The operas – Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, and The Voyage, among many others – play throughout the world’s leading houses, and rarely to an empty seat. Glass has written music for experimental theater and for Academy Award–winning motion pictures such as The Hours and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun”, while “Koyaanisqatsi”, his initial filmic landscape with Godfrey Reggio and the Philip Glass Ensemble, may be the most radical and influential mating of sound and vision since “Fantasia”. His associations, personal and professional, with leading rock, pop and world music artists date back to the 1960s, including the beginning of his collaborative relationship with artist Robert Wilson. Indeed, Glass is the first composer to win a wide, multi–generational audience in the opera house, the concert hall, the dance world, in film and in popular music — simultaneously.
He was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore. He studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and in Aspen with Darius Milhaud. Finding himself dissatisfied with much of what then passed for modern music, he moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger [who also taught Aaron Copland , Virgil Thomson and Quincy Jones] and worked closely with the sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar. He returned to New York in 1967 and formed the Philip Glass Ensemble – seven musicians playing keyboards and a variety of woodwinds, amplified and fed through a mixer.
The new musical style that Glass was evolving was eventually dubbed “minimalism”. Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”. Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry. Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.
There has been nothing “minimalist” about his output. In the past 25 years, Glass has composed more than twenty operas, large and small, eight symphonies [with others already on the way], two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra, soundtracks to films ranging from new scores for the stylized classics of Jean Cocteau to Errol Morris’s documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara, string quartets, a growing body of work for solo piano and organ. He has collaborated with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Yo–Yo Ma, and Doris Lessing, among many others. He presents lectures, workshops, and solo keyboard performances around the world, and continues to appear regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble.
How important are the film scores considering your entire career?
I’ve done probably 40 films, a couple of them pretty good. But for professional standards that’s not considered much. In Hollywood I’m still considered an amateur film composer. But I began very late, in my forties. I then had a lot experience from theater, opera and dance. So a lot of the technique was very well–known to me, it was more a question of accommodating to how the industry worked.
And what is your relation to the film industry?
It would be a great mistake to underestimate the amount of talent that goes into filmmaking. Like opera it combines text and images, all the elements – earth, water, air and fire – are there, and it’s a marvelous place to work.
In terms of entertainment films they follow the trends of popular music, and I think that’s mostly good. But I’m also doing experimental films, and we have a lot of freedom in those films. And of course I have also done commercial films, The Hours was a very good one, The Truman Show another. I worked with these directors once, but they usually don’t want to work with me again. Even though they like the novelty to work with a composer who works that way, it doesn’t really fit into the way the industry works. However, I’ve done quite a few of those films too. Once I even did a slasher movie called Candyman [Bernard Rose, 1992]. It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year.
What’s your ideal way of working?
I prefer filmmakers who include the composer from day one of the production, where I’m talking about the film, and I’m even writing music while they’re filming. The music can actually interact with the actors that are performing, that’s the ideal. That’s the way we work at the theater and at opera houses too, but it’s not the industry model. Though I’ve probably done fifteen movies like that.
Do you have any favorite directors?
I’ve worked with Woody Allen and I’ve worked with Martin Scorsese, two of the best filmmakers, I learned a lot working with them. In terms of working with me, they were the most generous, they allowed me to do what I wanted. The young directors who are just in the beginning always tell you what to do, because they don’t themselves know what to do. But the older ones, they just want you to do your best work.
Apart from a master class at Goteborg, you’re also giving a couple of performances with symphony orchestras in the city’s concert halls? Will you continue to perform as long as you’re capable?
Yes, I mean, we don’t sell records any more, everything is streamed, and everything is free. Everyone has to be out and play, because that’s the way to make a living those days. But also, music is all about transaction, it’s something that happens together with the listener, without the audience there’s no sound. Training is not enough, the music has to be heard.
I quote you from today’s master class: “Without terror there’s no learning”. Is it still like that for you?
Yeah, but the terror is under control. It’s more like a friendly guest, not an invader. But it’s there.