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Interview with Philip Glass

by Antonio Della Marina

(italian version)

Antonio Della Marina : You said in an interview that the last minimal piece you wrote was in 1974...

Philip Glass : Yes, I think it was Music in Twelve Parts.

A.D.M. : Anyway it seems to me that in Koyaanisqatsi  there are a lot of elements related to minimal culture, as a sort of homage to it.

Ph.G. : My remarks have to do with this: once the subject matter of the music shifted from the language of music to things external to music itself, for example images or text or movement, once that began, it was not really possible to talk about a reductive aesthetic because we're really talking about using image and using music in a dramatic context. So my view is that the classical minimal experia was not a period of dramatic music, it was a music about structure, in which the main concept was that the structure of the music, and the contents were identical.That is to say that the structure of the music was the process and that the process of the music infact was the contents; for example Music in Fifths or Music in Similar Motion.. If you think about these pieces, you realize that the structure of the piece is about the process of the piece and that is the subject. Therefore, once I moved away from that point of view, bringing in elements like text or movement, image, then already we're talking about a different relationship of the music to itself.

A.D.M. : And how can I call it?

Ph. G. : Do you want to know what the real name is? It's Theatre Music. That's what it is. In fact, if you think about it, I've done about 15 operas, 20 plays, 20 ballets and even films, so... By Theatre Music I mean this: Theatre Music is the music where the point of departure of the music is not the language of the music but a subject that is external to the music itself; so this is the idea. Then, when we say Theatre Music, it's a general word. I can say that movies are a form of theatre and, clearly, plays are a form of theatre and, clearly, ballets are a form of theatre. From the point of view of the composer, let's say that the point is the inspiration of the work, is not an internal dialogue in terms of the language of music, the inspiration is a factor that comes outside of the role of music itself and presents itself as the starting point of the work, so it could be in a movie, it could be a script  or it could be an image. So when I talk about Minimalism in this way, I'm not simply talking about a harmonic language or a style, which is not so important because I can change, in a much more detailed way what I'm really talking about is, let me put it this way, a kind of strategy of working, a kind of technique of working, that has to do with a moving away from a language of music, towards something outside of music itself. So, when I say that the last minimal piece was in '74 I think that's fairly true, because after that you have Einstain on the beach , Satyagraha, Akhnaten, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Anima Mundi, the ballets for Jerry Robbins, for Twyla Tharp, for Lucinda Childs, all the theatrical works for the Mabou Mines, etcetera... Then you can begin to say 'well there are maybe some pieces that are not like that', for example there are five or six string quartets and three or four concertos, and five symphonies, but in terms of the great body of work it's not that much, they're maybe fifteen pieces, you have to remember I write a lot of music, fifteen pieces are not that much.

A.D.M.: Yes, but when you see a building that looks like a Sol Lewitt sculpture, and the state of mind you get from looking at an image... I think that these are all elements that recall minimal culture.

Ph.G.: Well it may be so. You can make your own definition, I don't really care, it doesn't matter to me what you call it, it's what I call it. Maybe it's a good idea, but it's not my idea. I think what you can get from me is what I'm thinking, whether  we agree or not is not important, I don't care what we do agree on- in terms of your work, you are trying to do your work, probably you will disagree with me - but what I'm saying is that it's not important that we have an agreement, what's important is that you hear what my point of view is and then you can think about it, you can interpret it, you can disagree, it doesn't matter, it's completely unimportant to me.

A.D.M.: Why are you not proud of being a minimalist composer?

Ph.G.: To me it's irrelevant. You have to remember that I did this work for ten years, I did enough. But I still play those works, with the Ensamble. There's a group called Alter Ego, they do the early music, I encourage them. I promote that music too, it has its own place, if I can say, it has its own validity, it has its own value. I still play Music in similar motion, tonight I will play Mad Rush, that is close to the pieces of the seventies, in fact it's '79, I've a library of music which includes pieces from '67, but I don't think about them.

The other thing is that as a composer if you live long enough you can go through a number of different periods in your life.What you may do when you're thirty, probably when you're fifty it won't be the same. For sure it would be different.

A.D.M.:  You spent a lot of years in New York during the sixties. There was a lot of energy, a lot of ideas. What about today?

