#ThrowbackThursday: A Conversation With Philip Glass, 1986


First he turned his back on the establishment . . . now he's part of it. But for Philip Glass, success was on his terms.

This interview first appeared in the October 1986 issue of Electronic Musician.

The success of Philip Glass is a product of the American work ethic and an attitude akin to punk rebellion. Like punks rejecting their rock heritage, Glass, nearly 20 years ago, rejected his traditional classical background. He had nothing to lose; orchestras were never going to play his music anyway. So Glass hit the road with Farfisa organs in the late '60s and early '70s, an unprecedented move for a classical composer (unless your taste for the classics runs toward Mark and the Mysterians).

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Philip Glass is now, of course, regarded as one of the pioneers of minimalism, a stylistic term that he only grudgingly acknowledges. With his ensemble of electronic keyboards, reeds, and voices, Glass created a music that has evolved from the hypnotically repetitive cycles of Music with Changing Parts, with its juggernaut eighth note patterns, into expansive and dynamically wide-ranging opera orchestrations like Satyagraha.

Glass has become the best-known classical composer of our era. His music is courted by international opera companies, film producers, and pop luminaries. His recent recording, Songs from Liquid Days on CBS records, features pop figures like Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Suzanne Vega, The Roches, and Laurie Anderson. It's not "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," but it's actually on the pop charts, a virtually unprecedented feat for a contemporary classical composer and certainly a long way from his first LP, Music with Changing Parts, pressed on the small Chatham Square label in 1971.

While Glass was creating a new music audience coalition that hadn't ever existed before, he began to receive recognition from the establishment music world in the form of several opera and theater commissions. First came the avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach (1976), scored for his ensemble. It was followed by Satyagraha (1980), a sweeping opera with full string and brass sections and choirs.

Much of his success can be traced to the electronic/rock instrumentation he's employed. "It may be easier for a younger listener to hear this instead of a string quartet," Glass admits. As Glass's popularity has grown, the technology has become updated with digital synthesizers and Emulators. The interface between synthesizers and symphony orchestras, new music and traditionalism, has generated a bubbling crosscurrent that he's riding through the '80s.

Tuesdays are interview days for Philip Glass. For several years now,he has set aside that day to talk with the press--an act that is both a means of self-promotion and a way to establish his unique aesthetic.Our interview, which occurred during a recording session for a new Twyla Tharp dance piece, was interspersed with calls from Time,Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and a half dozen other media outlets, all trying to tap into a phenomenon that has not only changed the course of contemporary classical music but is also . . .popular.

EM:How does it feel to be part of the mainstream?

PG: My God! I never thought of it that way. I suppose that's going to happen . . . do you think it's already happened?

EM:I think so; you're definitely part of a certain establishment.

PG: Oh, well, that's true. See, mainstream means to me mass culture, and that hasn't quite happened. I'm told Liquid Days, the new record, has sold 150,000 copies. Now, that's not a million and a half. That's a lot of records, though, for someone who's spent his life writing concert music and working in opera houses. But I wouldn't call it a mass audience. Mainstream might be closer to the truth in some ways; there are many people in the true music establishment--I'm talking about the people that run the committees, give out the Pulitzer Prizes, and give out the grants and so forth--to whom this music will never be their cup of tea. And they will never acknowledge it as being important or serious. So having said that, how does it feel to be part of the mainstream? It's terrific.

EM:In the beginning, up through at least Music in Twelve Parts, you were using singers more as another instrument. It seems that you've gradually come around to a more traditional way of vocal writing.

PG: You're talking about classically trained singers and I think that's true. It's important to note that I began working with real opera singers in '78 and learned a lot about singing from them. I solicited their advice on vocal writing; how, for example, the voice can be used for long periods of time without straining it, without tiring it, where the best parts of the voice were. During the first years I worked with a very talented singer and composer, Joan LaBarbara, who was interested in the voice as an instrument. What Joan provided was very much that attitude.

