com­poser Philip Glass

Noth­ing is per­ma­nent for the pop­u­lar and pro­lific com­poser, whose works are con­stantly chang­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

Philip Glass is hard to pin down. Not that he has airs; on the con­trary, he’s one of the most straight­for­ward com­posers you’re likely to meet. “I’m a very bad celebrity,” he says. “I’m not in­ter­ested in it at all.” And he doesn’t act like one. In con­ver­sa­tion, he asks your opin­ion about things, and when he chuck­les at one of his own punch­lines, he looks at you hope­fully, wait­ing for a laugh. Yet he’s still hard to pin down, be­cause there have been many dif­fer­ent Philip Glasses over the com­poser’s 81 years. If you think you know who Philip Glass is, you prob­a­bly don’t. You’ll know the out­lines, of course. Glass is one of the most pop­u­lar and pro­lific com­posers alive. His out­put is ver­i­ta­bly Bach-like in its range and quan­tity. To some peo­ple, Glass is “Koy­aanisqatsi,” the puls­ing, mind-bend­ing film in which Glass’s mu­sic and God­frey Reg­gio’s images play equal parts. To some, he’s “Ein­stein on the Beach,” the break­out avant-garde opera he cre­ated with di­rec­tor Robert Wil­son in 1976. Some would name the sym­phonies he wrote based on the al­bums David Bowie recorded in Berlin in the late 1970s, “He­roes” and “Low.” (He’s cur­rently work­ing on a sym­phony — his 12th — based on Bowie’s third Berlin al­bum, “Lodger.”)

In the new-mu­sic world, some hail his mas­ter­piece as “Mu­sic in 12 Parts,” the four-plushour work he wrote in the early 1970s as a sum­ma­tion of his dis­tinc­tive mu­si­cal lan­guage. Oper­a­go­ers might name the 2015 re­vi­sion of “Ap­po­mat­tox,” cov­er­ing a cen­tury of Amer­i­can his­tory, from the Civil War to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And “a lot of peo­ple like ‘The Hours,’” Glass says, re­fer­ring to the score of the 2002 film with Meryl Streep, Ni­cole Kid­man, and Ju­lianne Moore, one of three of his film scores nom­i­nated for an Os­car. “Why not? Beau­ti­ful women, and a nice story, and all that.”

All of th­ese works are Glass, and none of them are. Glass is mer­cu­rial: con­stantly chang­ing, shift­ing, rein­vent­ing him­self. A prac­tic­ing Bud­dhist, he seems to em­brace the idea that noth­ing is per­ma­nent. “You lis­ten to what he’s been do­ing, and it’s rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent,” says the per­for­mance artist Lau­rie Anderson, who has been a friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor of Glass’s since they were part of the al­ter­na­tive per­for­mance scene in down­town Man­hat­tan, 40 years ago. “Many peo­ple get a style, do the style, re­peat the style, are known for the style. Phil never did that. That’s an­other thing I find so wild about his work. It changes in ways I don’t think other peo­ple’s does.”

What do you mean, peo­ple might say? The con­ven­tional wis­dom on Glass, prop­a­gated by fans and de­trac­tors alike, is that he al­ways sounds the same. His mu­sic, peo­ple say, is about re­peat­ing the same things over and over: He’s a guy with a gim­mick. It’s New Age-y be­cause it in­cor­po­rates non-Western ap­proaches, such as In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic and the mu­sic of indige­nous peo­ples of Mex­ico. It isn’t re­ally clas­si­cal mu­sic. Peo­ple take th­ese things as a rea­son to like his work, or to re­ject it. But none of it is re­ally ac­cu­rate.

The clas­si­cal mu­sic world has long viewed Glass as an out­sider. Glass isn’t a com­poser who is of­fered teach­ing gigs, al­though he’s been a men­tor to scores of young mu­si­cians. And this year’s Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors, which he will re­ceive Sun­day, is one of only a hand­ful of ma­jor awards he’s re­ceived, all late in his ca­reer. “My first big award was the Praemium Im­pe­ri­ale,” the Ja­panese in­ter­na­tional arts award founded in 1988, he says. “I was 75. I had long ago given up any thought of get­ting any.” In 2015, this was fol­lowed by Canada’s Glenn Gould Prize and the Na­tional Medal of the Arts, be­stowed by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. “My feel­ing is, you have to be about 75,” he says of the ac­co­lades. “At that point, when it hap­pens, it’s, ‘Oh! That’s nice!’ ” He mimes the kind of sur­prised plea­sure one might evince at a thought­ful gift from an of­fice mate. “I mean,” he adds, “if it hap­pens in your 40s, it’s maybe nicer, but I think if I got an award ear­lier, I would have been very sus­pi­cious — of my­self. I didn’t have to worry about that.”

In­deed not. When Glass was in his 40s, he had only re­cently stopped sup­port­ing him­self and his mu­sic by driv­ing a New York taxi­cab.

