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Interview with Philip Glass

img  Tobias

I know you were a classically trained musician. What was your introduction to the synthesizer and electronic music?
Introduction to the synthesizer? Well, I was working with electronic pianos and keyboards in the mid-70s, and the minute the first synthesizer had became available, and that was in the late 70s, I immediately switched over to those. It wasn’t that I was introduced to them, but they were introduced to me, so to speak. I was already in the music world, working in the field of live electronic music, and synthesizer simply became the standard at a certain point, because that was what was available, and that was what people used. I was working also with amplified instruments and amplified keyboards, partly as a way of achieving a special sound through mixing, which I had begun to do in the mid-70s. So I was very well-oriented towards the idea of combining acoustic instruments with electronic sounds. That was very basic to my work, even as long as 30 years ago.

I talked to [the late] Robert Moog about a year ago, and he claimed that his intention for the synthesizer was never for it to replace existing acoustic instruments, but to have a sound unique to itself as an instrument. It seems as though the reverse of that has happened.
Yeah, different things have happened. As you might expect, of course, he was still a great innovator and inventor in that field, but there was no way that he could predict what was going to happen. The thing about technology that’s so interesting is that the applications are usually far different from what the inventors have in mind, because the applications are created by other people, and not by the inventors. The inventors may have one idea of what they want to do, but the applications go in a completely different directions. That happens in medicine all the time. You know, people invent or discover a drug that works for arthritis, and the next thing you know, it helps you if you have a sore knee, or something like that. And no one knows why that’s going to happen, but the applications of an invention are almost always quite different from the creation itself.

When you started using synthesizers, did you see them someday replacing pianos and violins and such in the future?
No, because I also played acoustic piano, and I never really wanted to give that up, and I haven’t. I play acoustic piano on a lot of my current works, and do so on tour as well.  They are just different instruments, in the same way that I would say that, you know—the modern concert grand piano has not actually replaced the harpsichord. There’s a whole literature for the harpsichord which is still very much played. The music was written for that instrument, and, in fact, people are writing for the harpsichord today. I’ve written a harpsichord concerto. So if you look at how technology has evolved, it doesn’t actually replace instruments. It rather augments the choices that a composer might have in his work.

When you’re composing music for a visual performance, such as dance film, what is your process?
Well, the essential process is to work with the collaborator. If it’s a poet, I need to look at the poetry, if it’s a dancer, we need to talk about the dance, and likewise, if it’s a filmmaker, I need to look at the images. So the essential part of the process is interfacing with the other contributors to the project, and through that, through our discussions and thinking together, an approach evolves that emphasizes the commonalties of the contributions, and draw, I think, the best way that the project can go to.

Do you get bombarded with people trying to get you to work with them on projects? How do you choose which projects you end up working on?
Oh, yes. Well, I wouldn’t say bombarded, but a lot of things come in that I don’t get a chance to look at. I often know people before they call me—that’s one thing that factors into considering a project. But there are people that I work with whom I haven’t met before, that have either been recommended to me by other people, or I’ve seen their work before, or it’s either been recommended by other people or I’ve seen their work—things rarely fall out of the blue. I t just doesn’t work that way.  For example, I’m writing a new opera over the next couple of years, and I’m thinking about a writer who I know, I know his work, but I’ve never actually spoke with him. So we’re just getting to know each other now. But I’ve been very familiar with his work for a long time. So things like that happen. It’s very rare that someone will send a story idea—in fact, it never really happens—in the mail, and though I get those in the mail all the time, it doesn’t generally turn into anything. 

So what is the connection between minimalist composers and art galleries? It seems like the two have been interconnected for a really long time now.
Oh, there’s a very real connection. In the early ‘70s, the minimalist composers of the time, we were more or less banned from concert halls. We couldn’t play in concert halls, because the music establishment of that time did not consider this to be the correct direction that new music should take, and we were punished by being denied access to concert halls, and to the funding that supported a lot of new music. On the other hand, the art world, with the galleries and the network of museums around the world, were very keenly interested in the new ideas in music. The rate of change in the visual art world is much quicker, more rapid, and more diverse, than ever happens in the music world. So they weren’t frightened at all by what we were doing, and we were welcomed into museums, and into galleries, and I would say from 1967—for about 10 years—that was exclusively where I played.


You cut across so many genre and cultural boundaries with your music—you can hear your music in office buildings to horror films and zoos. Why do you think this is?
You mean, why do people like my music? Who knows! (laughs) I don’t know! Partly, I think, though, it has do with my own interests. I have a very broad interest in music that is not confined to Bach. I’m very interested in popular music and world music and jazz music and folk music. I always have been. But in that way, I’m a rather typical American, and not so typical of Europeans, who tend to think of music in terms of the “high art music” and the “commercial music.” In America, we have a much broader view of it, and that’s the view that I have. For example, I consider Paul Simon to be one of the great song writers of our time. To me, music—the distinction with music is not so much whether it’s popular or commercial or art or opera, but whether the emphasis is on originality or in packaging. You can take new music, or modern music, and package it just the way you can package commercial music. But people who are inventive with the language could be doing anything! They’re not interested in practicing—they’re interested in invention!  And those people are liable to turn up anywhere. So that’s been my conviction and experience, and since I have an interest in all facets of culture, and all people that make up those facets, I think it’s reflected in what I do. Naturally, since I’m a performer, I’m out playing all the time. The mix of audiences—I probably fifty or sixty concerts a year! So I’m seeing audiences all the time. They’re not strange creatures to me. They’re familiar to me, and I am often in the position where I am playing in front of a number of people, and the interaction between myself and the public is vital and frequent. So that also makes a big difference. I’m not dealing with an abstract art form hat I can put away in a closet somewhere—it’s out in the world, all the time. I think all those things tend to shape my music into a more popular form than you might normally find among experimental composers.

by Holly Day

Homepage: Philip Glass

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