Saturday, March 6, 2010

PHILIP GLASS: A Touch of Class

Text by Dave Street
Interview © 1983 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article on composer / musician Philip Glass was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #11, in 1983. It was conducted by Dave Street.
Philip Glass is a modern musical phenomenon. At the same time he is sort of a modern Beethoven, an innovative classical composer who has challenged the traditional classical music world, and has simultaneously had an affect on contemporary rock’n’roll, as a producer and friend with many of the new music bands and musicians. He’s discussed music with the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and produced LPs by two new pop bands, Polyrock and the Raybeats. Unlike any classical composer, he also frequents New York’s rock’n’roll club scene in search of new talent and ideas.

He has also attracted a lot of young people to classical music as well. At his recent brilliant sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, there were even a few pop, punk, and New Wave musicians in the audience. His new album, Photographer, is one of the few classical LPs ever to hit the pop music charts. In this interview he talks about his music, rock’n’roll, and his life as an artist in America.

FFanzeen: What affect has pop music had on your own compositions?
Philip Glass: It’s generally something I’m very familiar with and live with all the time. My kids listen to it all the time. And often they’re listening to people who are friends of mine. One specific way it works, too, is that we’re often using the same technology of a recording studio. We’re working with the same kind of equipment that rock bands do. We use overdubbing and we use 24 tracks.

FF: Is that new in classical music?
Philip: It’s not done in classical music. The way classical music gets recorded is they think of a record as a sonic photograph. When they record a string quartet, it’s like taking a photograph of a string quartet. They record it as a performance. And from our point of view it’s like a very primitive way of working. When we do a record, we think of the record as a completely different thing form the performance, so we do it by doing just the basic tracks the way a rock band does. We’ll put on the keyboard tracks first, then we add the wind tracks and the vocal tracks. I can pretty definitely say that simply does not happen in classical music.

FF: So you’ve adapted the modern rock technology to your recordings?
Philip: Well, they grew up at the same time. In 1970, we began with an eight-track machine. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t have a 24-tradck machine. We have mastered the technology at the same time as other people were doing it. So I could talk to someone like Brian Eno about how he records this or that. Or talk to David Bowie about how he works in the studio.

FF: Has the traditional classical world held it against you for working the way you do?
Philip: They’ve held everything against me. The only thing they wouldn’t hold against me would be if I took a job teaching harmony at some jerk-water conservatory. But the main thing I’ve done that allies me more with pop music is that I actually play my music. I don’t just write music and send it out for other people to play. Except when someone’s doing a big opera, I’m there on stage playing the music.

FF: Aren’t your recordings shorter than most classical compositions as well; perhaps another influence of pop music?
Philip: Some are and some aren’t. Einstein on the Beach lasted five hours.

FF: But that was a spectacle unto itself.
Philip: Well, in some cases I’ve made shorter pieces with the hope that I’ll get on the radio a little bit more. And sometimes that has happened. But generally, pieces like Glass or the Photographer can be 20 minutes. A Mozart symphony is only about 18 minutes long.

FF: What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up as a young boy?
Philip: My father had a record store. In fact, when my brother and I were only 15, my father put us in our own record store in East Baltimore. And we had our own rhythm and blues record store. So we listened to everything from “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to Elvis Presley. I was still working there when Presley came out. So from the point of view of someone who was selling records at the time, I was really seeing the birth of rock’n’roll.

FF: Did you play rock’n’roll yourself at first?
Philip: No, I never did. I’ve never played popular music. And the funny thing is I’m working more with it now than I ever did before. I think the thing to remember is that I come from a tradition of notated music. In other words, music that is written down. And that’s really a tradition. When you talk about music the question is: do you improvise the music or are you playing things that you’ve written? I’m a guy who plays things that I’ve written. Of course, this has made me helpful to some of my friends in the pop world who don’t’ really read and write music. Like when I’m working with the Raybeats or Polyrock, people who generally work in written-down material. I can write things for them. For example, if they decide to bring in voices to put on top of something I can write the voice parts down. Stuff like that. That’s a very useful skill that helps when I work in pop projects. Which is something I really like to do. First of all, it’s a lot of fun to work with pop bands, and secondly, I might make money on it. Money’s important.

