Composer / Performer Philip
Two conversations with Bruce Duffie
Born on January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland, Philip Glass worked in
his father's radio store and discovered music listening to the offbeat
Western classical records customers didn't seem to want. He studied the
violin and flute, and obtained early admission to the University of
Chicago. After graduating in mathematics and philosophy, he went to New
York's Julliard school, drove a cab, and studied composition with
Darius Milhaud and others.
At 23, he moved to Paris to study under the legendary Nadia Boulanger,
who taught almost all of the major Western classical composers of the
20th century. While there, he discovered Indian classical music while
transcribing the works of Ravi Shankar into Western musical notation
for a French filmmaker. A creative turning point, Glass researched
non-Western music in India and parts of Africa, and applied the
techniques to his own composition.
Back in the United States, Glass spent the late 1960s and early 1970s
driving a taxi cab in New York and creating a major collection of new
music. In 1976, his landmark opera "Einstein on the Beach" was staged
by Robert Wilson
to a baffling variety of reviews. His compositions were so avant-garde
that he had to form the Philip Glass Ensemble [shown in photo below] to give them
a venue for performance. Although called a minimalist by the Western
classical mainstream, he denies this categorization. His major works
include opera, theater pieces, dance, and song.
His work in film, beginning with Koyaanisqatsi (1982), gave filmmakers
such as Godfrey Reggio and Errol Morris a new venue of expression
through the documentary form. His many recordings have also widened his
audience. He was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to compose "The
Voyage" for the Columbus quinquacentennial in 1992. In 1996, he
composed original music for the Atlanta Olympic Games, which, perhaps,
made Glass almost mainstream. Glass remains one of the most important
American composers. His music is distinctive, haunting, and evocative.
Either performed by itself or in collaboration with other media, his
compositions move the listener to unexplored places. More recently, a
major reexamination of Glass's oeuvre has led him to be labeled the
Last Romantic by the musical press.
-- IMDb Mini Biography by Jim
Sadur [text only - photo from another
-- Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my
Interviwes elsewhere on this website. BD
The first time we met was in February of 1982. We had only a few
minutes during the sound-check for that evening’s
performance at the University of Chicago. The second conversation
was held five and a half years later at Lyric Opera of Chicago, when we
had a bit more time.
Here is the first encounter . . . . . . . . .
You’ve been called a minimalist. Do you like that label, or no?
I never liked those labels, but it’s a way for media people and
journalists to conveniently talk about a large group of work which has
certain superficial similarities. In my opinion it’s not a very
good description, but it’s the one that’s been bandied around a bit.
BD: Would you
rather think of yourself as getting the maximum use out of each
PG: I think
so. That’s one way to look at it, but I don’t think composers
think of themselves as labels, anyway. You don’t think of
yourself as a guy with a beard. Any descriptions of that kind are
limiting. On the other hand, I understand that there is some need
for people to relate groups of musicians in some way or another.
I just don’t think that’s a good label, and I don’t have a better one,
but nevertheless, that’s the one we got stuck with.
BD: Your most recent
opera is Satyagraha?
pretend I’m the manager of the Met, and I’ve contracted to
do your opera, and I’ve got Pavarotti as Gandhi.
[Sarcastically] That’ll be the day.
wouldn’t that work... or is there any possibility that it would
PG: From a
musical point of view?
Yes. I’m coming to you with the contract.
PG: You got
enough money to pay this guy?
contracts are all in and since it’s my fantasy,
Pavarotti has agreed to do it.
PG: I don’t
see why he can’t do it. He’s a little big for the part, but I see
your point. That’s the problem with historical persons.
With Einstein on the Beach we
could dress up a person to look like Einstein with the flowing white
hair, the violin, the glasses. It’s almost a caricature image of
Einstein. It’s easy to picture him. Gandhi, too, was a man
we can recognize rather easily. I think we would have trouble
with a real large tenor. I don’t think we could cast someone who
is quite that large. Doug Perry, who does the part, is not a
skinny guy, but he was able to communicate it partly because of his
acting style and his singing style, and the conviction that he had in
the part. That does count for a lot. [Laughs] Usually
it’s about the large sopranos that have to sing the parts of very
dainty young women, but it can be done.
BD: I was
wondering about dropping typical opera singers into your works.
is the problem the physical casting or is it the mental problem?
With the physical casting you just look at a lot of people and you get
the best voice who can approximate the role. In this case we
preferred a skinny, small Indian tenor, but there was not one
available, so we settled for a medium-sized American tenor, who was
excellent. There may be mental problems apart from these physical
problems, but those are questions of adjustment. With the company
that did the opening performances of Satyagraha
in Holland, we had people who had done a lot of opera singing.
