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Philip Glass explains how he scores films and continues creating at 78

Composer Philip Glass says his work is defined by a lifetime of collaborations. He's one of the world’s leading composers of contemporary music. His singular sound has been heard in operas, movie scores and symphonic works.

Glass’s unique sound, focused on complex repetition of motifs, has most often been described as “minimalist.”

When The Frame recently reached him by phone in Portland, Glass defined his style for us.   

"When people say, 'what kind of music do you write,' I say, 'well I write theater music,'" Glass says. "Now, what do I mean by that? I've written 25 operas, I've written 30 films, I've done 20 or 30 dance scores. I mean, if you look at it, what I'm doing is I'm working in the collaborative art forms — which include text, movement, image, and music. I've written 10 symphonies, but that's a small part of what I've done. I work with dancers, I work with filmmakers, I work with poets, so that my music has been informed very much by the people I work with, and people I've grown up with."

Day jobs even after success — until 42

Almost every artist has a period in their life where they have to have a day job to make ends meet, and Glass has plenty of his own — including a moving company, working as a plumber and serving as a cab driver.

"My day jobs lasted until I was almost 42, but that's very normal — and that's true, by the way, for people in Amsterdam, and in London. And basically, in any of those cities, the chances are that the waiter or the cab driver or the person cleaning your house, perhaps, they could be a writer, could be a poet — well you know, in L.A., that would certainly be true."

Glass was still driving a cab when his opera "Einstein on the Beach" premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

"That wasn't the end of my cab driving days. You know, fame and fortune, they only are linked together poetically. They very rarely happen at the same time. Or, at least in the part of the music world that I'm in, you can become very famous and never make a big living."

Glass says that the United States are an arts powerhouse, exporting music, films and books all over the world.

"That doesn't mean that the artists are getting paid very much. And when I was a young man, I didn't count the days [until] I would have to stop my day jobs, because I wasn't sure I would ever stop them."

The turning point

Glass says that the moment when he first felt like a successful composer came when he was 30 years old — 12 years before he stopped his day jobs.

"Now, why was I successful? I was writing for my own ensemble, I was touring. I was in the Northwest, I was actually in Los Angeles, I think, in 1971, at Royce Hall. I wasn't making a living — what I did, my jobs were itinerant jobs. They came and go as I needed them, so I would come back from a three-week tour of either Europe or America, I had lost money on the tour, I would go back to whatever my day job — if I had a moving company with my cousin Gene, we would go back to work, and within two or three months, I had paid off the debts, and I was ready to go on tour again."

Despite losing money touring, he'd begun to build a crowd that cared about what he did.

"Starting at 30, I had an audience, I had a little record company, I had a publishing company — I got a lot of bad reviews, but I got some good reviews too. But the main thing was, is I began to have a public. By 1974, I rented Town Hall in New York City and I did a concert of my own there, and sold it out. By 1979, I sold out Carnegie Hall. Those halls, I rented, and we sold the tickets."

How Philip Glass scores a movie

Scoring a film can often be about telegraphing emotion to an audience, telling them, "Here is how you need to feel at this very moment." Glass says that he tries leaving movies behind, not watching them more than a couple of times and creating a certain distance between the music and the images on screen.

"For me, the spectators have to make the connection with the film. And they make it, primarily, very often, emotionally, they'll make it through the music. This is, one of the things that we as composers can do, besides just setting up the emotional stage, so to speak, but there's another very important part."

That part, Glass says, is what he calls "articulating the structure of the film."

"Sometimes, films can be very complicated. A good score can walk you through it so that you don't get actually mixed up. I remember when I first saw the movie, 'The Hours,' it was a very complicated story."

Glass scored the film, with three interlocking stories about different women in different time periods.

"The thing that held it together, finally, was the score. The score was like a big blue ribbon that I wrapped around the whole thing and tied it together. Now, I'd like to leave room for the spectator to find their own place in the experience."

That room for experience is what separates a film score from advertising, Glass says.

"Let's put it this way: If someone is selling you a car on television, and you listen to that music, that's a commercial jingle of a kind. Now you're not supposed to think about anything, you're supposed to come away thinking, 'I got to go buy that car.' That's all that music is supposed to do, right? If you take the same strategy and try to put it in a film, it becomes impossible to watch the film, because the music is telling you too much — more than you need to know. What you really need to do, is to leave the audience the space to understand the film in the way that becomes personal for them."

That distance between seeing a movie and composing for it is an important part of Glass's process.

"I don't really tell people all my secrets, I don't know why I should tell you — but I do it by looking at the film, but mostly writing the music from memory."

What set Philip Glass apart

Glass writes in his memoir that he noticed something odd about the way he hears music that wasn't common before his compositions.

"I seem to have had a knack for writing music that someone hasn't heard before. Of course, that doesn't mean it becomes accepted right away. In fact, for a long time, I was part of a changing music world that the rest of the world caught up with, and I wasn't the only one. I knew 10 or 20 composers who were not writing in a conventional modernistic musical style, and at first, music critics wouldn't even review us, because we were so far off the map."

The secret to getting noticed: time.

"We actually had to wait for a generation of music critics to die — which, of course, they eventually did — and the younger group came along, and they began writing about it, and that's really what happened."

Glass offered his thoughts on how he achieved what he did in his career.

"The deal is, how do you become a successful composer? For one thing, you better live a long time. Take care of yourself, watch your diet, exercise, don't do too much drugs, don't do too much of anything, and you stay busy."

How Glass continues to create and how he defines creativity

After an epic career, Glass says he still gets nervous when his work is performed. His latest composition, “Concerto for Two Pianos,” has its world premiere this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, played by the Labèque sisters.

"Two wonderful pianists, who I haven't actually met yet, but they've been playing my music for the last four or five years. And I wrote it for them, and I wrote it for the L.A. Philharmonic, which has now become a young orchestra, a very good orchestra — I played with them a number of times, and it's a very good band. So I'm writing for an orchestra I know, for an audience — in a way, I think I know the audiences in L.A. now. But this is a piece that no one's heard yet, and I've barely heard it myself. Let's put it this way — I can't play the whole piece on the piano, because it's for two pianos and an orchestra."

Now Glass is 78 years old, keeping busier than ever. He says that other people keep him going at it.

"With performers,  interpreters, writers, artists. You know, creativity is not confined to just the artists. I mean, people who cook can be creative, people who make clothes are creative. Creativity is anytime we take the world and, with our own hands, we make a change in it, we make a change in the world. That's what interests me, and it can come up anywhere."

Glass’s “Concerto for Two Pianos” will be performed May 28 and 30 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. His opera “Hydrogen Jukebox,” with a libretto by Allen Ginsberg, is being presented by the Long Beach Opera on May 30 and June 6-7.