PHILIP GLASS By BRYCE DESSNER
Originally appeared on Interview Magazine – 02/03/14
Philip Glass might very well be the most famous composer in the United States, a country not exactly rife with them or a rich history of making great contributions to the classical music canon. But Glass and his American compadres like Steve Reich and Terry Riley have been like cowboys at a polo match, rarely displaying much reverence for what’s proper or the dictums of the past. Emerging amidst the converging creative worlds of the downtown New York City art scene of the ’60s, they started off playing not in traditional concert venues, but in lofts and galleries, and made music that wasn’t lush and baroque like so many of their European counterparts, but stark and experimental. The word minimal is often used to describe the sound that Glass developed, but economical is probably more accurate—every note, every movement, every gesture with purpose. His landmark ’70s works, like the epic Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74) and the theatrical Einstein on the Beach (1976), remain touchstones for a tectonic shift in avant-garde music of the period during which the spheres of more academic “intellectual” music and less conventional art rock began to crash into one another, giving rise to a wave of artists and bands that existed at the intersection of their collision. While graduate students and professors continue to debate the merits of his work—and Glass’s work remains hotly debated—he, quite simply, changed the game of classical music; he redrew the lines and blew away the boundaries, crafting an oeuvre electrified with newness, inspiring travelers on parallel journeys such as David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Arthur Russell, as well as younger composers like Nico Muhly and John Moran, and working with a diverse cast of characters that has come to include Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), Allen Ginsberg, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Daldry, and Woody Allen, amongst others.
Like a lot of radical artists who are recognized, Glass has now become a kind of standard-bearer. But his output has never flagged, as he has continued to produce new pieces, doing commissioned work and composing more conventional concertos, symphonies, operas, and film scores. Various productions of his works are still performed, and he has continued to play around the world. In celebration of his 75th birthday in 2012, Einstein on the Beach was revived for international tours. Glass’s recent opera, a meditation on the final days of Walt Disney called The Perfect American, premiered last year in Madrid, and he also wrote the score for experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s latest movie, Visitors, which comes more than three decades after their first collaboration, Koyaanisqatsi (1982).
Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for the Brooklyn-based band the National and a prolific composer in his own right, recently spoke by phone with Glass, now 77.
BRYCE DESSNER: I wanted to start off by talking about music. There was all this incredible activity around your 75th birthday in 2012, and I personally saw amazing performances of Einstein on the Beach at BAM and some of the early works, like Music in Twelve Parts and Another Look at Harmony . But you’ve also produced this tremendous output of new work with things like Kronos premiering your String Quartet No. 6, and new works like Kepler  or The Perfect American, which was based on the life of Walt Disney. How do you balance it all, whether it’s writing new work or these landmark stagings of older pieces?
PHILIP GLASS: I wasn’t very involved with the production of Einstein. I went to the opening night, but I didn’t perform in it. I’ve been selectively not playing in some of the pieces anymore. For example, La Belle et la Bête  is still touring. Not all the time, but it’s out playing, and I don’t play in it. So I’ve quietly stopped playing in everything. When I say “quietly,” it’s because, for a long time, the idea was that I had to be in every piece or they couldn’t book it. But it turns out that isn’t true—thankfully. So the real drama for me is balancing live performances and writing, and one of the ways I balance it is I write in hotel rooms. That’s not exactly balancing. Actually, writing in hotel rooms means that I’m refusing to deal with the problem. [laughs]
DESSNER: No, I understand that. I like to write on tour busses and airplanes. Something about moving …
GLASS: I find that people can’t find you. It’s kind of quiet. When I go to a city, I can almost always get a piano if I need one. So there’s something nice about being on the road and focusing on something you want to do.
DESSNER: In terms of composers, there are people like Schubert, who was such a master of song, or people like Beethoven, who wrote these huge symphonies. But you seem to be able to do these incredibly beautiful small pieces like Mad Rush  or “Closing” from Glassworks , or even yesterday, I was looking at your fifth piano étude, which is just this perfect little piece. But you write these things that sound so effortless and immediate and emotional. But then, obviously, some of your most famous works are these monumental achievements like Einstein or Satyagraha . So I was kind of curious, when you’re talking about writing in a hotel room, how do you deal with the scale of these things?
