of music, I’ll go and write it down because I know that I’ll forget it. Between being awake and being asleep, I prefer to be awake. But who knows the music that’s lost when people dream and they never write it down? Really good composers—maybe Shostakovich, Beethoven, or Bach ... who knows what their dreams were like? Think of all the music that we’ll never hear because they didn’t write it down!
What do you think of today’s musical landscape?
There are some very good musicians around. The young musicians have good training and are very open-minded about what they hear. This is a wonderful time for music, actually. I think it’s because the country is so volatile right now. The ’50s and ’60s were like that too, when McCarthy was going on Communist witch hunts. In that era, new music came out of a very oppressive time, socially speaking. No wonder the same thing is happening right now. Everyone’s going nuts about what’s happening in this country. When things are really bad, we get a lot of good art.
So you see art as the mirror of society?
It’s the inverse of the present, and it’s a 60-year cycle. I mean, I’ve known it as a 60-year cycle. Right now, it’s a very creative moment in theatre, in music, in film, and in painting. So if your friends tell you to go to Canada, don’t go to Canada. Stay here. It’s going to be the most interesting time.
The Philip Glass Ensemble returns to Carnegie Hal February 16 after more than a decade's absence to perform one of the composer’s early masterpieces, the groundbreaking Music with Changing Parts.