EM:Another aspect of the voice is the way you've been using the Emulator, at least in concert.

PG: We use the Emulator as a chorus to back up Dora Ohrenstein, a live singer. Since I can't really travel with a large vocal ensemble--I do about 50 concerts a year--I bring Dora and the Emulator, and if she has to have a vocal ensemble with her, she plays along with herself singing. Using this approach with, for example, The Photographer, which we recorded with many voices, comes very close to creating the effect of a larger vocal group.

EM:How did you arrive at the ensemble setup you have which is essentially electric keyboards, reeds, and voice?

PG: At the outset it was what was available to me. I was working with a number of other composers in my ensemble and since we all played keyboards, the only way to get three keyboards together was to use electric ones. That meant we had to amplify the other players.So what became the sound of the ensemble was really happenstance.

EM:Do you feel that the new generation of instruments has helped expand your original concept, or have you altered your conception because of new technology that has developed?

PG: As you probably suspect, both things have happened. We began to use (synthesizers) as they became polyphonic; we're all two-handed keyboard players. Before that I used electric organs and the Yamaha double keyboard. The first synthesizer was maybe the Prophet 5and then came the Rolands, Oberheims, OBXs, and the DX series. Yamaha has been a big mainstay since that became available; then there's also the Emulator and Emulator II. That's all been within the last eight or nine years.

EM:What kind of effect has the new instrumentation had on the music you make?

PG: Let me put it this way: it's given me more possibilities. I've written a lot of symphonic-type music for operas. It's allowed me to take large-scale symphonic works and adapt them for the ensemble so that the ensemble now sounds symphonic.

Michael Riesman, the ensemble's music director (see sidebar), does all the programs. Michael told me the other day that he estimated there were something like 50 separate programs that we use in a concert. Now that we have seven synthesizers, I can take a work like the opera Akhnaten and adapt that work, which was scored originally for winds, brass, strings, percussion--a symphonic type of orchestra--and project that kind of sound from the ensemble. So we're not really doing arrangements; we're really doing transcriptions, where we take the sound of an orchestra and make the ensemble sound like the orchestra.

I tend not to use synthesizers for invented sounds, but either to extend or imitate acoustic instruments. Recently I did a work called T he Descent into the Maelstrom which I wrote directly for the ensemble using the programming possibilities of all the synthesizers,and there's no doubt that the way that the synthesizers have evolved so rapidly has extended to a great degree the way I can write for the ensemble. The next stage for us is the MIDI system so we can link several synthesizers together to make composite sounds.

EM:Oh, you haven't done that yet?

PG: Well, we do it in the studio and we do it live to a limited degree, but we're going to do more. (MIDI) will allow us to make a much better string sound than we can currently get, and I think it will improve the vocal sounds a great deal. So in a certain way,people who really do electronic music would probably consider this not very adventurous, because what we're doing is trying to perfect and make a kind of neo-realism in terms of acoustic and symphonic instruments.

But I have to remind you that all through the '50s, the '60s, and'70s, there was a whole development of pure electronic music where the main currency really was invented sounds rather than found sounds. And for the most part, by and large, it was not successful. I'm not sure why. I suspect that our taste is very conservative in the sense of wha twe'll accept as real sounds, that largely, the invented sounds are a little too strange for most people, and that we eventually can learn them.

EM:If I'm not mistaken, one of the reasons that you formed the Philip Glass Ensemble was because it was the only way youc ould get your music performed at that time.

PG: That was true and right up through 1979, I would say1980.

EM:But now, even though you have access to orchestras and players, you still keep the ensemble.

PG: Well, the ensemble may not be the only group that can play the music, but it happens to be the best. Remember that we've got a 12 year head start on everybody. I'm playing with people like Michael Riesman, Richard Peck, and John Gibson; Jack Kripl has been with me for20 years practically, Michael Riesman for 12. Kurt Munkacsi's been designing the sound equipment and overseeing the making of the records as a producer since 1970. I'm talking about an ensemble that plays regularly all year long, 50 concerts a year.

