This Great Experiment of Ours: Interview with Philip Glass

Philip Glass heads to Iowa City
Philip Glass plays Mission Creek at the Englert Theatre on April 3 with Oneohtrix Point Never. — illustration by Jacob Yeates

When humanity has moved on and all that remains are the insects making their own music, Philip Glass will sit next to Beethoven, Wagner and Schubert in the history books. His work, often misclassified as minimalism, is more accurately described by Glass himself as “music with repetitive structures” — it is hypnotic, emotive and transcendent. During his prolific career he has composed for opera, ballet, film soundtracks, small ensembles, solo piano work and more. He has collaborated with musicians and artists such as Ravi Shankar, Chuck Close, Allen Ginsberg and Errol Morris, as well as acts like The National. He was also the subject of the documentary A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts directed by Scott Hicks in 2007.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Philip Glass via telephone about several subjects, including his upcoming performance at the Englert Theatre on April 3 as part of the Mission Creek Festival.

Little Village: When you were a boy, your father owned a record store. Wasn’t that your introduction — how you learned about music?

Philip Glass: My father owned a record store most of his life, actually. He evolved from being a car mechanic to being something of a connoisseur about music. All by ear, all through just listening. In Baltimore, he was famous for being the guy to go to for any kind of music.

LV: I think the record store — the Record Collector here in Iowa City — is a type of center of community; people go there to find out what’s going on with the music in town.

PG: My [dad’s store] was like that. I was working in the store before we had child labor laws. No one thought there was anything wrong with that, that’s what people did. And we weren’t paid for [working] either — it was a family business and we did our part.

But, by the time I was 14, I was the record buyer for the classical division of the store. I had learned a lot about music. I had been studying music since I was six, and I was studying at the Peabody Conservatory since I was eight. So, by the time I was 14 I had a very good background in music. And because of my father’s interest in music, which I shared, or which he shared with me, I should say, I was able to keep up with new releases and new composers. It was very natural. When I think back on my childhood, one of the positive things was not that my father was a musician, but [that] he knew music and he loved music and he shared it with everyone he could.

LV: It’s important for children to be immersed in music at an early age or at least introduced to music. It seems to change their way of thinking.

PG: Well, of course, music education is a powerful tool. We learn discipline, we learn patience, we learn how to practice. We learn the value of delayed gratification.

LV: Boy, that’s rare these days.

PG: Well, you have no way to grow otherwise. One of the great things when I grew up — and I was born in ‘37 — any school you went to in Baltimore, you could have practically handed an instrument to the student when they walked into the school. Music education was pervasive. It’s not that most people didn’t become musicians, but it was the training that was important. Music has a systemic way of teaching. It’s like learning to read, it’s like learning to do math. It can be learned. But it’s a disaster that music education has been uprooted and abandoned. One of the tragedies of our time is that we’ve gutted our educational systems. We started with music because it was considered somehow to be filler instead of being a core educational experience, which is what it is. Anyway, don’t get me started, I’ll burn your ears off with that (laughs).

LV: When you returned to New York from your studies with Nadia Boulanger, you were performing in a different environment, in a very uncontrolled environment in lofts and galleries with your ensemble, experimenting with new wave in Polyrock, and also performance art. It’s an informal environment compared to your later work, your operas and what not.

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PG: It was informal administratively and structurally. But in terms of the music, it was extremely formal. This was not improvised music, it was music that had to be mastered. Some people really thought that we were just wailing away (laughs). But you hit the nail on the head when you talked about being informal in that way, in that I was not connected to a university, I was not connected to any school or any publishing company or even a record company. We were out playing music.

I was very lucky to find very good people. At that time I was living in New York and there were very good players around who wanted to play, and we had regular rehearsals and we had very high standards of playing.

LV: How did audiences respond to those performances, “Music in Contrary Motion,” “Strung Out,” “1+1”?

PG: Well, it wasn’t an overnight success. But, between ‘67-’68 when I had my ensemble, we got a few people. I mean, if we had 20 people at a concert it was good: Let’s put it this way, if there were more people in the audience than on the stage, we could consider (the show) a success.

LV: That sounds like our local shows here.

PG: But we were doing it. Now, however, by ‘76, about seven years later, I was playing the Metropolitan Opera House to a full house. It was virtually overnight that we found an audience.

LV: I think it’s really encouraging for young musicians to hear that you played in front of 20 people, that you were in control of your environment.

