Work in Progress: An Oral History of Philip Glass

MUHLY: Philip is one of the very few classical composers who has anything like employees, which is a big distinction. For a lot of people, it’s a sign of weakness or having sold out or whatever, but actually it’s the opposite because it makes him responsible to his community, which is how composers used to be. I think the modern reality of being a composer is that, because there’s not that much money in it, you kind of keep what you can. Philip is totally different. Everything he makes is just continually recycled through this big ecosystem of people. When I first started working, it was probably the biggest it was. It was ’99, ’00 and ’01, and it must have been like 15 to 20 people who had full-time employment.

One of the first jobs I did, at which I was terrible, was I worked with his archivist, who’s this amazing woman named Jeri [Coppola]. She didn’t really read music, so if stuff had a title on top of it, she knew what it was, and she kept it in a box. But then there was this other thing that was just filled with paper, kind of Hoarders-style and nothing was labeled. There were a couple hundred pieces of manuscript that we just couldn’t figure out what it belonged to. Just hanging out. A lot of it we could figure out by what pencil he was using, because it used to often be the case that music was written on paper, and he was like, Oh, that was before we called those people in Chicago and got this kind of paper.

HARRINGTON: One time we were in [Glass’] home doing his very first string quartet. It had never been played before—I think it was written in the ’60s. He’d never heard the piece before. It was really great. He was mystified by it. He was like, Why would anybody do that? It was so different from what he was doing then, he had moved to a different place.

DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES (Conductor): Sometimes I’ll say, “These notes aren’t right,” and he’ll go back and look at his manuscript and go to the piano and play it again, and he’ll say, “You may not like it, but that’s exactly what I meant.” And at that point, you know, I have to back off. Most of the time he’s absolutely right on the money. You know, Philip’s ear is extraordinary. He has developed an acumen for expressing himself, not only musically but alsoinstrumentally.

MUHLY: One of the great things that Michael Riesman does, which is partially based on the way Philip’s music works, in the foreground and the background, is that the premise is the loudest instrument playing pretty loud—as loud as the softest instrument, so if you listen to those things, for instance his Fifth Symphony…it’s like those early Pixar movies where it’s a total revelation how in focus everything can be. Even with stuff that’s totally background detail, every blade of grass is individually animated. That’s one instance of Michael’s reaction to Philip’s aesthetic. I think Philip’s music works really well that way. It also works very well in a different way if you just see it in an orchestra, in a hall, in a traditional setting.

RIESMAN: Philip got busier writing more film music and doing more orchestral music, needing someone to oversee recordings. I basically assumed the role of a full-time music director. As the years went by, Philip really got to trust me completely. In the early years, he would show up to recording sessions and mix sessions, now he tends to not show up. You know, “Let Michael do it. He’ll be fine.”

S. VEGA: Philip can say things really bluntly, but he doesn’t mean to be critical. He asked me if I would do a song for this movie Jenipapo. He had written a song based on a poem. He said to me, “Oh Suzanne, you’ll be so pleased because you have three really good notes, and all three of them are in this song. I put them there for you.” I don’t think he was joking. Either he was teasing me or he was just speaking factually, but I know what he meant: when you listen to the song, there is a kind of geometry—it’s sort of triangular.

For Songs From Liquid Days, I brought Philip all these different ideas of lyrics that I had lying around the house, and some of them were sort of darker material. He really liked some of those pieces. He didn’t shy away from the darker side. He looked at my stuff and within five minutes said, “I’ll take this song, and that song,” and then he said, “They’re both apocalyptic visions expressed through the landscape.” I was really startled, because he had just looked at it and analyzed the pieces and then chose the two that he felt belonged together and then gave them back to me having explained what they were about. I remember another time, him telling me that the melody of my song “Undertow” was sophomoric. I was slightly miffed because he’s known for repeating arpeggios, which is not exactly soaring arcs of melody, either.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author): One of the semi-miraculous things about Philip actually agreeing to do musical work for The Hours was I had been for some years listening to Philip Glass’ music as I wrote other books. When I got stuck writing, I could put on Satyagraha or The Photographer, and it would change the air in the room, it would remind me of what you can do with sound, and therefore by implication, with language. Philip Glass has been a very reliable unsticking device for a long time.

With The Hours the thought was we could hire Philip Glass, and he’d probably say no, but he said yes. He produced this amazing score. There were a couple funny things about it. Not only did it reflect the period we were seeing at any given moment, it was complete in the not-so-usual way of, in most movies, when you get to a big scene, that’s when the music rises. Actually, all the big scenes in ours are played without music. Philip’s music is all about the transitions. And they cranked up the volume. It’s actually played at about twice the volume most movie scores are played at. So it’s in your face, it’s in your ears, the way that most movie music is not. And by the way, a lot of Hollywood people didn’t like it. “It’s too loud, it’s too obtrusive.” They were, of course, wrong that they did not give Philip the Oscar he so richly deserved.

REGGIO: In a naive way, having not been educated to do what I’m doing, which is a blessing for me, I settled on Philip as soon as I heard his music and I have never changed my opinion. I could certainly work with other people, I guess, if I wished to, but I have no desire to. I feel at this late age and time, we’re just like children because we both get wildly excited about what we’re doing. Fortunately we’re blessed with enthusiasm and can pull this off. So I’m extremely pleased to work with him. It hasn’t changed, it only gets better.

CHILDS: It’s been lovely to be coming back together with Philip. Through all of the revivals of both Einstein and Dance, we never get sick of the music. I’m always happy to hear it again, and to live with it is so great. So you can imagine at the time I first danced to it, how I felt. It’s hard to explain it. It’s just really beautiful.

S. VEGA: I asked him one time, “Does it bother you that the press say [negative] things?” And he goes, “Oh yeah, one time I was so upset about something somebody said that I couldn’t work for a whole hour.” So whenever I see a review that I hate, I’m like, Look, be like Phil. Do your work and get on with it.

Above Photography: Ebet Roberts, Nubar Alexanian, Philippe Gras.

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