Ph.G.: Lots of energy, yes. There's a very strong movement of young composers now and their attitude is quite different from that of my generation. First of all, they do not have the kind of ideological struggle that we had, so they don't have to fight for the value of the language. The young composers don't have to do that, but they have another problem which is to find an authentic language for themselves and many of them are drawing from different areas: the impact of certain kinds of technology,  the world music as an influence, all music from different cultures like India, Africa, that kind of things. The third influence would be a kind of popular music, someone like Michael Gordon is coming... a lot of these composers are coming out of the rock'n'roll bands. Then there's also the tradition of the experimental music that I represent. So, they have a much broader kind of source for their music and I don't think it's particularly easy to do. In a way my situation was very easy because it was very clear what I had to do, it was very easy to see, because all the composers were lined up over there and that enough, everything else they didn't realize so easy. Do you know the Chinese game of GO, it's a game where you take stones and put it on the board, I can say that they were very bad GO players, cause they all worked in one corner, it was so stupid. Now, the interesting thing among young composers today if someone says to ... now I have no idea what you're working on until I hear it, thirty years ago if you said you're a composer, I pretty much knew what you were doing, now I don't know, the playing field is very open, in a way.

A.D.M:: What is experimental music today?

Ph.G.: I don't think there's one form, that's the point. And the reason why there is not one form is that the source of validation is not from one place anymore. In the past the source of validation would have been a kind of a handful composer who approved or disapproved but now the source is not so clear, so for that reason I don't think you have one source, one approved style.

A.D.M. :Technology and repetition: which is the difference between the use of repetition in tekno music and its use in minimal music? 

Ph.G.: I don't think that is what is essential to tekno music. Tekno music, because it is related to popular music, enphasizes a strong rythmic character, that's all emphasized in it, so it appears to have a kind of superficial connection with a kind of modernistic aspect of minimal music. I actually think that's not the real connection. The people that I know that are involved with tekno music come from a very different background. Very few have conservatory training, they have no idea of what kind of point harmony is and many of them don't read music at all. I'm not saying that as a criticism, because it's possible to work with people who don't read music, you just have to work a different way. So it's not a critique, in fact I find that some of them are very talented, but I think, to put it simply, that the discourse of music is happening in a different place. There's certainly an interesting popular culture which takes it already into a different place, for example  tonight, they never did commercial music, so that makes a big difference. That's an interesting question, isn't it? On the other hand, people like Brian Eno whom I have known for a very long time, he brings a freshness in terms of his conceptualization of music which I like and it's because he comes from an art school and not a music school that he's able to do that. So let me say that I think the connection between tekno music and experimental music is not clear at all and I think the motivations have very different - economic and social impact,... - and when we begin to look at it from that point of view our ability to work together is kind of an accident almost.

I'm not very satisfied by that answer but it's a question which I think I haven't been able to resolve.

A.D.M.: Did you finish Naqoyqatsi ?

Ph.G.: No, we didn't start it because Godfrey hasn't found the money yet, he has been looking for the money for ten years, it's very surprising because the films, are in the repertory of my company, I'm constantly playing films, they're not forgotten about but somehow they are unable to attract money. We have a script and Godfrey has started to make some images and we have a plan for the music but we haven't begun the music because there is not any money to begin the work.

A.D.M.: Will it be very different from the others?

Ph.G.: There will be a big difference; also because there's been such a long period since the second movie, it's been almost ten years, so I can expect that ... we're quite different.

A.D.M.: I've read that during the making of Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio gave you lots of books, articles, to let you know his idea, his way of thinking. Could you tell me something about these books?

Ph.G.: Well, I didn't pay much attention to his ideas; I have to separate Godfrey from the man with the conceptual point of view and the man who actually makes the movies and sometimes they're not the same; he is a very good propagandist for ideas and he explains them very well in a way, but sometimes the movies go in a different direction. I'm not sure, I think that the movies are broader than his ability to talk about them. There's a whole bunch of people that he gave me books about, that I've read or tried to read. He has a whole source of ideas and they're very intellectual. If the real work is popular, it's not because of the ideas but because people can connect very quickly with the emotional range of the work. The film seems to convey very powerfully  concepts in the  direct visual musical emotional way, which the words cannot really capture. So I became aware very early of that  the ideas of the movies were not the best explanation of the movies, he could talk about the movies very well but I discovered that I wasn't very useful, as a composer, listening to the ideas and I began simply to work  with the attitudes and look at the images myself and to work in terms of an intuitive and dramatic response to the material.