GLASS: I don’t know that I make a big distinction between the big pieces and the little pieces, because I don’t experience them in that way. I mean, by the same token, you’re out touring with a band and then you’re writing string quartets, and in a funny way, isn’t it all the same, in a way? It’s all just music. That’s how I look at it. My biggest problem about writing is whenever I write piano pieces, because I then have to learn to play them, which is sometimes not so easy. Like with the Aguas da Amazonia [1993-99]—I’m learning to play some of the Aguas that I wrote years ago, and I’m going to start to play them next year. But the difference between the little pieces and the big pieces—I’m not actually sure which are the little pieces. [laughs] With some of the big pieces, it’s a lot of musical running around, whereas the little pieces, you can say everything you want to say.
DESSNER: Was there a point early on when you decided that you wanted to tackle something like an opera? Was that a conscious decision?
GLASS: I think you’d be surprised to know how little I think about these things. I kind of do what’s in front of me, and I try to keep what’s in front of me interesting. And the other thing I do—and this is actually very conscious—is that I shift between mediums very frequently. Instead of taking a break from writing, I just write in a different medium or in a different way or for a different purpose, so that I don’t actually stop writing—I just go to something else. Like going from a big symphony to a piano piece is great and very refreshing, I find. And then going from that to a big concerto, and then having to go out and play. You must be doing more playing than I’m doing now. How many concerts do you do a year?
DESSNER: Well, when the National releases a record, we do about six months of touring. So it can get up to almost 150 concerts in a year.
GLASS: That’s a lot of touring.
DESSNER: Yeah, it is. But it’s not quite like being up on stage playing solo piano.
GLASS: I don’t know. You still have to sound-check. You still have to check into the hotel. You also have to find time to eat and time to sleep. The hardest thing about traveling is that mostly you get to a point—and it always happens on every tour—where you can choose between eating and sleeping, but you can’t do both.
DESSNER: Yeah. For me, the exhausting thing about touring is the sitting around, which is why working on my concert music is really great—and also seeing concerts and seeing friends, and whenever possible, getting out to see a museum.
GLASS: Well, I have a much smaller touring schedule than you do—I do maybe 50 concerts a year. And compared to what some of my friends do … I’m sure they do more than a hundred concerts a year.
DESSNER: Speaking of bands, you have your own band—and you’ve had it since the late ’60s or early ’70s really, and you’ve toured in ways that we don’t often associate with composers.
I THOUGHT I WOULD BE IN DOWNTOWN NEW YORK, PLAYING IN LOFTS AND GALLERIES FOREVER. I DIDN’T SEE ANY LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. IN FACT, I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I WAS IN A TUNNEL.
GLASS: That group goes back more than 40 years, and some of the original players are still there. Jon Gibson and myself are original players. But Michael Riesman was there almost from the beginning. We consider a recent member someone who has played with us 10 years. [laughs]
DESSNER: Why did you start your own ensemble? What was the idea behind it at the time?
GLASS: Well, it was out of total necessity. I had come back from Europe—I was writing this music that no one in Europe wanted to play, and so I decided to go home. I had gone to India first, and then I came back. I came back to New York in 1967, and then I called some people I went to school with to see if they would come over and play some music with me. So that was how the group started. At the time—in 1967—that kind of music was on its way. And the people, Terry [Riley], Steve [Reich], we didn’t really know each other until later. La Monte [Young] was doing something mysterious downtown. There were half a dozen people. Meredith Monk was a very early person in that whole group. People forget that.
DESSNER: I didn’t realize she was part of it.