The oc­to­ge­nar­ian Glass is in­ter­viewed on a cold sunny day in Oc­to­ber, in the brown­stone in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage that he’s lived in since 1984. He’s as easy to rec­og­nize as his mu­sic: a once-tall man, now slightly stooped, with a duck-toed gait and a clipped ver­sion of what the painter Chuck Close has de­scribed as his “den­dritic, Me­dusa-like curls.” (Close has put those curls through a range of per­mu­ta­tions since he first pho­tographed Glass in the 1960s.) His house, like him, is com­fort­able but not or­nate: sun from a small back pa­tio stream­ing in over low built-in shelv­ing hold­ing pieces of Asian art and other ob­jects. Glass is af­fa­ble and al­most avun­cu­lar, shar­ing fa­vorite sto­ries in the man­ner, com­mon to fam­ily mem­bers and older celebri­ties, of one who has done it many times be­fore. Hav­ing carved out time in his sched­ule to talk, he is do­ing all he can to make the time count.

Usu­ally, he’d be work­ing — some­thing he does 10 to 12 hours a day. When he was a stu­dent at the Juil­liard School, he says, “I put a clock on the pi­ano. And I said, I’m go­ing to sit here from 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock. I just sat there. And af­ter a while, I just wrote, be­cause I had noth­ing to do.” Ever since, he’s put a pre­mium on show­ing up ev­ery day. “It’s not about writ­ing fast,” he says, “it’s about be­ing able to spend hours. If you can solve the stamina prob­lem, it helps a lot.”

The re­sult of this steady out­put is ev­i­dent in more than 30,000 man­u­script pages of mu­sic: 27 op­eras, 11 sym­phonies, 8 string quar­tets, 20 pi­ano études and 50odd films, among many other works. In the 2007 film “Glass: A Por­trait of Philip in 12 Parts,” by the di­rec­tor Scott Hicks, the com­poser Nico Muhly, who was Glass’s as­sis­tant for sev­eral years, says, “He’s writ­ten him­self into a sit­u­a­tion where he doesn’t re­ally get to have a day off.” There are al­ways peo­ple wait­ing for things.

The out­put ex­tends to a mem­oir, “Words With­out Mu­sic,” which came out in 2015; Glass wrote the first draft in three months. Es­sen­tially a por­trait of the artist as a young man, it ex­pands on Glass’s early life: his child­hood in Bal­ti­more, play­ing the flute and learn­ing mu­sic in his fa­ther’s record shop; his ma­tric­u­la­tion at the Univer­sity of Chicago at 15; his de­gree from Juil­liard; and the Ful­bright Schol­ar­ship that brought him to Paris for two years of rig­or­ous study with the doyenne of com­po­si­tion teach­ers, Na­dia Boulanger. He learned about jazz in Chicago night­clubs and East­ern phi­los­o­phy from New York friends, and tra­di­tional In­dian mu­sic from Ravi Shankar, whom he as­sisted on a film project, learn­ing a whole new way of think­ing about rhyth­mic struc­tures. He mar­ried the avant-garde the­ater di­rec­tor JoAnne Akalaitis, the first of his four wives, and had the first two of his four chil­dren, Zack and Juliet.

Less ex­pected, though, is the ev­i­dence of how deeply Glass is steeped in the tra­di­tions of Western mu­sic. He de­voured record­ings: from Bar­tok and Schoenberg to the great Ger­man con­duc­tor Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, whose slow tem­pos in the sym­phonies of Bruck­ner and Beethoven, he writes, “pre­pared me for Wil­son,” his “Ein­stein” col­lab­o­ra­tor, an­other artist who stretches time to the break­ing point. Boulanger drilled him in the nuts and bolts of mu­si­cal tech­nique: species coun­ter­point, trans­po­si­tion at sight to and from any of the seven clefs. He him­self says the sound of Cen­tral Eu­ro­pean art mu­sic has been “a solid part of me from an early age,” al­though it didn’t start to be “au­di­ble in my mu­sic un­til al­most five decades later.”

This isn’t a side of Glass of which ev­ery­one is aware. More com­mon is the view of one gate­keeper he tells of in his book who, per­plexed by his scores and un­aware of his pedi­gree, gen­tly sug­gested he might want to take some com­po­si­tion lessons. In fact, Glass is do­ing what many com­posers have done be­fore him: break­ing new ground and in­te­grat­ing new per­spec­tives and in­flu­ences in a frame­work born of deep knowl­edge of mu­si­cal tra­di­tion.

Glass also ad­dresses the fal­lacy that all he does is play the same chords over and over. Cer­tainly the lan­guage he de­vel­oped, un­help­fully la­beled “min­i­mal­ism,” in­volved sub­tle vari­a­tions of sim­i­lar pat­terns. But, “It never re­peated all the time,” Glass writes in his mem­oir, “for if it had, it would have been un­lis­ten­able.” The chords are con­stantly shift­ing and chang­ing; that’s the point.

“Mu­sic in Twelve Parts” was a kind of man­i­festo of Glass’s mu­si­cal vi­sion; “Ein­stein on the Beach” was an acme, hit­ting a world that had never seen any­thing like its shim­mer­ing, chant­ing cho­ruses and styl­ized move­ment.

