Monday, February 18, 2013

Minimalist composer Philip Glass claims to be the only one able to interpret his music the right way

By Nancy T. Lu
An encounter with composer Philip Glass, then 59, in Taipei one December day in 1996 convinced me to attend his piano recital the next day. There was a compelling reason to listen to the music interpretation as he originally intended it.

“When I compose music,” confessed Glass, “there are many things I don’t write down. Musicians will never play the way I do. This is the most perfect copyright.”

He went on: “I don’t like to hear other musicians play my music. It always sounds wrong. It’s not their fault. It’s my fault.”

Glass remarked: “Improvisation is not a technique I am familiar with. I have no talent for improvising. I have decided to leave it for my enjoyment.”

The composer made reference to his love for jazz music. In the 1950s, Glass went to school in Chicago, then a great center for jazz. Charlie Parker, his idol of sorts then, played at the Beehive Club. But at the age of 15, Glass could not even get in.

In his youth, he managed nonetheless to go and listen to jazz often. John Coltrane he heard many, many times. There was also Miles Davis.

His Taipei program that time consisted of “pieces written in the last 20 years.” The first half of the concert was devoted to music composed between 1975 and 1990. The second half featured more recent works.

Glass played an excerpt from “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” “Five Metamorphoses,” “The Fourth Knee Play” (excerpt from “Einstein on the Beach”), “Six Etudes” and an excerpt from “Satyagraha.”

When Philip Glass is composing music, he finds the piano very useful. According to him, he can imagine a piece of music in his mind, adding though “but it is difficult to project the music in real time.” This is where the piano comes in.

“When I play on the piano,” he explained, “I hear the music playing in time. But it doesn’t mean that I am playing the entire piece. Like in the case of the opera, I can’t play the chorus.”

He elaborated: “I like the piano for my physical movement – with my hands and body.”

As a composer, Glass delights in treading on unfamiliar grounds. As he put it, “When I have to work with African music, I have to learn music all over again.”

He constantly tries to find and focus on something he doesn’t know anything about. At the time of his Taipei visit, he was excited about composing a piece for a chamber orchestra in Stuttgart. This was to involve collaboration with Chinese pipa player or lutanist Wu Man.

Many gifted contemporary artists engaged in diverse disciplines show very little discipline almost as a rule. Glass though was somewhat embarrassed to talk about his own discipline as a composer.

According to his own observation, his concentration gets better as he grows older. He also shows more discipline. His technique improves, too.

“What makes me happy is to wake up early in the morning – like at six o’clock – and to know that I have nothing to do but to write music,” he said.

Glass particularly likes creating music for dance. What he does usually is to go and look at the company first and see the space that they are working in.

“The size of the space tells a lot about how the music is going to be,” he spoke from experience. “If the dancers are performing in a big space, I don’t write music that goes too fast. Otherwise the dancers will get very tired.”

He keeps an eye on the concepts of the style of the dancers, the size of the space they work in, the number of dancers, the lighting design, and the costume design. Once these are clear, he writes the music.

Philip Glass credited Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, his two most important mentors, for his success as composer and performer. He pointed out: “I spent three years in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  Ravi Shankar became my model of a composer who was also a performer.”

Years ago, while working on a film in Paris with Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass became greatly interested in non-western music. He proceeded to create the so-called minimalist music, which consisted of a maximum repetition of a minimum amount of material. A music critic, in fact, described his concerts as more about endurance than about virtuosity.

The six-hour 1976 opera “Einstein on the Beach” was one of Glass’ big successes over the years. The latest touring production kicked off a series of performances at the Opera Berlioz in Montpellier, France, on March 16, 2012.  

Of the production directed by Robert Wilson, the composer recalled: “When it was restaged in 1992, people who came to see it were surprised that we had the audacity to do the piece.”

As he put it, “I have no desire to repeat success. But I don’t mind repeating a failure and learning from it.”

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