GLASS: But mostly we were considered to be, at best, idiot savants of some kind. No one would take us seriously. So there was nothing else to do. Terry was a piano player anyway. I had to do all of my piano playing because it wasn’t my first instrument, so I began developing it. People did different things. But we put groups together because there were no venues that would play the music we were making. You had to find a place to play it. And what happened is that after a couple of years, I kind of got used to that—and I liked it. I liked the fact that I didn’t have to get anybody’s permission to play a concert. I just did it myself. I did it, at first, out of necessity, but then I did it out of pleasure because it was the best way to go. At a certain point, I even put the whole band on unemployment insurance, which is legal. Not only is it legal, but it’s not welfare—it’s an insurance policy. The guys at work would get 20 weeks a year paid. I think I got 26 weeks. And then what I did is I took their paychecks and I divided them and gave them each two paychecks for each concert, so that if we did 10 concerts a year, you had the time minimum to qualify.
DESSNER: So you were writing and performing your own music, and then, at a certain point, you started writing for larger forms, like operas.
GLASS: That came up after Einstein. That wasn’t even a possibility until Einstein—and that was an invitation. The first one was the Netherlands Opera. A guy named Hans de Roo, who was the head of the opera company there, had seen Einstein—I think it was the Carré theater, the first time we did it in Amsterdam—and he said, “It’s a very interesting opera, Philip. Would you like to write a real opera?” And I said, “Well, Hans, what would that be?” And he said, “Something for my ensemble, for my orchestra, for my singers.” So I said yes, and that was the first commission. And that was the end of my day jobs, by the way.
DESSNER: And was that Satyagraha?
GLASS: Satyagraha was the end of my day jobs. I never had to do a day job after that. I was 41 going on 42, mind you, and Einstein had been there three or four years. But after that, I was able to do almost anything. I had the training to do it but I never had the opportunity to do it, which is very common—of course, you know that. I think one of the great things that’s happened to you is that you’ve become a writing composer—we’re starting to know you as someone who writes music now rather than just plays in the band. You’re writing for other people but you’re not necessarily playing everything you write. You’ve kind of arrived at a similar place, but from a completely different direction. I was playing and writing, but I couldn’t get into any big ensembles. But you started from an ensemble and went into writing.
DESSNER: I think about that in terms of the work that you have done—what you said about how you came back from Europe and there really wasn’t anyone to play your music. The fact that I’ve just released a record with the Kronos Quartet, and the fact that those pieces were commissioned by Kronos, and that was an ensemble that you had written for—there’s just so much for young musicians to take away from the work, the pioneering, the walls that you’ve broken down. In a way, it’s a much more friendly landscape for young people to be making music now because there’s so much more opportunity and openness about what fits in a concert hall.
GLASS: I think that’s the most striking thing about what’s happening with young composers today—with all the composers, for that matter. For people on the way to becoming composers—there is no map to do that. You really have to figure out what to do on your own. Getting caught into an academic cycle, we all know now, doesn’t work at all. You end up writing music for somebody else in another school, and they play your piece, and you play their piece, and it’s totally inbred … But what was that concert you did in Brooklyn?
DESSNER: At the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
GLASS: That was such a good concert, full of young people and older people … It was a benefit concert, of course—those things always are. We had a good audience and it was a nice place to play. It wasn’t Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t Town Hall. [laughs] It was the Brooklyn music hall. It was really, really nice. And the age overlapping, the whole mix, was very stimulating.
DESSNER: To me, the most striking thing about that concert was the encore. We taught “The Chase” from Orphée , your piece, to the entire group.
GLASS: We got everybody to play that piece—and I think we did it in a 10-minute rehearsal. I don’t even think we rehearsed it. Did we ever get through it once before we did it in front of the audience?
DESSNER: We kind of did half of it, but it was between you and Nico [Muhly] at the piano, and me leading the rock band. It was really great. But I have a similar memory of doing the Tibet House benefit with you.
GLASS: That was during the early years of the National, wasn’t it?
