A View Through Glass

An Interview with Philip Glass

Written by Alex Christaki
2nd July 1994, London

This interview was recorded at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, London 2nd July 1994 with Alex Christaki with the kind permission of Mr Timothy Grassel of International Production Associates, New York.

Under no circumstances may any of this material be reproduced.

I was not simply interested in asking questions about his music, I was also attracted to certain issues which I had discovered in his music reflecting my own personal experiences as opposed to asking questions that one could ask almost any composer. Obviously it would be difficult to predict exactly how the interview would go. I was also a totally inexperienced interviewer. He is not simply another composer in my life but someone to whom I have listened for many years and who has had much influence on my musical life, so I was also interested in his life and the influences it had on his work.

Unfortunately the opening question of the interview was not recorded due to a technical error, the question being "What is your attitude to the word Minimalism?" of which he gave an answer to the effect that this word is a creation of the critics and which many composers do not like as it is misused. Terminology is a very strong issue in this case as many musicians have already discovered, due to the rapidly changing climate of music.

AC. How is your style of composition according, with today's musical development and style?

PG. I am a theatre composer who is tonal in orientation. I feel that I benefited from techniques I learnt from studying traditions in non-western music. However, I also benefited from current contemporary technology. My work involves music for theatre projects to invent a musical language with strategies. That is what is represented in my work.

AC. Would you class your music as mainstream?

PG. Yes, as it is very popular, in that at concerts at the Festival Hall both nights were sell- outs. It is not therefore played in small galleries, alternative galleries and late night clubs which were the venues in the early sixties and seventies. However I feel that you have to be careful using the word "mainstream" - what is the meaning? For example, popular music and pop music are very different things. Pop music is examined in terms of record numbers. For 1-10 million people, classical music may be popular but maybe only sell 100 thousand copies. It may be only a few decimal point difference but it is a big one. Mainstream suggests that the music is enjoyed by a heterogeneous audience. That of different age groups, economic classes therefore not specialist. In the USA mainstream is Country and Western. However in the context of classical music you need to ask will I be in a concert alongside Mozart and Mendelssohn?, probably not. People may see themselves as classical music lovers but may not hear a lot of music.

AC. In the U.K. an artist such as Michael Tippett could possibly be classed as contemporary classical...

PG. By the academics or non-academics? Is it approved by the critics? It is obvious that a certain music style will get good reviews as critics are afraid to give it a bad one. If a piece of music is unprotected by the establishment it becomes much more vulnerable. It may be said that if music does not concede to the academic/honoury society it is a little more aggressive. Tippett I feel has a reputation of being a singing composer,... re-evaluated and compared favourably to Benjamin Britten". Twenty years ago it was not the case. Indeed it could be seen as complicated and challenging. The Midsummer Marriage works in America and is not easy to listen to, hence it is not very popular. But then can you have something that is mainstream yet fails to be popular? A curious contradiction", However, Tippett could fill a hall on his own, sure of his large following.

AC. I have found that your style has not really changed since around the 70's. Pinpointing North Star and Koyaanisqatsi, how different are they?

PG. Compared to Einstein on the Beach? Between 1966-76 that body of work more or less has an identifiable style, changes can appear normal.

AC. Have all your works been principally for theatre?

PG. There have been 20 ballets, 12 operas, half a dozen pieces for music theatre. Here subject matter is the source of inspiration for work. Gandhi was the character, technology in society in Koyaanisqatsi, therefore non-musical material - the image, movement, story is all involved in music theatre. Subject matter is the primary source. I almost write with a story, pictures, etcetera.

AC. Trademarks in your music include the extensive use of alternating 4ths and 5ths.

PG. Certain pieces do and others don't. In La Belle there is very little. It is important in dance music which requires abstract rhythmic style. A dancer likes that. However in a narrative like La Belle, it is more lyrical as it tells a story, that's the bottom line. The key factors are melody, harmony and rhythm. To be rhythmic it needs to be strong and conditioned. More prominent in non-western music. I shared this experience with Ravi Shankar and we travelled a lot, in particular in Asia where I studied rhythm structure as the basis of music. Harmonic factor can be stylistic. early, or with a sophisticated, single movement as with the recent pieces. My approach to harmony is not traditional. The key centres are "array" creating movement and "variety". The relationship of major thirds or even organic fourths or triads situation creates a tonality, a harmonic language more than a classical harmony. A melody is much more operatic. Vocal lines are handled by voices, determined by the applied text. La Belle displays melodic material as it is closely associated with the harmony. The distance is dependant on the text or the place in the music at that moment. In the earlier works such as Satyaghraha the melodic material is closer to the tonal centres in La Belle it is different. Range occurs however it is not necessary disjointed. In the twentieth century it is popular to add intervallic situations. In older motets is was melodic writing as opposed to identiphonic and electronic or serialism.

AC. Did you write the Solo Piano music parallel to other works?

PG. Yes. Wichita Sutra Vortex and Hydrogen Jukebox is metamorphosis in a film. Mad Rush is a dance piece and is my only recent piano piece not connected to a theatre subject. I began a collection of eight etudes for piano and have written six.

AC. Where does the Violin Concerto fit in to all this?

PG. I don't think it does. I wrote it in 1987 and it is played a lot. It is basically a traditional violin concerto with three movements, lacking oddly enough a cadenza. As with 19th and early 20th century concertos, it follows rhythm, harmony and melody, etcetera. As a concert piece it has no subject matter.

AC. Wasn't it written after Powaqqatsi?

PG. The pieces are not always logical, not exact sequences but groups of pieces. A five year period may have a similar order but not necessarily similar matter.

AC. The piece I am concentrating on is Powaqqatsi. How did you go about writing it?

PG. I started by looking at the pictures. The film was not completed and we had about twenty hours of film grouped in large categories. The opening Serra Pelada, the Gold Mine' was originally thirty minutes but was eventually ten. Working with the subject I generally wrote music which would work well with it, to support and suggest something either public or subtle. The distance or duration of the relationship may have a large range with each section having a large volume of images suggested by the music. The editor used my music to cut the film therefore creating a closeness between image and music as the actual picture was cut to music.

AC. I particularly liked the imitation of the train...

PG. Trains are my favourite things. There is a train in Powaqqatsi and the first song of Hydrogen Jukebox. I grew up in a town with trains and I love the regular rhythm from the wheels. I think I'm "good at trains".

AC. An article describes you as a composer "destined to remain an unrecorded composer for as long as he remains a productive one".

PG. I've done 25 records at least. I've recorded two this year. People are always asking why I haven't recorded more, for exampleThe Fall of the House of Usher, The voyage. In fact I'm far behind. People love different records such as Akhnaten, Glassworks and That's Nice. They're even fun to collect.

AC. I've been compared to yourself, a "post Philip Glass" composer. I've completed a 6 piano piece with a strong signature, a recognisable sound. What were your influences?

PG. Probably Western classical music, the non-Western music for example the Indian music with Ravi Shankar in the 1960's. My time in Africa with Claude Sousot was useful. It helps to explode our own musical hobbies, those you come to naturally without thinking. To confront them with an exotic culture can shake them up.

AC. Do you compose alone?

PG. I can collaborate, but the actual conception of my music I do myself.

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