It's not that a full orchestra can't do it justice. Last summer Dennis Russell Davies played several programs with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga. They were wonderful, wonderful concerts. But I can't go on tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

EM:You've often talked about your music being a reaction to the academic music and the serial, atonal music that was going on up until that point; I would say you were composing more modern orchestral music. Of all the reactions you could have had to that style, why this particular one?

PG: In 1964, '65, and '66, I certainly looked at the older generations of composers as people that were my enemies. I had to displace them. Everything they did was wrong, almost anything I could do would be right as long as it wasn't that. It was a very emphatic point of view that I had, and for a young man beginning in a highly competitive business as is composition, the music world, writing serious or concert music, it was a psychological boost to have an attitude like that, which was crucial. After all, there were some pretty heavy guys around at that time. Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Carter, they're still around and still important, but at that time they seemed like they would be there forever and they were going to run things as long as they wanted to.

Well, it turned out not to be that way, and it's not necessary for me to denounce them as strongly as I did then. I'm not saying that I didn't believe that at the time. I did. From time to time I will resurrect that attitude in all its strength and glory when necessary.

But I think you have to look at what it must have been like. Here Iwas 26, 27, and there were these guys who had the music world sewn up. And the only thing we could do, I mean we as a younger generation, was to blow them out of the water one way or the other. We just denounced them and got on with our own work. It turns out now, 20 years later,that there seems to be room for everybody. In fact, we seem to have more room than they do which I don't mind at all.

EM:Your exposure to Indian music seemed to affect the change of styles from serialism to minimalism.

PG: I had the good fortune to meet Ravi Shankar at a very important part of my life. I would say it wasn't a switch in style because I had no style before. I wrote in the manner of music teachers.My first real voice came after this period I spent with Ravi Shankar and my travels in the east. I formed an amalgam of ideas about rhythmic structure and my own ideas about pitch structure and that was the beginning for me. Prior to that I had no voice of my own. I wrote a lo tof music but it was not particularly interesting.

EM:You've done five full-fledged operas to date, is that right?

PG: No, it's six now, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, CIVIL warS, The Juniper Tree with Robert Moran, and the sixth one, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight,is based on a novel of the same name by Doris Lessing.

EM:There's an incredibly pristine quality to your music.There's no grit, and I don't mean that in a negative sense at all.There's a perfection to the whole sound that you create.

PG: Partly, it has to do with the care with which the actual pitches are chosen. There are no extra notes in the music--only the notes that you need. I don't clutter up a score with a lot of altered chords or passing notes or things. It's fairly spare in that way, isn't it? You might say "minimal." (laughter) But that's a use of the word of quite a different kind. I think that kind of spare writing gives you a lot of space and I think we all fill that space in ourselves. That's part of the aesthetic of it in a way, isn't it?

EM:Concerning Songs from Liquid Days, I know a lot of people are calling that your rock album which it obviously is not. Musically it's not much of a departure from previous Philip Glass music.

PG: I think the reference is to the people on the record, not to the music on the record. I think you're right. There is no bass,guitar, or drums on the record. There is percussion but not a drum kit.There is hardly a song on the record under six minutes, and one of them is ten minutes. It's really a cycle of songs where each song means mor ein the group than by itself.

EM:Have you had friendships or musical relationships with most of the writers you used?

PG: Yes, I think, all of them. Suzanne Vega is the one I've met most recently and that was about a year ago. I met her just before she did her first record for A&M. But Paul (Simon) and Laurie(Anderson) and David (Byrne), I've known them for years.

EM:It seems like on Mishima that you were writing in a few modes that were not typical Philip Glass styles.