DESSNER: The middle-early years. We were still relatively unknown. But I remember, for us, playing on the Carnegie Hall stage with you was just a huge deal. We felt empowered. Both you and Patti Smith encouraging us to play. We’d wanted to play new songs, the songs people had not heard. We already had Boxer  come out, so we had some better-known songs, but we debuted two brand-new ones, “Runaway” and “Wake up Your Saints.” I remember rehearsing those songs with you and Patti standing right in front of us, which was nerve-wracking. But afterwards, both of you were incredibly encouraging that we should do that. I do wonder sometimes, though, if that energy about and interest in young musicians is something that’s specific to your generation.
GLASS: No, I think it’s something that’s specific to what’s happening right now. That the whole idea that we kind of snag Carnegie Hall for a concert every year for Tibet House … We have to sell tickets, of course, but a lot of funny and interesting things can happen at these concerts—and they tend to happen there. I think that generally, basically what we’re talking about is reinventing the idea of what a concert hall is or where a concert can happen. It really grew out of people working and being involved in galleries in the ’70s and ’80s, but even that became kind of institutionalized in a certain way. Now, with these concerts, when people write music, they feel they have given themselves permission to go anywhere—anywhere that they can. And with a lot of these places, like the Brooklyn music hall—I think four days before the concert, we didn’t actually know what the line-up was. [laughs] I don’t think we can do that at Carnegie Hall.
DESSNER: You started the festival out in California—the Days and Nights Festival.
GLASS: We’ve done three seasons so far and it’s still growing. I have to talk to you and I want to talk to Nico [Muhly] about that, too. I want to have this new generation of composers be part of these things. I don’t want it just to be something that’s happening to people over 70—that’s not going to be much fun. So it’s very open. I can do the programming. I also have to do the fund-raising, and it takes a little bit of time, but we’re getting more skillful at it. This year, by the way, it was in October. We started out having it in August, but it turns out that August, weather-wise, is not a good time for that area. The best time seems to be the last week of September or the first week of October. We’re talking about the middle coast of California, somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it’s actually hard to find good weather because we want to do the festival outdoors. One of the venues we use is the Henry Miller [Memorial] Library, and you have an outdoor venue in a little redwood forest. So that’s a venue that’s just starting to develop. And then another part of this is about what happens to the music, because we’re also interested in recording and streaming—because it happens to me just as it happens to you: You do a new piece, and by the time you get home, it’s already on YouTube. It happens all the time now.
DESSNER: Yeah, before the concert is even over sometimes.
GLASS: But if it’s going to happen, then I would rather that we filmed it and it looked good and sounded good, you know? So we’re thinking about this Days and Nights Festival in terms of those kinds of things—and other issues, too. Environmental issues. I’ve always been interested in things that have social issues involved in them. That’s also part of what we’re doing there. So I think it’s, again, about getting out of the conventional idea of the concert hall and opera house—which, of course, I’m still pretty locked into. But I’m also really doing a lot of work outside of that. I’m working with a lot of younger people, too, helping to figure out where this music is and where these things are going to go and what we do in a world where music is free, basically. What do you do about that? How do you make a living when the only way you really can is by getting on airplanes and flying around the world and playing concerts, which is really tough?
DESSNER: Obviously, you’re talking about this stuff in terms of recent things that you’ve been working on. But I know that you’ve been conscious of the conversation about how music is presented and heard since the very early days. It’s something that has always interested you, and you’ve been quite visionary about it—even in running your own businesses, for instance, starting your own publishing company and things like that. Were those things that, again, you did out of necessity? Or because they interested you?
GLASS: Well, I had some very good advice, some very good help, and some very good luck. Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller was a big name in the pop music world when I was coming up, and he happened to have gone to the same school as me in Baltimore. It was just one of those weird coincidences. So I met him in New York years later, and he was the one who told me to start a publishing business. He said, “Look, this is what you’ve got to do …” He was telling me as a kid from Baltimore because he was a kid from Baltimore, too—and not that much older than me. So that’s how that happened. But then nobody wanted to publish me anyway, so then I ended up with it. You know, there’s another part of this, Bryce, which is interesting, which is that we were going for these new things—and I say “we,” collectively. We were also banging down the doors on some of the older places. I mean, I think Nico’s opera at the Met was spectacular, and I have to give Peter [Gelb] a lot of credit for that because that’s not a piece that you would normally think that you’d see at the Met. But it looked good and it sounded good. And how old is Nico? Is he 31? He got to the Met at six years younger than I was when I got there. And his piece was really, really, really good. It was something new and everybody knew it. So it’s not just about finding these other places to play, like a redwood grove in Big Sur or a place in Brooklyn or wherever. But I think we’re still ultimately interested in the other places, too.