FF: Does it take longer to achieve financial success in classical music than in rock’n’roll?
Philip: It takes never in classical music. The only way you can make money in classical music is by teaching. You don‘t make it from writing music. When I was a student at Julliard, my teacher was a very well known composer. He did a lot of music. I asked him how much money he made from his publishing. He looked at me and said, “Forget it. You’ll never make a living writing music. Get it out of your head right now.” And, of course, I never did. But most classical musicians don’t’ make a living out of it.

FF: Do you make money playing out?
Philip: Not so much playing out. I make it on commissions. Like an opera company asking me to write them an opera. I make it from what they call “mechanical rights” from record sales. Or from “synchronization rights.” For example, like in the new remake of the movie Breathless, they’re using some of my music in it. It’s the new Richard Gere movie. That’s called a “synchronization right’; when any time music is synchronized with an image in video or film, that synchronization. The “mechanical rights” mean any time it’s on record. There are called the “subsidiary rights” that go along with a pieced of music. The performance rights are very little. Actually, when I go on tour, I pay the band members and I pay myself the same, but I don’t actually make money from that. Those kinds of things are to sell records and establish a presence in the record world.

FF: Do you enjoy playing out?
Philip: I do. I enjoy the playing. And I enjoy being in different cities. I didn’t enjoy the things in-between, like the bus rides or the plane rides. I don’t like being in 14 different hotel rooms on 14 different nights. I don’t particularly like the Howard Johnsons, which are all the same. The eating and sleeping, which is most of what touring is about, is kind of boring. What I do like is going to a town where I haven’t been before, like Santa Fe, and seeing a theater packed with people and playing music for them.

FF: Did you have to suffer much before you started being able to support yourself as a musician?
Philip: I was about 30 when I formed the Philip Glass Ensemble. We called it PGE for short. I had gotten out of college and lived in Europe for a while, and I had won a lot of prizes as a student, so I actually didn’t have to work hard until I was 30, because I had won so many prizes from grants and stuff like that. Then I completely changed the way I wrote music to what is recognizable as wheat I do now. And then the grants stopped totally. Is started the PGE that time and I’d say it took about 10 to 12 years of doing other kinds of work to support myself while I was trying to make a career from writing music. I don’t consider that very long. Twelve years isn’t very long when you consider that what I was doing was virtually unprecedented. The other thing is, I don’t mind it very much.

FF: You didn’t mind having to work a day job?
Philip: I liked it. I was a plumber for three years and I enjoyed that.

FF: And you were still doing your music at the same time?
Philip: I always had the music, because I had to write music for my band. I wrote at night or during the days I didn’t work. I worked for a moving company about 10 days a month; the 5 days at the beginning of the month and the 5 days at the end of the month. That’s when people move their furniture. I worked real hard for about 10 or 12 days and then spent the rest of my time writing music. And then I drove a cab for about 5 years, and I liked that. The thing is, I never thought that I was suffering. If I thought I was suffering, I probably would’ve had a hard time. But I liked being out on the street, meeting people, driving my car around; New York is a circus.

FF: So it took you about 12 years before you were a self-supporting musician?
Philip: That’s right, but I don’t think that’s very long. The trick about all these jobs is that they were transient. My first job I was working for a friend of mine. He was a plumber. And he was sensitive to my being a performer. And if I had to leave town and tour for a month, they’d let me go. And with cab driving, I’d just go up to the dispatcher at the garage and say, “I’ve got to visit my mother in Toledo. I’ll be back in a month.” And they didn’t care. These are all transient jobs. They are jobs that have no future, no security, and therefore there’s a big turnover. You can drop in and drop out of a job. So what I did is that. I would go on tour, and usually I would lose money in those days. I’d come back from our tour about $2000 in dept, and I’d work until I paid off the debt.

FF: You were known and famous in Europe at this same time?
Philip: We were known in Europe very well. We had played in Europe from 1970 to 1976, and very little in America. People in Europe had no idea that I was going home and driving a cab. Because in Europe, they support their artists as if it’s a real sort of profession. A composer there would never consider working as a night porter or a salesman in a dress shop. They would get money from the government. There’s a different respect for the arts there. Not that it’s always good. Basically, what we like in this country is television and sports. Our main entertainment is television, sports and movies. When you get into being an artist, you’re dealing on the fringe of society. Except for a few stars who support themselves, there’s no system to support creative people here. But when I went to Europe, they had no idea what I was doing here to make ends meet. In the garage where I worked, it was filled with painters and writers. This is generally how people do it in America. And it’s not unusual. It’s not a particularly romantic thing to do. People make a big deal out of it, but if you want to be an artist or a musician in this country, it takes a certain amount of grit just to get through it. The best way to get through it is not to feel sorry for yourself because no one asked you to be an artist in the first place. No one said to me, “Hey, why don’t you become a musician?” To the contrary, everyone told me not to do it. So you only have yourself to blame. You do it because you want to.

