Philip Glass on Listening (and Composing) at 80

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Article by: Piotr Orlov

Photography by: Danny Clinch

Philip Glass opens the front door and ushers me into the living room of his East Village brownstone house. It feels busy, unkempt and fully lived-in. I take my coat off and wait a moment. It would appear that I am early. Glass is still busy with whatever he was doing before. I gradually take off the layers protecting me from the frosty New York afternoon. Glass shuffles into the room next door, the music room as it turns out. He goes back to quietly, yet intently, sounding out single notes on the piano. I can tell you, there is no feeling quite like realising you have unintentionally interrupted Philip Glass from working on his music. I mean, he’s only one of the most influential American composers of the last century, a master of contemporary classical music ‘with repetitive structures’ (he avoids the term ‘minimalist’), winner of countless arts awards and lifetime-achievement medals…

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Since 1984, Glass has lived in this house. The crowded room, complete with a grand piano, synthesizer, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (taking up most of the space), sheet music, art and Eastern artefacts on every surface, is where he does his composing. It is in fact, the room where he wrote most of Symphony No. 11, which premiered at Carnegie Hall on 31st January. Coincidently, or perhaps not as the case may be, coinciding with Glass’ 80th birthday.

‘The whole thing was a set-up’, Glass says, with his ever-present smirk, a couple of weeks after the event. ‘The people who work for me commissioned it to be done on my birthday which was going to take place at Carnegie Hall.’ (He mimics a voice of false incredulity: ‘No pressure. “Oh, I see, this is my party and I have to do the work?”’) Glass says he mulled over the stressful circumstances somewhat, rewriting the symphony’s last 11 pages after just the first rehearsal because ‘I realised that the ending was not definitive enough’. He reckons that the debut, performed by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz who were conducted by long term Glass collaborator, Dennis Russell Davies, went pretty well. ‘The reception seemed fairly authentic. People really did like it. They weren’t just applauding because I was 80, like you might see with [older] people out running in the park, and people go “Yay” only because they can still do it.’

“My days of listening were connected to my father’s record store, where I began working when I was 12. My first job in the music world was advising people what records they should buy, so I had to know all the records in the store.”

In reference to his own feelings towards the symphony’s outcome, Glass casually proclaims that ‘writing it and hearing it is not exactly the same.’ This dichotomy is at the heart of our discussion, concerning how both the act of conceiving and listening are intertwined, yet separate. Especially for composers as established as Glass and how such actions relate to one another when writing a colossal piece, such as the Eleventh.

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Understanding of some of these concepts came to Glass early on. Despite attending Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody music school from the age of eight, he’s certain that ‘My days of listening were connected to my father’s record store, where I began working when I was 12. My first job in the music world was advising people what records they should buy, so I had to know all the records in the store. They would come in and say, “Well, I want to buy Beethoven’s Third Symphony” and I would say, “Do you like it fast or do you like it slow? If you like it slow, you can get Bruno Walter’s. If you like it fast, we can get you Toscanini. If you want an American version, we got Leonard Bernstein’s.” I had to listen professionally, you might say.’

Glass’s listening had to be wary of the growing audiophile market. ‘We were aware of which were the good sounding records and which were not, but the people who were nuts about sound they didn’t care about the content. We’d say, “We just got a new marching-band record, you won’t believe how the brass sounds.” We were selling music.’

As Glass’ creative evolution progressed, along with his education, he says; ‘I hardly listened at all.’ His academic journey took him from the University of Chicago, to New York’s Julliard School of Music, then to Paris (where he studied with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, notating the Indian music of Ravi Shankar, then back to New York. It was here, in 1967, that he founded the Philip Glass Ensemble, for performances of his own up-and-coming compositions.

His understanding of compositions and their forms was given a great boost by his fluency in reading music and the ability to hear it from the page. ‘I would pretend to be following lectures and actually I was reading a Beethoven quartet,’ he says of winning the race against the pedagogues ‘because I could read faster.’ Yet he is able to recognise the flaws in conceptualising composed sound without actually listening back to it. ‘Are we hearing it accurately? Are we writing down what we want to hear?’ Glass ponders. For him, the greatest challenge of imagined accuracy is ‘hearing the music in real-time. It’s very hard to do. So, you end up playing it on the piano,’ which, if the piece is symphonic, is not the music’s true representation either. The connection between linear time and writing is like an endless maze. ‘I think these are challenges for composers at any point in their life. You don’t get particularly better – you may learn certain tricks, but that’s it.

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Technology has definitely given Glass a change of scenery. It is fascinating to hear Glass—who recently had a Sonos system set up throughout his house—describe digital tools as ‘assets’ in his process. Including, the writing of a new symphony.

‘I was working with Dennis,’ he recalls the build-up to the Carnegie Hall premiere. ‘We were going over some transitions, and he had the rehearsals on a digital recorder. I had it put on Dropbox, pulled up the rehearsal on my phone, so we listened to it together, and would say, “well maybe we can cut a couple of measures here.” Now in my music room, I tend to listen to playback of things, the rehearsal tapes. That became very useful.”

Aging has had its effect on how Glass hears. ‘Perceptual faculties become degraded biologically’, he says with an edge of expertise. ‘Look I’m 80, what else is going to happen?’ Aging has also had its effect on what, more importantly, Glass now chooses to hear.

‘Mostly, I listen occupationally. Of course, it’s fun to listen, but I don’t listen for fun. When I listen to Anoushka Shankar’s new album, for instance, I am more listening to see if she’s got a good band, if they’re playing together, would Ravi be happy when he heard it. Or, if I hear an orchestra, I want to hear the conductor, I want to hear how they sound.’ The smirk makes yet another appearance. ‘I have all kinds of sinister agendas for listening tucked away.’

Glass tells us he has so many reasons (other than music) to love his Sonos set-up. ‘I find that in my bedroom, I listen to the news, the stations are listed and they don’t drift. But listening for pleasure…’ His voice trails off. ‘My ideal place is some place where they don’t play music. I found for example, that Chinese restaurants in New York don’t have music, have you noticed that?’

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