THE LANDSCAPE IS SO DIFFERENT NOW. THERE IS A LOT OF VERY INTERESTING MUSIC BEING WRITTEN. IT’S VERY FREE. IT’S ALMOST LIKE PEOPLE ARE DREAMING MUSIC AGAIN—OR RE-DREAMING IT.
DESSNER: Did you ever imagine that you’d one day be embraced by the establishment the way you are now and performing in those big venues? I wonder what it’s like for you to play those early pieces now, so many of which were first played, back in the day, in places like lofts and galleries.
GLASS: Well, it was a little surprising, actually, to find that happening. But on the other hand, I almost look at it like an archeologist. I go, “What was happening then?” And the fact that I was involved in it and I wrote it—it seems almost like an accident. Or to put it another way, in a funny way, of course, I wrote it, but I don’t take it personally. I mean, things happen at a certain time for a reason, and other people are working in similar ways. Then there’s a kind of luck and happenstance that occurs along the way. But looking back on it, Bryce, none of this was planned. Lots of things just happen, and they happen because we’re restless and we don’t like what’s going on and we want to do something else.
DESSNER: Those early pieces do have a beautiful character to them. The fact that Two Pages  is just two pages and it’s just a single staff, but you can play it with any number of musicians … It has this feeling of community to it and also this sense of authorship, because when you get inside it and own it together and you’re all playing in unison, it does create this very interesting group identity. Like you’ve said, it’s almost as if this music came to you somehow and then you gave it to everyone else.
GLASS: You made me think about In C , which was like that, and that was actually earlier. I think when Terry Riley did In C, no one knew what it was. But it’s being played now all the time. It has all those attributes that you just referred to: It brings musicians together to play pieces that haven’t played before, and it has taken on a kind of strange identity. It opened the door when no one even knew the door was there. In fact, I didn’t hear In C until 1970. He did it in 1964. But it was still a new piece when I heard it.
DESSNER: I had a question for you that has to do with young composers finding their voices and whatever is unique about their own music. Your work is so distinctive and so identifiable as only you. The closest thing that I can compare it to is how a great visual artist might have a certain style that is theirs and theirs alone. You’ve mentioned these early pieces almost coming to you as somehow unexpected, but was there also a consciousness to your development? Were there certain important moments or pieces where you felt like you were starting to find out who you are?
GLASS: You know, the landscape is so different now. There is a lot of very interesting music being written. This generation of young composers is among the most interesting that we’ve had for a long time. I listen to the music they make with great pleasure. I love to hear it because I don’t know what I’m listening to, and it hasn’t forced an identity on itself and on us. It’s very free. It’s almost like people dreaming music again—or re-dreaming it without even thinking about what rules there are or how it should look. The human mind will make that kind of thing happen anyway. You don’t have to force it. It comes right out of our bodies in a certain way. What happened to me was a very specific thing. I was in Paris and I was studying with Nadia Boulanger when I met Ravi Shankar. Suddenly, I had these two master musicians—I always think of them as one on my right shoulder, one on my left shoulder, both whispering in my ears. What happened to me was that I tried to figure out how those two things went together. It’s kind of simple, in a way. That’s what Two Pages was about. I was trying to combine the clarity and precision of the technique that I was learning from Boulanger with the kind of emotional power I found in Ravi’s music. I worked on that issue for about 10 years, from around ’66 until ’76—until Einstein. It was Einstein that delivered for me. Here’s the other thing, Bryce: No one else was thinking that. Nobody knew who Ravi Shankar was in ’63 or ’64. I was with Boulanger, and most of her famous business had come and gone by then—she was a teacher until the late ’70s, but I was one of the last of them. I was also in Paris at that time, and Samuel Beckett was living in the same neighborhood as me. [The people who went on to form] Mabou Mines theater company began working then, we began working with him, so suddenly I was involved with experimental theater. And then Godard was making a movie every three months, for god’s sake … What a time that was. You would have had to have been deaf, dumb, and blind not to notice that something was going on—something big. And we were the recipients of that—of being in a watershed where the waters were coming from all over. But what I think is happening now is also interesting because it’s a different kind of watershed. It has to do with technology and the way that society is breaking apart, which is always a good sign because that’s when the best things happen. I mean, when Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs began writing during the days of the McCarthy era here in America, it looked like this country was pulling itself into an early grave. When society becomes unhinged, the arts get really good. I’m old enough to have seen that three times.