On the other hand, Godfrey and I are people of the same generation, we grew up at the same time, we had many of the same social experiences , the Vietnam war, the Beat Generation, the whole thing, we shared that. So that, since we shared that background, naturally it would be easy for me to step into the world that he creates. I found on the whole the explaination is less persuasive than the actual material.

A.D.M.: Can we find the 'Gaia Hypothesis' in the movies?

Ph.G.: I don't know, which one is it, is this the idea of the earth as a matrix? It's an interesting idea because it comes up in dalaism, it comes up in the shaman tradition, in Siberia and Mexico. Siberia and Mexico have very clear ideas about the earth functioning in this way, about the earth as a matrix which contains the reality that we can experience;  it is a very old idea. We think it comes from Siberia but we're not sure; which also has very strong connections to Taoism, to China. I think there's no question that the subject of the films so to speak springs in some way from that idea, of the earth as an organism. And I would say from that point of view that Godfrey does base it strongly on indian text and so I should say that when he says he doesn't do it I think it's included, but in that way. If you look at the source of Koyaanisqatsi you can see that, but I don't think it comes from Gaia, I think it comes directly from the indigenous cultures of the  meso-America. I think living, as Godfrey did, in that part of the south west, he was in touch with those cultures and they influenced him and he very consciously accepted that as a concept. But he himself never used that word, I've never heard it from him. But he would talk about the Hopi, and also the indigenous  indians of Mexico and Guatemala, the Toltech, the Maya, the pre-Maya, right up to the conquistadores, right up until the 15th century they're there.

A.D.M.: Maybe Gaia is influenced by that, probably we need scientific affirmations.

Ph.G. : Obviously, if you think carefully a few minutes you see that it's not a new idea at all, in fact in terms of the new world, by that I mean Maya and earlier cultures of the meso-America, we see that the concept is very strongly present in those cultures as it is in the sciamanism.

A.D.M.: I know you don't want to talk about Minimalism. Can you tell me something about the evolution of your music, after that period?

Ph.G.: The issues, in the language of music, that developed after that period, for me have to do with politonality and polimodality, which was a kind of a research. The powerful aspects of Minimalism were: a repetitive structure, a constant tonality and a kind of steady beat in the music. Those are the three elements that will always be there. And it was good enough to start another movement. By that time I was doing Music in Twelve Parts, I gradually exhausted those ideas, for me. So if you go through Music in Twelve Parts  you can see the development very clearly of how the ideas have developed. You come to the end and then the music starts to turn to the question of tonality again, towards the question of functional harmony. Then, the next question I came up with  was the appropriate form of functional harmony that would work in a kind of post minimalist music. The answer to that question is found almost in terms in Einstein on the Beach, I wrote notes for the record, if you look at the notes ... combination of a functional tonality working with a repetitive structure, that became the basis of Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha.

After Satyagraha, by 1980, I no longer continue that way. Then other issues began to emerge. What began to happen is that the question of tonality became a subject in its own right, independent of harmonic expression, the development of harmonic expression continued as a kind of basis, as a kind of subtext. If you are looking at a painting, it would be the background not the foreground, it would create a kind of structure for the music but it was no longer the subject of the music. So the real subject of music became the issue of tonal relationship, and this is coming now at a very interesting time because at the end of the 20th century the issue of tonality riemerges. It was the question of the end of the 19th century, now comes the question of the end of the 20th. And there are very big differences. For one thing in the present system there isn't an exact hierarchy of tonal relationships between a key, of pitch relationships within a key. In other words: 1 6 4 5 2 1 whatever, you've done all of that, it's all that kind of stuff that you do when... that simply is not a useful strategy anymore.

A.D.M.: You talk about strategy, about elements like structure, harmony. You never refer to any emotional approaching. Why not?

Ph.G.: I never talk about it too much, usually I leave it for the audience, that's not really the point, for my point of view. The issue really became what the possible relationships are within a key. And then certain things began to come out right away: one is that I took the habit of looking through the question of politonality and from a different point of view  from the 30s and 40s, when politonality was really actually the cohincidence of several keys at the same time; when I began to look at the key structure in terms of the perception of the key - so that you could look at this music from this way, it might be in D flat, if you look at it from that way it would be in B - so it became a perceptive problem, so that it became not possible even to say in what key a piece was, not because it existed in two keys at once, but because it didn't exist in two keys at once. You had to choose. When you chose one, then you negated the other one.

