Work in Progress: An Oral History of Philip Glass

Richard Gere, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Suzanne Vega, Spalding Gray

Over the course of his decades-long career, Philip Glass has cast a wide net of friends and collaborators. From his start as the art world’s musical darling, composing minimalist works in lofts in the ’70s, to his breakout as a widely recognized composer of avant-garde operas, symphonies and major motion picture film scores, Glass has remained a genre agnostic, faithful only to notes on the page and an uncompromising work ethic. We talked to a number of Glass’ contemporaries and collaborators about his sizeable output. Together they weave a portrait of the most famous outsider composer living today.

CHUCK CLOSE (Artist): I met Phil in 1964 when Richard Serra and Nancy Graves were living in Paris. I had a Fulbright to Vienna and I came over to visit them. He was studying with the great composer Nadia Boulanger. [Back in New York] we were constantly in someone’s loft, seeing either dance or a performance piece or music. I think the first score I heard was sort of the precursor to Music in Changing Parts. Experiments working towards that. We’d lie on our backs on the floor of someone’s loft and listen to the music. Of course, the music establishment had no interest in Phil whatsoever, so all his first performances were in art galleries like Paula Cooper, and the first performances outside of an individual loft were in museums. Visual artists really were his real supporters.

Phil was [Serra’s] first and only paid assistant. Phil was doing plumbing, and he plumbed two lofts for me—one on Greene Street and one on Prince Street. I think about the stuff that we used to move—you know, lead sculptures and stuff like that, and trying to get them up flights of stairs, and that Phil’s hands were at risk like that was amazing. Richard needed lots of bodies to help make his pieces, and so the rest of us worked to help him make these things, and it was really quite dangerous. I mean, I almost became a quadriplegic before I became a quadriplegic, when I was inside the original One Ton Prop (House of Cards), which is one ton of lead, and they just pulled me up out of it with a block and tackle and we were standing looking at it and the whole thing fell down. Richard was smart enough not to have other sculptors work for him. We could all expand his ideas without feeling like he was ripping us off.

LUCINDA CHILDS (Choreographer): In the ’70s, I’d gone to the lofts, listening to Philip and other musicians for hours and hours. I thought it was beautiful, the way Philip conducts. He sort of nods, and that means that they’re moving on to another figure. Their sheet music was not bound at the time, so they very often just tossed the page off the music rack and music ended up all over the floor at the end of the evening. I didn’t think about dancing to it because it was in and of itself so powerful, just to be there and listen.

MICHAEL RIESMAN (Composer and music director of The Philip Glass Ensemble): When I first heard his music, I thought, Jeez, how do they do that? How can they keep going, and how does it work? I was fascinated with it.

DAVID HARRINGTON (Violinist and founder of Kronos Quartet): One of the great things about working with Philip is that he’s not possessive about his music. Occasionally you run into someone who thinks their music can only be done in one way, and really believes in their notation and the sanctity of the way it’s been presented to us. Philip isn’t that way at all. There’s an openness to interpretation and experimentation that, to me, is really collaborative. As a performer, you feel very invested in the end result. You can put everything you know about music into his work and feel like you can be learning new things. It’s hard to describe it, but it’s partly a personality thing. He’s very comfortable in the musical situation of rehearsing and concerts. That’s another really important thing about him as a performer/composer: he knows what it feels like to be on the stage.

RIESMAN: I started working with Philip Glass basically because I found myself in the right place at the right time. It was 1974. I was an academic as of 1972 to ’73, where I was teaching at the State University of New York in Purchase. I wanted to get out of that world. I’d been hanging out in clubs, playing soft rock piano and doing some solo improvised piano concerts in some galleries downtown, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I met Philip through an artist friend before I had gotten to know his music. He took me to a Philip Glass concert where I heard the premiere of Music in Twelve Parts at Town Hall in 1973. It just so happened that his keyboard player—a guy named Bob Telson—had to leave. I had just given a concert at 112 Greene Street and one of the guys in Philip’s band, the saxophone player Dickie Landry, had heard my concert and the band was discussing, “Well, who do we know who’s been on the scene that might be the right person to play keyboards?” He said, “Why don’t we check out this guy Riesman?” I got an invitation to come and audition with Philip for an upcoming tour in the fall of 1974. That was the start, and I’ve been with him ever since.

ALAN VEGA (One half of the ’70s electronic duo Suicide): I saw him live at the Leo Castelli Gallery, sometime in the early ’70s. He just came down from uptown and was showing his art there, and playing as well. I know Marty [Martin Rev, keyboardist in Suicide] was there with me. We sat down, everybody sat down—there were a lot of people there—and after about 45 minutes Marty says, “Well, why don’t we just get out of here.” He started by playing solo, maybe two or three other people playing the same thing. He made only one note change in the whole thing. We knew which way it was going, we understood. The floor was very creaky, so Marty and I were crawling out from our positions. We had to crawl out from the creaks and it was embarrassing.

RIESMAN: There was a core of devoted fans that just loved what we were doing and thought it was the greatest thing. We were better known in Europe at the time. The first tour I did with Philip—that very first tour in 1974—we went to Berlin, Paris and Rome. At the same time, Philip has always had his detractors and we had some priceless reviews from the early years, headlines like “Glass Invents New Sonic Torture.” Some people hated it. There were sometimes violent reactions in the concerts. Somebody would just walk onstage and start screaming, “That’s not music!” or something.

NICO MUHLY (Composer and former assistant): There are a lot of problems with repetitive music because players don’t know how to play it. Repeated patterns—classical musicians are such a pain in the ass with that stuff. Even the best, best, best ones will be like, I don’t want to play that all night. If you look at like any guitar player who has to play the same thing all evening, it’s like, Shut up! It’s interesting because you’re not used to playing two notes forever. It’s a different kind of sensibility. It’s like one of those memory games where you add a gesture, and it always has to have that air of—not improvisation, but natural unfolding. A good example is part four of Music in Twelve Parts, where, at 12 minutes, the bass comes in and you’re like, Aha! Just revelatory moments where, if it had come in sooner, it would be like…oh. It’s using time as an element of composition. Where, instead of thinking about things like moment to moment drama, you’re thinking of this bigger time scale. If you listen to a late romantic symphony, it’s like a fast footprint, that doesn’t mean how fast the notes are going—even in the slow music it’s just shifting around—and in Philip’s stuff, the harmonic footprint is glacial. It’s basically like watching something happen very slowly. It’s time-lapse, essentially.

ERROL MORRIS (Filmmaker): I really bristle at people who say that Philip only writes one kind of music or one kind of thing. Philip says he really objected to being called a minimalist, and once an interviewer looked at him and said, “How about I just call you a New Age composer?” And Philip looked at them and said, “Minimalism will be fine.”

Above Photography: Lynn Goldsmith/CORBIS, Philippe Gras, Theo Audenaerd/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux, Michael Grecco, Ebet Roberts.

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POSTED May 1, 2012 9:55AM IN FEATURES Comments (2) TAGS: , , , , , , , , ,