There’s no mess in here; there’s David Messer, and a Messiah, but no mess…
Podcasting Marty

A Bit of a Chat with Philip Glass

Philip Glass (c. 1997) by Nick O’Sullivan.

A little while ago I was haunting one of my favourite secondhand music shops, Enthusiasms, when I found a Philip Glass seven-inch single. I was a bit amazed by it – it boasted the same cover as the album GlassWorks and featured the piece ‘Facades’ – from that album – on it’s A-side. The flipside featured ‘A Gentleman’s Honour’, a piece from the album The Photographer, which is essentially an opera about Eadweard Muybridge, the guy whose pioneering work in photography provided conclusive proof that there was in fact a point in a horse’s gallop when all four feet were not touching the ground. This had never been documented previously, apparently.

The Philip Glass single was a strange artifact. In Australia, Glass was always bundled with the serious composers: on the CBS Masterworks label, and later, when Sony bought the music arm of CBS, on the Sony Classics label. The single was a British pressing, on the Epic label – the imprint more famous for soul and rock releases. Clearly, the British were marketing him a little differently – as was evident in the sleeve notes on the back cover, courtesy of English music journo John Gill. I will not reproduce them in full, but a few quotes are worthy. The opening paragraph begins:

When someone can claim to have influenced David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, The Human League, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, Soft Machine and to have started a domino effect that rolled through European rock and North American soul, funk disco and rap, your suspicions are quite understandably raised. Especially when that person comes from the classical avant garde. But in reality that’s what has happened and his name is Philip Glass.

Pretty good stuff, huh? I’m gonna cut to the last paragraph:

His music is as gloriously uplifting as any of the classical masters, but is anchored to the sort of ferocious rhythm that could cause carnage on the dancefloor. That, I think you’ll agree, is unique.

Owning both a copy of GlassWorks and The Photographer , I had no idea why I had to own this single. The reason was revealed to me some months down the track when I was sent a press-release regarding Philip Glass’s most recent visit to Australia.

Over the last decade or so I have seen Glass perform a couple of times. The first time was a solo piano recital for the Sydney Festival, around 1996 or 1997. More recently, I had seen the Philip Glass Ensemble provide the music to the film Koyaanisqatsi , while the film played on a huge screen behind the musicians. It was spectacular.

This time around, Glass and his ensemble were providing live accompaniment to the entire ‘Qatsi’ trilogy: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and the most recent Naqoyqatsi. The films really are special: no dialogue or spoken narrative, just images, along with Glass’s distinctive music. But this performance season was particularly special, featuring a couple of world firsts: the first time Naqoyqatsi was being accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble, and the first time the entire trilogy was featuring in a season.

It’s worth mentioning just briefly some of the aspects of the music of Philip Glass. Early in his composing career, he encountered some of the music of both India and Africa, and his style utilises the melodic and rhythmic repetition of those styles. The repetition can sometimes lull the listener into a state of alpha-wave stimulating hypnagogia, not unlike the effect of a Necks performance. The difference, of course, is that while people have no qualms about reclining in the aisles and on the floor at a Necks gig – indeed, the band appreciate it, and won’t even mind punters nodding off – Philip Glass is a serious composer; he performs at the Opera House, which is an imposing venue. Nodding off will probably not be tolerated as readily by the other patrons. But this may just be my perception.

I was granted an interview with Philip Glass, and I was quite nervous about meeting him. I expected a justifiable amount of arrogance and a degree of hard-earned self-importance. Instead, I was pleased to discover, Philip Glass the brilliant composer and musical genius is also a good bloke. Endearing and effusive, interesting and interested, our twenty-five minute chat seemed to go in no time at all. It ended with discussion of a piece of music he wrote about alien abduction – A Thousand Aeroplanes on the Roof.

He pointed out that Europeans don’t see UFOs as readily as Americans do, because they have cloudy skies year-round. However, Australia, like the US, enjoys big, open blue skies, and as a result, we are more likely to see the weird lights in the sky here in Australia than people in Europe. So, Philip explained, “if there were going to be UFO abductions, they would happen here. Is that reassuring to you?” What could I say? “As long as, when it happens, it’s still scored by one of your pieces of music…” I then whipped out the single, the existence of which amazed him: he was unaware that he had ever released a seven-inch single in any territory. But he didn’t mind autographing it!

An excerpt of the interview went to air on the morning of Friday 7 January. The longer edit (download the MP3 here!) of the interview was broadcast in the usual ABC NewsRadio Music News slot on the afternoon of Saturday 8 January. I would have liked to provide more music to break up the talking, but I think the information is interesting enough for it to work as is.


Soundbite: ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Koyaanisqatsi.

Koyaanisqatsi, koyaanisqatsi…

Demetrius Romeo: Philip, in addition to piano, at university you studied philosophy and mathematics. Would it be fair to say that philosophy and mathematics have also played a part in your music?