A.D.M.: Do you know why your music is so perfect for visual experience?

Ph.G.: There are two answers for that. In the first place, many of the pieces are inspired in the first place by visual advance. For example it could be movement or an image like a film, so, to begin with, some of them are inspired by the visual element. That can explain that, for one thing. Then, I think the second answer to that question is that the culture at this time is really emphasizing the visual language. Let is say the language of words so that we seem to be in an age of visual expression. So many people have developed a kind of visual intelligence, which they apply to everything. So naturally then it gets a part of music and then it appears of the music, well suited to the visual but actually, how can I say, the predilection, the inclination, let's say the talent of the listener, is coming out from a place of visual experience and is a part of a mighty kick of the music. So, I think that's the second reason. And I think there's a third reason, and the third reason is this: especially in the theatre and in the film, the visual images are kind of neutral. The actual emotional environment of the images is wordly turning by the music. So that, for example, if you see a movie without music, it has kind of lost its own emotional impact, it seems much less emotional. Ordinary scenes can become charged with a certain kind of feeling and I think we are accustomed to that now, we come to understand that now. So that the music can play with images in a certain way. I think that's another reason why the music seems to work well with images, because the images are neutral to the game and become easily captured by the music.

A.D.M.: In your music, time is an important element. The additive process, or the cyclic structures can confuse the listener's perception of time. Can you tell me something about that?

Ph.G.: There are differences, there's all different kinds of time. There's the time of the daily will, we can call it a kind of consensually time, most of the time. For example I say I'm going to meet you at one 'o clock in the afternoon, then - depending on this culture - I know that you will be there at one 'o clock. You might be there  at two 'o clock you might be there at three, it depends on the place and then on the people, but there's a kind of understanding of ordinary time, we call it consensual time. Then there are several other kinds of time. There's a time of memory, a kind of personal history, memory in terms of personal history, and then there's a kind of memory in terms of cultural history and each has its different kind of time. For example if I think of the history of Rome I can think back easily for 250 years, 300 years, all that is contained in Rome, if I walk around Rome in my mind I can become aware of that time. So there's that kind of time. Then there's another kind of time which is a time which takes place in the future, in which what we imagine might be advanced. So there are those kinds of time. Then, just confusing us more, there are subjective experiences of time, when time is slow, time is fast, waiting for your friend in the evening might be very long or as when you're finally with your friend the time might pass very quickly, that kind of thing. So in fact what I'm suggesting is that there is no actual orderly single perception of time, but time has many perceptions and that we have become very skilful in switching easily from one level of time of experience to another. We do it automatically almost without thinking. For example if I do an opera about Ghandi, the opera takes place in a period of three hours. But it's covering an historical period of twenty years. In the same way, so, we easily conceptually can organize our lives. At the same time there might be parts of the opera that seem to go very fast and other parts that seem to go very slow. Even when that happens we could still more or less know what time it is, we can kind of judge that. Now, my way of working with time in terms of music is very precise. When I'm writing a piece of music I always know exactly how long the music is in every page in fact I make a note at the bound of the page how the time is organized in terms of the metronom and the actual watch. The watch time, the time of the clock. When I'm writing a piece I know the clock time all through the piece; and that helps me in a kind of organization of strategy. For example like the piece tonight, you probably noticed it was in four separated parts with a complete stop between part 2 and 3, and I was sure, I was certain that Terry had a very clear sense of the time. I think he also, is working in an improvise medium, but I think if you talk to him you will find that he had a very precise sense of what he was in time. Before the evening I asked how long he would play and he said about an hour and a half and when I looked at my clock it was about an hour and twentysix minutes,  and he wasn't looking at the clock. The interesting thing about music is that it has to keep the role of function in the terms of the clock time or consensual time and emotional time and historical time; all the issues of time can exist in music. And I think that the thing about music that's so interesting is that when we, as composers and performers, become skilful in handling time, we become skilful in handling our awareness of time, we become very playful with time. A part of the experience of the composer is developing this kind of playfulness with time and control of time. That's a very brief discussion of time but...

 

 

[i] L'intervista a cui mi riferisco Ŕ in Philip Glass returns to Koyaanisqatsi, di Lozaw T., "The Boston Phoenix", 7-14 gen. 1999, p.21.

[ii] The Dream, per piano solo, eseguito in prima mondiale.

 

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