PG: That was one of the most successful things I've done in recent years, and maybe that's what I liked about it. I'm always interested in things that don't sound like me. There is more of that in Mishima; Paul Shrader gave me the script about six months before he shot it and I wrote the music to the script, not to the picture, and he also cut to the music--not the other way around. Were you talking about the guitar things, the Duane Eddy type things? You'd have to see the film to appreciate that the guitar music goes with that character, which is from one of the novels called Kyoko's House. It seems obvious, once you see the material, that it would have to go there. I had not compunction about writing guitar music and I'm very pleased with it.

You know, films don't come my way very often. I've done three in my life and I've mainly been writing music for a long time. Mainly I'm not interested in industry films. There's no time to work on them. I insist on the collaborative mode and to be given a finished film and be told that a score is needed in six weeks is simply not interesting; it's like digging ditches to me. And the money is not worth two months of your time when you could be doing a violin concerto or a scene from an opera or something else. But every once in a while a good film project comes along and another one has. Godfrey (Reggio) has come back with anew film project, a Koyaanisqatsi type film. It takes place in the southern hemispheres. It's being shot in Africa, South America,India, Hong Kong, Nepal, a little bit in Northern Europe and NewYork.

EM:I spoke with a German composer named Peter Michel Hamel, who performs a cyclical style music, and he said there was a hypnotic aspect to it for the performers in the same way that maybe knitting is hypnotic.

PG: No, quite the reverse. If you get spaced out you start making mistakes. It takes a state of alertness that I don't associate with hypnosis or trance. The music doesn't repeat that much; it just appears to. If you talk to anyone in the group they'll talk about how attentive you have to be.

I used to do solo concerts. I've been playing the piano lately at home and I'm getting interested in that again. I'm thinking of writing a series of piano pieces next year that I could perform by myself.

EM:When you're composing, do you ever feel the need to throw in a blaring atonal chord or something dissonant?

PG: You know, it's funny, I look for moments like that but they don't come up as often as I would like them to. What I mean by that is you're always trying to shake up your own language; the first problem that a composer has is to find his own voice and the second problem is to get rid of it. I'm at the point in my life where there's such a body of work that I'm constantly looking for other ways of doing it.

EM:But couldn't you create those moments if you wanted to?

PG: You're getting into the subject of process, and finally music has to have an emotional truth to the person who's writing it.You don't want your music to be lies about what your real impulses are.If it doesn't have that emotional truth to you, then what's the point of doing it?

Sidebar: Artists Under Glass

The sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble is the product of its members as well as its composer. Kurt Munkacsi, who had previously worked as a junior engineer for John Lennon, has been with Glass since 1970 as both producer and live/studio sound engineer. Like an ensemble member, he sits on stage with the musicians during performances, running his mixing console. In addition, he runs Philip Glass's 24-track recording studio and does many of his own productions, including Lucia Hwong's recent House of Sleeping Beauties.

Michael Riesman came to the ensemble approximately 12 years ago. A trained conductor, he now leads the Philip Glass Ensemble on record and in performance, as well as playing his increasingly complex keyboard parts. Riesman has worked on several of his own film and theater works and has his first solo recording due out on the new Rizoli label. He claims that it will be much more improvisational than his work with Philip Glass.

When I spoke with Munkacsi and Riesman, they were recording the voice track for a Twyla Tharp theater piece with vocalist Dora Ohrenstein. Riesman was not only conducting the singer, but was operating the tape machine with a remote control unit, executing what turned out to be an almost bar by bar punch in of Ohrenstein's voice track. He didn't learn that at Harvard, where he obtained his MA and PhD.

Munkacsi and Riesman talked about how they've helped bring rock recording and performance techniques to the classical music of Philip Glass.

EM:How did it evolve that you ended up on stage with the Ensemble?

KM: First, we were making a statement about how we considered the technical aspects--the electronics, the amplification, and the mixing console--to be part of the music. The other part was very practical; we couldn't afford a separate monitor mixer and stage monitors, so we found the easiest way to keep the sound together was for me to sit with the musicians and hear what they were hearing.

EM:What kinds of problems did you have to solve with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the mix of instruments that they use?

