Work in Progress: An Oral History of Philip Glass

GODFREY REGGIO (Filmmaker): I’ve never looked at [Glass’] music as minimalist. I don’t like that term. I think it’s a term developed for those that didn’t understand what was happening with that whole movement of music. To me it’s metamorphic music, which is completely different than minimalist. It’s constantly changing and ascending and never reaching the top. It’s like life itself. It’s constantly ascending but never reaching because life is a circle. So it’s completely circular music that opens up the heart to another point of view. What I love about music is that it has a different response for different people. If there were a hundred people listening to it, and they all had the same response, it wouldn’t be so interesting. When I chose a composer to start working with almost 35 years ago, I was looking for someone whose music didn’t tell you what to feel or think or do. I wanted music that—I hate to use the word, but let me use it—had a spiritual language to it. And I found that Philip, in fact, has created a musical language of his own which moved me deeply. It was not the 12-tone Western scale, which he studied. I’m not an expert at it, but I would say it comes more out of the tradition of Vedic Hindu chant, of something that is actually quite close to jazz but in a more ritualized form. In film, emotion is at the top tier, beyond technique. Technique’s at the service of emotion. Music portends a direct transmission to the soul of the listener. So all of that, he gets a view of and then he starts writing where he’s motivated to go.

MORRIS: He’s an anti-film-composer composer, which makes him a really great film composer. There’s a whole idea of film composition that somehow you’re supposed to score to picture. You’re supposed to underline the drama of a particular scene, reference it, accentuate it. The music serves as dramatic underlining for material that is already there. One of the things that’s fascinating about Philip’s music, at least in my work, is it doesn’t comment on the action. But my movies are really hard to write music for. If you’re writing a score for say, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, or for a traditionally dramatic scene with actors, it’s very different than when you have to write music for these stretches of people talking. It is operatic because you’re writing a line for a single person. It provides a strange kind of metaphysical underpinning to what is going on. It’s a different idea about the use of music in pictures.

When I was editing The Thin Blue Line, I had always imagined that there would be re-enactments. I put Glassworks against them, and it was extraordinary. It was just absolutely clear. Then the problem became, do I get someone to write a Philip Glass-like score, or do I get Philip Glass? He was not terribly interested. I had a really hard time getting him to look at a rough cut of The Thin Blue Line. It took months and months and months. I finally got him to a screening and immediately after the screening he said he was writing the music. After he saw it, there was never any question at all. Philip wrote a lot of music for the movie and it was great, but it didn’t work. And I thought, Oh no. What am I going to do? And then suddenly I realized, well wait a second, what if I just switch the music around? What if I just put the cues where I want to put them instead of where he had intended to put them? What if I leave off two measures of ostinato at the very beginning? What then? And as I started to work with the music, it was clear that a lot of it was really, really good. Additional material had to be written and we would argue about it. Philip can be difficult, but he has never, ever failed to work with me. He’ll complain about me, but in the end he will always create a great score. Philip has told me that it’s one of the pieces of music that he’s most proud of.

HARRINGTON: We had so much fun doing the Dracula soundtrack together. There are certain moments in there that are just vintage Philip Glass. It’s so beautiful, and the rhythms and the harmonies and the propulsion that it gives are fantastic. The original version basically didn’t have a soundtrack, and I think it achieved a status in the culture that is quite distinct. It was a pretty gutsy idea to try to make a soundtrack to that film, but I think what happens is you really feel that the music in that film has united things in a new way. There’s a bit of Wagner in the original, he included that in the soundtrack and the way he does it is so perfect. I can’t imagine the film without that music.

RIESMAN: When it came to doing the live score of Dracula, Kronos said, Well we can’t really do it live, it’s too demanding to do the whole thing just nonstop like that. And also, how would they stay in sync with the picture? So Philip came up with the idea that he’ll arrange one-and-a-half piano parts for him to play, and me to play one handed and occasionally two handed, and be able to conduct with my other hand. Basically, pianos would take over a lot of the arpeggios and busywork that’s involved, and the strings could play more lyrical parts and not have to work so hard.

PAUL SCHRADER (Filmmaker): Because Mishima was such a puzzle box of things, I was looking for a unifying principle, and I thought that might be music. Somebody suggested Phil, so I approached him and told him, “You make the river, I’ll make the boat. The river will flow from the first frame to the end and will carry our boats with it.” Philip read the script, read the novels, biographies, came to the set—we were in Tokyo—but he did the score without seeing the film. He did a kind of 40-minute opera piece based on the books and on the script. From there, I had this piece of music which was roughly analogous to the script. Then I had to edit the film, so I kept changing the music—doubling it, repeating it, editing it so it all fit. Then I played it for Phil and I said, “Well, I really messed up your music here, but now it all fits—all the sync-points are right, the click track is right.” So he listened to it, understood, then went back and wrote a second score. The first one was done as an inspiration, the second one was done as a synchronized task. His first score was synth, the second score we did with an orchestra. The Kronos Quartet did all the string parts, but it was also orchestral. That score has become so famous—you hear it in elevators. Also, you hear it in other movies. Because we couldn’t pay Phil what he deserved, he retained the rights to the score. When you hear Mishima in another movie or in a commercial or something—and you do hear it—it’s a theatrical score. There’s no way we could have paid him what he would have merited. The weirdest place I’ve ever heard the score was in Walmart.

SUZANNE VEGA (Musician): When I heard the Mishima album, I asked [Glass] if he was trying to express anything emotionally. He said no. It was just his work that he was doing. One time he was talking to me about a Paul Simon song and he said, “Can you imagine that Paul Simon wrote a song about a photograph, and it was about a real photograph that he actually had?” I was like, But Phil, that’s the way most songwriters write, about personal things in their personal lives. That’s what most people do.

CLOSE: Phil was married to a woman [Luba Burtyk] who was a physician. She was from somewhere in Eastern Europe—Romania, Bulgaria, something like that—and her mother came over to visit. So Phil’s wife took her to the Whitney, and she showed her the painting I did of Phil. And she said, “Oh, your husband must be very powerful and famous,” and she said, “Well he’s a very well-known, very respected composer.” She said, “No, no—really powerful and famous.” She had never seen an image of anyone’s face that big that wasn’t one of those huge Eastern Bloc Soviet images of Lenin that are five stories high. The assumption was that he was politically powerful and politically important and not important as a composer. I sort of liked that idea because he was anything but well-connected, powerful or whatever when I painted him; it really made her mother’s day.

Above Photography: Phillipe Gras, Nubar Alexanian.

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