“But ‘Ein­stein’ wasn’t the be­gin­ning of some­thing, it was the end of some­thing,” Glass says now. “If ‘Ein­stein’ had been the be­gin­ning of some­thing, then I would have writ­ten ‘Son of Ein­stein.’ And it would have been more ap­pre­ci­ated, and not as good. Peo­ple would have liked it, be­cause I sounded like the guy who wrote ‘Ein­stein.’ But I didn’t want to be the guy who wrote ‘Ein­stein.’ ” In­stead, he wrote “Satya­graha,” his 1980 opera about Gandhi, which met with mixed re­ac­tions — some ex­cite­ment, some dis­may — and which has taken al­most 30 years to be fully rec­og­nized as a ma­jor opera.

In the years af­ter “Ein­stein,” Glass makes it hard for any­one to pin him down. His mem­oir be­gins to hop around, los­ing its lin­ear­ity and mak­ing cal­cu­lated omis­sions. He writes of the dev­as­tat­ing death of his third wife, the artist Candy Jerni­gan, of can­cer at age 39; he doesn’t men­tion Holly Critchlow, his fourth and now ex-wife, the mother of his two younger sons, now teenagers, Cameron and Mar­lowe. Nor does he men­tion Wendy Sut­ter, the cel­list and ex­girl­friend for whom he wrote the lu­mi­nous “Songs and Po­ems for Solo Cello” in 2007. In the case of the per­sonal life, the rea­son is partly tact. In the case of the mu­sic, it’s be­cause, he says, “once the work be­gins, there’s noth­ing more to re­mem­ber.” In the ac­tual act of com­pos­ing, you lose your­self. “I don’t re­mem­ber writ­ing ‘Satya­graha.’ But I wrote it.”

In a filmed 1976 in­ter­view, Glass is in­tense and un­smil­ing, his eyes ringed with black shad­ows. You can see the drive that un­der­lies the ca­reer he sub­se­quently built: the fo­cus it took to cre­ate a new mu­sic and an in­fra­struc­ture in which to per­form it (his group, the Philip Glass En­sem­ble, is still go­ing strong). It is a long arc from there to the smil­ing older man, eyes twin­kling, who presents such a warm­hearted front to the world. Yet many of his friend­ships — with Anderson, with Close, with Paul Si­mon — have trav­eled that arc with him. “Philip is so full of joy and en­thu­si­asm and ideas and en­ergy,” Anderson says.

The mu­sic, too, con­tin­ues to change and evolve. Like most great com­posers, Glass has a dis­tinc­tive thumbprint: You hear a score and know it’s Glass, the same way you hear a Haydn score and know it’s Haydn. But we don’t dis­miss Haydn’s mu­sic be­cause it all sounds the same. And Glass’s work, while un­mis­tak­ably Glass, has en­tered a re­mark­able late pe­riod that verges on the down­right Ro­man­tic in places: His third pi­ano con­certo, re­cently recorded by Si­mone Din­ner­stein, or his sump­tu­ous 11th sym­phony.

Though he’s work­ing to cre­ate clean cor­rected edi­tions of all his scores, a project he says will take an­other 10 years, Glass isn’t in­vested in his legacy. He has no il­lu­sions that you can con­trol what will hap­pen in the fu­ture: “The fu­ture is not the present pro­jected into the fu­ture. The fu­ture is what we don’t know.” And as the field of clas­si­cal mu­sic des­per­ately seeks ways to reach a wider, younger au­di­ence, and in­cor­po­rate a wider range of mu­si­cal tra­di­tions, Glass con­tin­ues to write his mu­sic — which is very pop­u­lar with a wider au­di­ence and in­cor­po­rates di­verse tra­di­tions — for any­one who wants to no­tice.

As for his award, “the good thing about this is that we’re go­ing to have art mu­sic now at the Kennedy Cen­ter” Hon­ors, he says. “The Kennedy Cen­ter — I think it was sup­posed to be the fount of pop­u­lar cul­ture. But it doesn’t have to be. I mean, why not have other cul­ture, too?”

But surely he knows that for some in the clas­si­cal world, his mu­sic is pop cul­ture?

“Well, that’s . . . ” he says, mo­men­tar­ily at a loss for words. But he’s amused, not an­gry. He fi­nally finds what he wants to say. “That’s pa­thetic.”

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

KATHY WILLENS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

FROM TOP: Jan­ice Felty rides in on a moon as Miss Uni­verse, in a re­hearsal of “The White Raven,” an opera by Philip Glass, in New York in 2001. Glass per­forms his “La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast)” at the Bu­dapest Spring Fes­ti­val in 2014. Glass speaks to ac­tors at a re­hearsal of his opera “Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians,” in Ger­many in 2005. Ac­tors re­hearse “Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians.”

JEAN-SE­BASTIEN EVRARD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

JENS MEYER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

JEAN-SE­BASTIEN EVRARD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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