PG: In the early ‘70s I had a loft on Bleecker and Elizabeth Street where I played every Sunday afternoon to whoever would come. I would put signs up in the neighborhood in the East and West Village, and people would come and put a few dollars into a hat and that’s what we did. We played every weekend and we built up an audience and that was interesting.

What happened was that we began to do concerts. You know what it was, it was just luck. There’s always luck involved. It must have been a historical moment, a moment where something needed to happen. There had to be a profound change in the way new music was played and listened to. There was a change that was about to take place and it was taking place. It was also taking place in popular music, it was taking place in film and it was taking place in theater. There were big changes going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

LV: One of my favorite quotes I’ve read from you says, “When society becomes unhinged, the arts get really good.” And I’m thinking the art must be getting really good now!

PG: That’s very true. Let me tell you something, I’m living in New York, which is not a bad place to be because you do see things like that. There’s a generation of performers — and I’m talking about theater and dance and music — people who are hovering around the age of 30 and their work is innovative and it’s strong. It’s self-confident, it’s global. It’s transgenerational, it’s transracial, it’s transgender. It has nothing to do with the normal categories that people work with.

LV: And it’s accepted, respected too.

PG: I’m telling you, it’s going on right now. I can go to a theater in lower Manhattan or in Brooklyn or sometimes Greenwich Village, there are performers and work being done that is really innovative. People say, “Well when is this going to happen?” — it’s happening right now!

LV: Do you think the fact that it exists is the protest, is the social message? Or do you think there is sometimes a general malaise?

PG: I think that’s what happens. I think when parts of society, maybe the older, white parts, maybe other parts of society become resistant to any kind of values that this country was raised on, [they] are always yelping about their values being violated by political extremists. But, I remember the ‘50s and McCarthy. And, that was a time when people like [Allen] Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Ornette Coleman, people were changing the world with poetry and music. That was going on while the [The House Committee on Un-American Activities] was trying to persecute Americans.

LV: And did they live in fear of being targeted?

PG: They did not. People like Joe Papp, who started the Public Theater in New York, he was invited to, or I think he had to go to the Un-American Committee — I call it the Un-American Committee: They called us un-American but they were performing un-American activities, so I call them the Un-American Committee. [Papp] went there and at the time he probably wasn’t even 30 years old. If you read the transcripts of these interrogations, they are pompous. They asked him if he knew any commies and he laid into them. He said “You people should be ashamed of yourself.” If the Bard, meaning Shakespeare, was alive today — I mean, he roasted them, he roasted them. And he was only 29 years old.

Not everybody was afraid, people like [Papp] were speaking out. People like that, you can’t shut them down … How can you stop people with imagination and energy whose values are so close to the bedrock of American values. And that’s what I see. This is a real democracy. I don’t mean the democratic party or the Republican party, I mean the spirit of our country. It’s alive and it’s around us.

LV: Let’s talk about your upcoming performance here at The Englert Theater.

PG: It will be a range of piano music that I have been writing for a while now. And it works in parallel with work I’ve done in ballet and in film and in opera. I think I will be playing a piece I did with Allen Ginsberg using his voice. That will be a blast from the past.

It’s interesting because when you hear Allen and you hear the words, it’s very much a part of the experience that we are having in our country today. Not just our country, but a shift into what we call this global information age. It’s causing all kinds of profound changes and it’s threatening to some people.

But we are redefining what we think is knowledge and what we think is experience, what we think is ethics and what we think is morality. Nothing is untouched by the kind of social and technological changes that are happening. I think humanity is going through a big growing period and I hope we get through it without destroying the environment (laughs).

Look, there’s very few things on the planet right now that were around half a million years ago. I’ve read somewhere that the most ancient thing, the thing that has changed the least, is the insect world. The cockroaches have been the same for a long, long time (laughs). That may be true, but it’s not a very encouraging thought. Still, [this is] our time, whatever it may be and however long it may last. This great experiment of ours — I call it ours, some people may disagree with that on religious grounds, of all things, but we have a responsibility to that — it’s a tremendous, innovative experiment, and one of the things that we’ve learned is that one of the biggest sacrifices is impermanence. Nothing is going to stay the same. It’s all going to change. And that’s our lesson to learn.

Brendan Lee Spengler is a writer and musician originally from Memphis, TN. He started taking piano lessons at the age of five. His favorite piano teacher was Kellye Cash, Johnny Cash’s niece and Miss America 1987.