PHILIP GLASS: I’m glad you put it that way. It would be fair to say that. It would not be fair to say that I knew very much about mathematics and philosophy. That would not be fair to people who actually do know about mathematics and philosophy. Basically, I was at the University of Chicago and there were certain professors whom I liked and as a young guy, I went to their classes, and they happened to be in philosophy and mathematics. But I was much better at music and, eventually, that is what I did. But what it did do is, it gave me an appreciation of what men of science were like. And in fact, I’ve written an opera about Einstein, I’ve written an opera about Galileo, I’ve done a film score to a film about Stephen Hawking… I would do an opera about Newton – it would be Newton the alchemist. Hey! That’s the title of an opera: Newtown the Alchemist!

You know, this is the hundredth anniversary year of the publication of the Special Theory of Relativity – that was done in 1905 – and I was asked by some scientific journal to write something about Einstein and I wrote about Einstein the dreamer; Einstein the artist. About how he would have what he called ‘thought experiments’: he would imagine himself traveling on a beam of light through the universe and try to imagine what he would see if he would be doing that. From that insight came the Special Theory of Relativity. He then had to spend years developing the mathematics to explain what his vision was. So I said, what I like about Einstein was Einstein the dreamer. Einstein was like an artist. And I think that’s true of mathematicians as well. So I’m looking at the world of science from the artistic point of view, and I find it resonates very well with the world I live in.

Demetrius Romeo: Would it be fair to say also, then, that Philip Glass as the artist – did you have a vision that you then had to find a way to…

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s true. When I was quite a young man living in Paris in the 1960s, I was about twenty-five or twenty-six, and I met Ravi Shankar and I began working with him as his music assistant. I was notating his music for a group of French musicians who were hired to record a film score he was writing. And I began to imagine a music that was based on some of the ideas I found in Ravi’s music and it took me ten years working out my ideas, of how I could adapt some of the concepts of rhythmic structure of classical Indian music to my own ‘experimental music’ –we can call it that. In fact, the result eventually was Einstein on the Beach.

Soundbite: ‘from Spaceship’, from Einstein on the Beach, as featured on the promotional CD Philip Glass Introduced by Philip Glass.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, with the ‘Qatsi’ triology of films – Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and now Naqoyqatsi, you seem to have brought science, philosophy and music in a very together in a clear and distinct way. Tell me, what were you and film maker Godfrey Reggio setting out to do when you first embarked on that initial film, Koyaanisqatsi, twenty-five years ago?

PHILIP GLASS: I would say, with the trilogy, working with Godfrey and working directly on the subject of technology, we’re bringing the whole question of science and ‘what is science in the service of?’ – is it in the service of humanity, is it in the service of industry, is it in the service of science? – and in all these ideas, Godfrey brings the question of technology and ‘progress’, if we can use that word… in a way, the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy is about that.

We’re living in a time when our world has been redefined and reinterpreted through science, there’s no question about it. My father grew up before there were passenger aeroplanes. I grew up at a time before there were rockets going to the moon. Our children are growing up in times where we don’t know where it’s going to go to, but the way the world has been transformed through science is something which both inspires us and astonishes us, and it concerns us.

Godfrey’s work, and the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy in particular is about the transformation of society and particularly the contemporary agency, which is technology.

Demetrius Romeo: How did your collaboration with Godfrey come about?

PHILIP GLASS: Godfrey came to New York in, maybe, ’78, and he called me up and he said to me, “I’m a filmmaker, I’m doing a film and I would like you to do the score,” and I said to him, “thank you for the call, but I don’t write film scores; I don’t think that there’s anything I can do to help you”. It’s a big joke now – I’ve done twenty or thirty film scores since then. And Godfrey said, “Well, I would like you to look at the work,” and I said, “Well, if I have time”. I wasn’t particularly interested. A mutual friend called me and said, “Look, this guy’s from Santa Fe and he’s gonna stay here at my house until you look at his film, so would you please look at his film so that he can go home?”

He showed me the first thirty or forty minutes of the film and I was very impressed with it. After a little conversation, I said, “I haven’t done this before, but you find the money to make the recordings and we’ll do it”. And that’s actually what happened. We began doing it piece-by-piece. It took us three years to finish it because there was no money. He would finish a reel – a reel of film is about twelve minutes long – and take it out and show it and raise money and through this effort of his we were able to put together the finances and finish the film for not very much money at the time.

Francis Ford Coppola saw it. It was only Francis and myself and Godfrey in this one screening room. I was in the front. I expected him to walk out. I was waiting for the sound of footsteps receding down the hall and then the door shutting – it never happened. At the end of the film he shook hands with us and said, “thank you”, and Godfrey and I had no idea what had happened, but he called Godfrey the next day and said, “What can I do for you? I’d like to help.” And Godfrey said, “Can you attach your name to the film?” and he said, “Yes, I will.” And now, if you look at that film, it’ll say, “Presented by Francis Ford Coppola”. Well, that’s actually all he did. But it was enough. It was enough to get the people at the New York Film Festival to look at the film. They put it into Radio City Music Hall, which is a five thousand-seat theatre. Five thousand people who had no idea who Godfrey was and not much idea who I was at that time went to see the film and that was the beginning of a kind of ‘grass-roots’ audience. They called it a ‘cult’ audience, but at this point, it’s beyond that. We began to play the music live in 1983, a few years later. I’ve played it live probably two hundred times.

