Philip Glass discusses 75 years of staying fresh.
Dressed in a long sleeve black T-shirt and blue jeans, Philip Glass eases onto a couch in a corner room of his spacious Dunvagen studio. A few blocks away are the SoHo buildings where, nearly 50 years ago, Glass staged concerts in derelict lofts to air his maddeningly beautiful ideas about sound and rhythm. His venues have grown but still there’s a feisty independence and curiosity about him.
Running a hand through his trademark rebellious curls, Glass says, “We’re stealing this office for the afternoon. But it’s okay. I pay the rent.” The joke rings true: Glass is the boss around here, he just doesn’t act like one. The soft-spoken composer often slips from “I” to “we” while talking, the habit of a lifelong team player. Listening to him feels like hearing a cabbie hold court—naturally social, disarmingly unpretentious, happy to share observations on a pathway that is more important than the destination.
How many hours a day do you work on music? Well, it depends. A good day for me is eight to ten hours. An excellent day for me is 11 hours. A bad day is three hours. My bad days are most people’s good days. I go much further than them. Like, I was up this morning early, I took my kids to school, I spent two hours working, I’m talking to you, I’m going to go home, I have another meeting, then I’m going to work probably three to six, then I’ll be up to five hours, and then it’s six o’clock, then after dinner I’ll work another two or three hours. So this will be a seven or eight hour day.
Out of everything you’ve written, what’s your personal favorite? There’s a group of pieces that I did with Godfrey Reggio, the Qatsi films. I like the fact that he was bringing in a popular form and using it to discuss issues of social importance. And also Satyagraha, the opera about social change through nonviolence. I’ve done a lot of abstract pieces, symphonies, piano works, string quartets, but I think the ones that involve social issues have been particularly interesting for me.
When I read about your ensemble performances in the late ’60s and ’70s, people talk about volume and a very much in your face, immersive experience. How has that dynamic evolved over the years? Why did you choose to perform Music in Twelve Parts, a 38-year-old piece, at the Tune-In Festival? Well, Twelve Parts is a classic “loud” piece. I tried not to make [the Tune-In Festival, which included works and performances by many friends and collaborators], only myself and my music, it’s not that interesting to me. I hear it all the time. It’s like having a candy store with only one kind of candy. After a while, let’s get something else in the store. I have another festival that I’m doing out in California called the Days and Nights festival. I feature a guest composer every year. I’d like to get someone under 30. I think under 30 is—as my friends under 30 say—I think that’s cool. I like having young people around. I think they’re very interesting. Your magazine is about the digital age, and that is what this is about, very much about that. We’re now into a new musical language. By fate or by chance, my work fits into that. And for a strange reason.
Years and years ago in the ’60s, I was working as Ravi Shankar’s assistant. I became very familiar with his work, and I studied the rhythmic structure of classical North and South Indian music. And what I discovered was that the music was organized around groups of twos and threes. I was talking to a drummer from India recently, and I said, “‘Has it ever occurred to you that the rhythmic language of music is binary?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Twos and threes.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Ones and zeroes.” He said, “Yeah!” I said, “Binary language.” You can call it what you want to, but that’s what it is. Long strings of ones and zeroes. It turns out to be the best carrier of information. That’s why we like digital recordings. 1981, I did an analog and a digital recording at the same time. And we spent days afterwards listening to see what the difference was. It was a big deal in 1981.
Which was your preference? We went digital. The irony, meanwhile, is the analog has more warmth. The reasons, finally, came down to very subjective words. “Warmth,” “clarity,” things which are hard to quantify and to describe beyond the words themselves. They are adjectives where you try to hem in something through descriptive words, but you’re not actually talking about the things themselves. What we liked about the digital was that we could put more music on the record. I wasn’t even thinking about it as a digital language until I began noticing that young people still come to my concerts. I was thinking, Why is that? The expectation is that the audience gets older with the artist. You go to a Rolling Stones concert, there’ll be guys and girls in their 50s and 60s. If you go to a James Blake concert, there’ll be guys there in their 20s and 30s. As James Blake gets older, probably his audience will get older with him. And there’s something comforting about that. Generally speaking, my audience should be closer to my age than they are. They’re actually half my age.
How do you think that happened? Digital language. The structure of my music is familiar. It hasn’t occurred to anybody, because people say, “Oh. Glass is a minimalist.” That’s the end of the discussion. But if they take the word away and say, “Well, what’s actually happening to the music?” and they actually start to look at it, they say, “Oh. It’s music based on a digital language.” It’s music that cycles and recycles through changes of a basic arithmetic element. If you look at Einstein on the Beach, which we’re doing again, is it really hard to count? I said, No, not really. If you can count to eight, you can count Einstein on the Beach. There’s a lot of different ways of counting to eight. You can do, “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,” you can do, “One-one-two-two-three-three-four-four-five-five-six-six-seven-seven-eight-eight,” I’d say the actual number of two to the eighth power would tell you how many different permutations there are—the mathematical formula for all the permutations of eight elements.