FF: You’ve worked with pop groups like Polyrock and the Raybeats. How did you get involved with them?
Philip: First of all, it’s music that I listen to. I go to the clubs and hear it. In the early days, it was CBGBs and all those other places in the East Village. I was at tone of the first B-52’s concerts. That was about 4 or 5 years ago. I was standing in this bar and Brian Eno walked by and said, “There’s this really good band I want you to hear.” So I went and listened to them. The other thing is that when I was playing in Europe in the 1970s, I met a lot of guys who formed their own bands and became very well known. Like Tangerine Dream. I was playing in Berlin in 1971 when they were just getting started. So they knew me. A lot of people like Robert Fripp were all going to the Royal College of Art school. Like Bowie and Eno, as well. Like a lot of American musicians come out of art school. And so they started coming to see me and they wanted me to hear their work. That’s how it happened. Actually, they got me interested in what they were doing because they were interested in what I was doing. I just started forming social connections. In a way, at the beginning, it never occurred to me that I would work with a rock band.

FF: How did it happen?
Philip: RCA Records signed Polyrock and they needed a producer, and they asked the band who they wanted to work with and the said me. And the funny thing is that the lady at RCA Records, Nancy Jeffries, thought I had never heard of rock’n’roll. She thought I was only a classical composer. She said to me, "Do you go to rock clubs?” And I said, “I go all the time.” And I’ve known the Raybeats for a long time. Donny and Jody used to play with James Black, so and so I knew them from the Contortions. It was really fun going to see them at Max’s (Kansas City) because James would go into the audience and get his face smashed in. And the thing I liked was that the band kept playing even when he got dragged out. No matter what happened to him, they kept playing. And they sounded like a band. They left and formed the Raybeats, which has become one of the prime influential dance bands. They asked me to write a song for them and I had always wanted to. And at one point, it just happened.

FF: Are you constantly looking for new acts to work with?
Philip: I don’t have to look. They just pop up.

FF: You get lots of offers from the pop world?
Philip: Not that much. Just enough to keep me interested. I do about one or two things a year. Like I just got through working with Ray Manzarak. He was the piano player of the Doors. I just did a big record project with him. Just a few weeks ago, I worked with Paul Simon in the studio on something he wanted to work on. So some of my collaborators are older people from my generation. But there are younger bands around. I don’t go looking for bands. I’m busy writing operas and ballets and really don’t go looking for projects. When something comes up that interests me, and someone asks me to do it, changes are that I will. It’s also another financial thing; it’s partially how we make a living.

FF: It seems that rock’n’roll lyrics are mainly concerned with teenage problems and young romance. Does classical music intentionally try to reflect any such area of the human experience?
Philip: I wonder. Most of the music isn’t literal that way except for the theater pieces I do. And the theater pieces I’ve worked on were people like Einstein and Gandhi. What I’m interested in with these cases is the dramatic impact these people’s lives made on us. And sometimes there can be violence in it, too. And there can be apocalyptic visions, too, like the Einstein opera. And the Gandhi opera had a whole piece about civil disobedience. And, of course, that’s starting to surface again, directed toward the anti-nuke thing. But all those kinds of political experiences I went through during the Viet Nam days and the civil rights days.

FF: Were you politically active then?
Philip: I didn’t’ do much marching. I wasn’t that politically active. I was in a few marches. I found marches scary. I didn’t like being chased by cops. I didn’t want to get my head busted. I was always sympathetic to it. But I never put myself in a position where I could get my head cracked. The interesting thing is that by dealing with social issues in theater pieces, you’re saying what you have to say. But in terms of the emotion of it, there’s really not that big a difference between, say, a classical work like Rite of Spring and the music of the Sex Pistols. I think that the music is radically different, of course. Stravinsky and the Sex Pistols couldn’t be more different. But in other ways, what you’re dealing with, the range of human emotions, is available to all of us. The difference between long-haired composers and short-haired composers in not very different when it comes down to emotional content. The means of expression may be different, but the human experience has got to be pretty much the same.