KM: In the beginning it was mixing the acoustic saxophones,voice, and violins with the Farfisa organs. Basically what I did was put together a sound system that was like a rock and roll sound system.I miked everything like you did a rock and roll band, at least in those days, which was to stuff the mics up the saxophone bells so everything was really bright and present.

EM:I understand you use a Macintosh now?

KM: Yes, we have a Macintosh and Southworth's Total Music program. With this piece, Michael entered all the music into the Macintosh, then we set it up with all of the synthesizers and we did Macintosh-to-synthesizer--direct to 2-track tape--as a rehearsal tape for Twyla. Now we've gone back and started adding real instruments.

MR: Total Music is the first program that I've worked with that actually is usable for doing a complete piece of music. Before that I'd been working with the Commodore 64; its deficiencies were aggravating to the point of making it useless.

But this software still has a lot of bugs in it and it's constantly being updated. Once I got used to the system and figured my way around a few catastrophic bugs, though, it became quite a pleasure to work with.

As far as adding the real instruments is concerned, since we're running out of tracks, we're going to try linking up Total Music to the SMPTE time code on the tape while we're mixing it, and play a lot of synthesizers live while we're mixing.

MR: It seems to be possible. One of the latest updates is that Total Music is completely slaved to the MIDI clocks, so it gets its own song pointer and follows the tape wherever you go.

KM: We're using a Roland SBX-80 to read SMPTE from the24-track tape; the MIDI output with the clock and song pointer data feeds the Southworth, which follows the tape machine amazingly well.

EM:Michael, you're a classically trained keyboard player. I assume you have a certain amount of technical expertise.What's it like playing this kind of music that depends so much on really precise repetition of parts?

MR: That's the challenge of it really, the precise repetition. It's demanding physically and mentally to keep the rhythm steady and not lose your place. Since I've been doing it for such a long time, I've managed to develop a light touch on the synthesizer keyboard so that I can manage to sustain this for a whole performance. If I was playing this as a piano and pushing hard on all the keys I' d wear myself out.

EM:But you do use the touch-sensitive DX7 . . .

MR: That's the first of what will probably be a growing army of touch-sensitive keyboards. We tend to sort of not jump in with the latest technology. We let it settle down a little bit and then when it becomes fairly standard we add it and work it into the live performance.

EM:Your recording methods for Satyagraha were unusual for a large orchestra.

MR: Christopher Keene was the conductor of the New York City Opera and he was the one we chose to do this performance of Satyagraha since he'd conducted the work several times. He came with his rehearsal pianist and we recorded him conducting the rehearsal pianist to get the tempos he liked, the vibratos, tempo shifts, etc. Then I created a click and synthesizer guide track based on that performance. That's what we used when we went into the studio to record the orchestra. Then after the orchestra was on the tape, I replaced that guide track, which was a very simple synthesizer sound,with the appropriate sounds, like strings, woodwinds, etc. Also the performance of that guide track was done on a computer and it was very mechanical and uninteresting.

KM: When we recorded the orchestra, we broke the orchestra,the chorus, and the principal singers up into sections. We did the strings, basses, winds, chorus, and principals, by themselves. That way we could set the EQ for each section the way we wanted, and we also got into different types of reverb for each section.

EM:In fact, I noticed that the reverb on Douglas Perry is a little unusual sometimes. He's in one channel and the reverb,especially on hard consonants, is in the other.

KM: I like that actually. It was quite intentional. In pop music this isn't very extraordinary, but in classical music--when we make records, the records are the art. Our records are not a sonic photograph of the performance. Our records are the performance and only meant to be heard on the record. We're not interested in reality.

MR: We have occasional arguments about just how far to go in that direction; I like things that are not too extreme. I think we keep it reasonably close to what the real voices and instruments sound like.

John Diliberto is the producer of Totally Wired: Artists in Electronic Sound, a weekly program on electronic music produced for Pennsylvania Public Radio Associates and broadcast on public radio stations across the United States.