Soundbite: ‘Religion’ from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the things that Koyaanisqatsi did was, it did open the door on a new genre of film.

PHILIP GLASS: That’s right.

Demetrius Romeo: And now Naqoyqatsi is quite different to the first two because it uses a lot of animation.

PHILIP GLASS: Not animation, computer-generated images.

Demetrius Romeo: Aaaah.

PHILIP GLASS: I would say that eighty percent of it is, if not photographed, some of it may be photographed, but a lot of it is created on an Avant computer. There is photography there, but a lot of that photography has been altered a lot. So the visual content is quite different, yet the theme remains the same in the sense that it’s the completion of Godfrey’s ideas. And here’s the other thing that’s important to note: over twenty-five years, his ideas have changed. The world has changed. The world is a very different place now than it was twenty-five years ago. At the beginning, people thought Godfrey was very anti-technology; he never was anti-technology, he was concerned about the impact of technology on traditional ways of living. That idea has become even more incisive. His view of technology now is that it’s a culture that has become separated from human beings to the degree where we no longer can predict what the results of a technological development will be. A good example is the Internet. The Internet was developed by the US Army as an alternative telephone system. It’s now changed virtually every facet of life on this planet. So what Godfrey sees in that is that technology is a culture which has a kind of an independence which develops in its own way, whether we need it or not.

Demetrius Romeo: How does that reflect on your music for the third film? I notice that it’s more acoustic, but there still are a lot of themes that you began in the first film that are…

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s true, but when we began working on the third film, when I saw how the Avant machine worked, basically, I became aware that it would be a much different kind of image than we had on the first two films and I was concerned that it would be very distant from the audience. So I decided that, rather than going with a high-tech ensemble, which I did with Koyaanisqatsi, I should go with something very acoustic. Beyond that, I decided furthermore to use an instrument that would be like a human voice, and I picked the cello.

Soundbite: ‘Old World’ from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi.

PHILIP GLASS: What I wanted to do was to maintain a kind of passageway between the human heart and these images. I wanted some connection to be there. I was afraid that the film, if it were as cool in the music as it was in the image, for example, if I did a totally electronic score, it would become un-viewable; that we would simply walk away from it. And so, in a way, the music becomes not an interpretive of the film, but a counter-balance to the film. It functions somewhat differently.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, when you’re performing live with the film screening, you have a different relationship with the audience that you wouldn’t necessarily have if they were watching the film with a pre-recorded score. What difference does that bring to the music?

PHILIP GLASS: The most critical difference and an essential difference, and one that we should notice, is when we’re playing, we’re playing in real time. We are like performers in the same way that people who are in sports are performers, or in the way that we are performers right now: this is being recorded and will be broadcast later. Film is pre-recorded. You can play a film a hundred times and it will be the same. You might lose a few frames, but it can’t be reinterpreted. So the fact and act of interpretation is not present in the performance of a film. With the performance of the music, the act of interpretation is there. In other words, the exact outcome of the music is never completely known. This is a fact of music that we know.

When you play live music in front of a film, the film borrows from the music that capacity to experience it as live. Our receptivity, our ability to empathise with the film is tremendously enhanced by that. I believe that when we are in the presence of interpreted music, we are watching the creative process as it happens. It is a very special moment. It’s something that, while scientists are looking deep into space, looking for the moment of creation – how can we do that in our ordinary lives? I think we do it when we look at sports, when we look at music, when we look at dance. It’s a moment when we can participate in that moment of creation. It’s a powerful, powerful moment. So powerful, in fact, that I think we never need worry about technology replacing human beings. As long as there is someone who will stand up and play violin, or sit down and play piano there will be people who will come and watch that person do it.

Demetrius Romeo: Because you’re re-creating, in the moment, every time you perform it live with a new audience, do you ever discover new aspects to what you’ve written?

PHILIP GLASS: Oh! In fact, when I’m playing myself, I’ll be playing a piece that I’ve played maybe dozens and dozens of times, and the tempo has changed, I’m pedaling it differently and I’ll think, “Oh, it can go this way, too.” All the decisions I thought I had made are gone: the volume, the tempo, the phrasing… I’m now interpreting the piece. It doesn’t happen every time. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration and absorption of my activity, being in that moment, to do that. But it’s a very exciting thing to happen. It’s exciting because somehow the pieces come alive again. That, which happens to me by myself, can also happen with an ensemble.

With the film, we’re connected to the film. We can’t really change the tempo. But there are many other things that can be changed. The exact timing – Michael Riesman is the conductor – will be a little bit different every night, and it has partly to do with his response to the film. There should be beginnings and ending that have to begin and end in the same places, but there are large sections of the music where the music and the image float together; where they’re not really dancing very closely, but dancing a little further apart. And when they’re dancing a little further apart, the music and the image become free of each other, and yet they’re connected. It’s quite beautiful to be involved in that.

Soundbite: ‘Definition’, from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi

… Naqoyqatsi, naqoyqatsi…

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