FF: It’s rumored that you’ve worked with David Bowie.
Philip: I haven’t worked with him. I’m friends with him and we’ve talked about music from time to time. As a matter of act, we have a project coming up right now. It has to do with Bob Wilson’s new piece on civil wars. The fifth act is supposed to be the American Civil War and he’s asked David to play Abraham Lincoln. And David said if I write the music he’s going to ask Iggy Pop to write the words. David and I have talked about doing things in the past, but either he'd be in one place or I’d be in the other. He comes to my concerts and I’m trying to get a ticket to see his. We’ve known each other for a long time. When he appeared (on Broadway) in The Elephant Man in New York, I went to see it. And a couple of weeks later I was playing at the Peppermint Lounge and he walked over from Broadway. And this up and coming project could be our first real collaboration. But we’ve talked about doing a lot of things.

FF: Is it true that you invite strange people up to your house for dinner?
Philip: Oh, sure. But the kids also bring a lot of people around to the house. If they want to have someone over for dinner, I make the dinner. The kids are with me very other week. The weeks they’re with me tend to be fairly sociable evenings. The weeks they’re not with me I don’t go out at all. So I guess I’m kind of a Jekyll-and-Hyde person that way.

FF: Do you do most of your composing at home?
Philip: Yes. I have one piano in our apartment. I live in a tow-room apartment in the Lower East Side. Most people seem to think that musicians all live in nice, fancy lofts though.

FF: Especially since you’ve been going the Johnny Walker ads. People must think you ride around in limousines for fun.
Philip: I’d like to. And maybe someday I will. There isn’t a lot of money right now in the music business. But remember, I see a lot of records for a classical composer: 80,000 to 90,000 records. But by pop standards, it isn’t very much.

FF: Do you find more younger people coming to your concerts?
Philip: Yes. The funny thing is, as I get older, my audience gets younger. On the average, I’m probably 20 years older than the audience. But that wasn’t always true. When I first started playing, the people who came to my concerts were my friends. And generally, that’s what happens: you get an audience and the audience grows with you. I think about the people who liked Bob Dylan and bought his records before are the same people who like him and buy his records now. I remember playing Bobby Dylan for my kids when they were about 8 or 9, and their questions were, “Why does he sing so funny?” Most people get locked into their generation. But there have been successively younger generations that have gotten interested in my music. Now, when I do a concert, there are usually a lot of people there in their mid-20s. And I’m in my mid-40s.

FF: Would you like to play in a rock’n’roll band someday, if only for fun?
Philip: I think it would be fun. Maybe some time that will happen.

FF: What attracted you to classical music over the pop music you had access to at your record store?
Philip: I liked the classical music. My father liked classical music and that was the music we played at home. He didn’t like to bring pop records home. I was studying flute at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and I started down the road of classical music. It’s what I was closest to, and that still remains to be true. But I have a very wide interest in all music. I’m not a snob about music, obviously, but my main outlet has always been classical.

FF: What are your favorite current pop bands?
Philip: I just heard this group, the Major Thinkers. I think they’re terrific. The Raybeats have always been favorites of mine.

FF: How do you meet new bands?
Philip: Friends of mine work in recording studios. And they recommend a new group that I should hear. And I still go to the clubs and hear new bands there.

FF: Have you listened to any of the hardcore music?
Philip: Not yet, but I guess I should.

FF: Do you have any closing words of advice for would-be musicians?
Philip: To the people who are interested in playing and writing music, I think that the craft and technique of it is something you can spend a lot of time at before acquiring it. The more you acquire, the easier it’s going to be to do the kind of work you want to do. If it’s an instrument you’re playing, really learn to play it. Those things take time. And there’s a certain period in your life when you have the time to do this, and that’s when you’re younger, because generally when you’re younger, you don’t have the pressures of family and financial pressures so much. So, it’s bets to master your craft when you’re young.


  1. Good stuff, Bob. Reminds me that I still gotta get around to ordering Koyaanisqatsi on DVD. :)

  2. Thanks, Bri

    I'm often amazed by your range of tastes in music. One of these days we gotta hang around and just talk and compare collections. Meet you in Kingston at your twin's some time, or you and yer lady can come out here and visit. Always cool to hear from ya.

  3. Great interview. Kudos to Dave Street. Also I had the pleasure of working (non-musically) with Lenny Aaron of Polyrock, a multi-talented, wonderful person.