DESSNER: Collaboration has always been a part of your work, whether it’s with people like Ravi Shankar or Robert Wilson or Godfrey Reggio. It’s something, again, that maybe my generation now is finally coming back to because you see so much exciting collaborative work going on now. Why, for you, has collaboration been so important?
GLASS: Someone recently asked me what I thought was my biggest contribution—which is a very funny thing to say. So I said, “Well, my generation,” because that’s a bigger answer, but it’s probably the collaborative work. I began doing that all over the place. I was among other people who did it with the idea of the modalities of the arts—what I call the “earth, air, fire, and water” of image, text, movement, and music. Those four things—we began doing all of them. I got very involved in it, and other people did, too. So during the first Days and Nights Festival, we had poetry, we had dance, we had theater, and we had music. We did it with a handful of people. And the fact that now we have a younger generation involved in that is part of the spirit of the time now. It has really taken root, I think, in the way that we think about the arts. That’s what we’ve learned in opera houses. That’s why we want to get in the opera houses, get in the theaters again, where dance is done.
DESSNER: You came up and were making all this early work in the ’60s and ’70s, during a period when all of this amazing rock music and pop music was exploding, and you were around through the punk movement in New York and everything that followed. People often ask me a lot about the relationship between the classical music culture and the popular music of a given time—obviously because I’m in a rock band, but I’m also doing a lot of contemporary music—and I think you are a seminal figure in that way. You’ve always seemed to have a very organic relationship with popular music and this very intuitive way of moving between different musical worlds.
GLASS: Well, I used to live only a block away from the Fillmore East in New York, where you could hear Jefferson Airplane. There was a wall of speakers, and it was loud, let me tell you. That was in ’68 or ’69. I had just come back from Europe, and I heard that music and I said to myself, “I want that sound.” It wasn’t remotely familiar, and it was easy to get to because everybody was buying the equipment, and I had a young guy who showed us how to put stuff together. So that was actually a big inspiration. It was also a way of departing, of leaving the concert hall in triumph. I mean, the first time we played at Carnegie Hall, one of the people who worked for Carnegie Hall said that if the sound went above a certain level, then the concert would be over. They thought that if we were too loud, then the paint would peel off the wall.
DESSNER: Now they let you do whatever you want.
GLASS: But back then we weren’t anywhere near popular. Whatever they thought, it was too loud. In those days, you could do a concert and not even plug in or turn the equipment on, and people would say it was too loud.
DESSNER: Well, Einstein, in certain movements when all the organs get going, is just such an epic piece. It does have this electricity that you associate with a loud rock show, but in the best way. I think of bands of the last 10 years—like a band like Animal Collective—and what they’re doing, in a way, owes a debt to that sound that you created back then. It was so full and rich and patterned.
GLASS: Well, we brought it into the world of experimental music. We weren’t just doing these complicated electronic music pieces. This was highly amplified music. So there was that part of it, and then there were the others. I learned a lot from the music around me, blocks from my house, and from people like Jerry Leiber, from whom I learned that there is a business model where the composer actually owns their music—which is still, to this day, unheard of in the world of concert music. There’s a lot of confusion right now about intellectual property—what it’s worth, who owns it, what to do with it, how to make a living from it. I’m sure it’s going to take another 10 or 20 years before we really figure that out. But it’s a tough transition for a lot of people. The traditional ways of making a living in music aren’t there anymore.
DESSNER: My feeling about all that is there’s a positive side to it, too. With mainstream radio and distribution and the labels all sort of falling apart, and the internet coming up and all this free music out there, young musicians and audiences are really allowed to explore and have a much more diverse taste because they’re no longer dependent on the normal kind of arbiters of corporations controlling what they can hear. That side of it, to me, has been exciting. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out in terms of trying to make a living in 10 or 20 years, but I think that there’s definitely had a good effect on the music that is being made.
GLASS: I agree with you. This is the starting point of it, and what we understand really, truly is that ownership comes from authorship. It’s a pure idea. So I think it will all be settled one way or another sooner or later. But at the moment, this is why I’m still playing: because right now, that’s the way that you can make a living. Thankfully, there is a way. And then there are commissions around. But for young people, the commissions won’t be that much.
DESSNER: You mentioned that you only started to really make your living from music at the age of 40. For a composer of concert music, 40 is actually very young. But for a rock musician, 40 is almost past due, where you think of rock music as really part of more youth-oriented culture. Now you’re 77 and your music is still fervent and exciting, and you’re writing as much as ever. I’m wondering if there is something that non-classical musicians can learn from the kind of energy that you bring to your work.
GLASS: Let’s turn the question around in a slightly different way. First of all, I felt successful when I was 30, even though I didn’t make a living at music until I was 41 or 42. I felt successful when I was in my early thirties because I had my own ensemble and I could play concerts at will, pretty much when I wanted to. I made up my own program, I made up my tours, and frankly, I was prepared to do that for the rest of my life. I didn’t think it would change so much. I thought I would be in downtown New York, playing in lofts and galleries forever. I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, I didn’t even know I was in a tunnel. I thought that’s what you did. It was what poets did, what bands did. It’s what we called a vocation—not a career, a vocation, which is very different. You write, you do concerts, and that’s all it is. And if that’s good enough for you—if that’s the only thing that you want to do or can do, then you’re doing the right thing. But if you think success is going to come in any other form … I don’t buy that.
DESSNER: At age 27, one of my first tours was actually playing guitar for you. I was playing a tour of your music with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and that was something I never dreamed of doing. So at 27, I was pinching myself—like, “I made it.” And then now, 10 years later, having the life I have … I completely agree with you.
GLASS: Bang on a Can is another great group and innovative and fun. This is the breaking up of the architecture of the music itself—and they’re all rejoicing. There’s nothing there worth holding on to … I didn’t know what was going to follow my generation, but I have to say that I think we’re in a very, very good place. The real dialogue between generations, like we’re having right now … We feel like we’re in the same world again, which is a world we want to be in.
DESSNER: So what’s next, Philip? Are you jumping right into another big project?
GLASS: I just finished one of the most fun things I’ve done. I’ve finished three songs for Angélique Kidjo in the Yoruba language. She’s from Benin, and she got a commission from the Luxembourg [Philharmonic] Orchestra to write three songs for orchestra for her. She sent me the text and read it to me, and I had to analyze the language, the accents, and put them in the music. We’re both having a fantastic experience because I’ve known her a long time, but I’ve never seen her sing in her own language, and then I’m putting it into my own language. I said to her, “Angélique, you realize that we’re building a bridge that no one has walked on before.” She laughed. But I really feel that. This is one of the most exciting things for me.
DESSNER: That’s a beautiful image: building a musical bridge. It’s not the first one you’ve built, for sure.
GLASS: This is going to be a banner year.
BRYCE DESSNER IS A NEWYORK-BASED COMPOSER, MUSICIAN, AND GUITARIST OF THE ROCK BAND THE NATIONAL. HIS ALBUM IN COLLABORATION WITH THE KRONOS QUARTET, AHEYM (ANTI-),IS OUT NOW.
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