Dick Gill was the bass, Claudia Cummings was soprano, Doug Perry — all
these people are itinerant opera singers. The first week or so
was a period of adjustment for them, adjusting to the kind of parts
they were doing, and trying to figure out how they would be that person
on the stage. It was a problem that ultimately most of our
company solved extremely well. Bruce Hall was our baritone.
Iris Hiskey and Beverly Morgan were two other singers, but Iris, of
course, had worked with me before with the ensemble, so she was very
attuned to the music.
BD: Are you
coming to more traditional kinds of settings, or are we coming to more
depends what you look at. This does not look like La Bohème and it never
will. I don’t take plays and set them to music, and I probably
never will. It’s a difficult question for me to answer, because I
have no problem with this music or this kind of setting. I’m
aware that people coming out of a more traditional opera background
find them a little unusual, and I can sympathize with the problems that
they may have. For some people, it violates their belief system
so totally that they can’t accept it at all. For other people,
they see that it’s not that different and it’s just a question of
something new, but it’s still part of the same tradition.
BD: Is it
really something new, or is it just something old that’s grown?
PG: It’s hard
to say. There is something radically different, which I hinted at
when I said that I don’t take plays and set them to music. My
experience in the theater comes out of a contemporary theater, starting
with people like the Living Theater, or the Performance Group, or
Meredith Monk, or Bob Wilson. This is a theater that doesn’t have
literary roots. This is a theater that was created by dancers, by
painters, by actors, by directors.
understand with Einstein the
music was set down first before the text?
Yes. That often happens with the way I work. But these were
the people that I worked with as a young composer when I wrote a lot of
music for the theater. I mostly worked with a group called The
Novel Minds. When I began to do operas, it never occurred to me
to find a playwright. I didn’t look for a librettist. I
started again with an idea, the way I’d always worked, and I built
around the image or the person or the idea of the opera. That’s
how Wilson and I worked on Einstein,
and that’s how I worked on Satyagraha
with Israel and DeJong and Riedel, the collaborators on that
piece. The new opera, Ahknaten,
which is the eighteenth Dynasty of Pharaoh, was commissioned by the
Stuttgart Opera, by the way.
BD: Is Davies going to
That’ll be in ‘84 in Stuttgart, and I think it’ll be at the Houston
Grand Opera in this country. We’re talking about it.
They’re very interested in doing it, and we’re interested in them doing
it. The point about these operas is that I began with personages,
with characters, and I built around those characters, taking events
from their lives. So I didn’t really work in a conventional
way. There are plenty of people interested in this kind of
opera. The two operas that I’ve written — Einstein and Satyagraha — I
could say that neither opera has ever played to an empty seat.
They’ve always been sold out. That’s quite an
accomplishment! [Indeed, these
works are universally known enough for Peter Schickele
(as PDQ Bach) to have written a parody called Einstein on the
BD: You like
calling them operas. Is that the right label for them?
PG: I would
like to call them ‘music theater’,
but the reason we call them ‘opera’
is that way you know right away that we need an opera house to put it
on. This is the main thing. With Einstein it didn’t matter whether
you called it a multi-media piece, or a theater piece, or whatever, but
we needed an opera house. We needed a pit, we needed fly space,
we needed wing space, we needed pipes, we needed lights. We
needed all the paraphernalia of an opera house. Now you can call
it what you want to, but it’s got to be an opera house because that’s
the place that’s built for that kind of piece. Starting from that
point of view, it didn’t really matter that it was called an opera, but
a lot of opera people came to see it because it was in a opera house,
and one of those people was Hans de Roo, who is the director of the
Netherlands Opera, who commissioned the next opera. I didn’t
intend ever to write operas in a certain way, but because of the
physical demands of the piece, again, I need singers, I need orchestra
people, I need choruses...
BD: Do you
need operatic voices?
PG: Now, I
do. With Satyagraha I
can’t imagine people less qualified than Doug Perry, Richard Gill, or
Claudia, or Iris, or any of the people I work with. It’s
extremely demanding. It takes training and style and
acting. At this point I don’t care what it is called. You
don’t have to call it an opera, but you need opera singers and an opera
house, and I need the kind of people that work on operas. You can
call it something else if you want...
BD: Should Satyagraha ever be translated?
PG: No, it
shouldn’t. The language that it’s written in, Sanskrit, is one of
the beautiful vocal languages of the world. It’s currently a
common language in the classical music of South India.
BD: Would it
make a different impact if it was performed, say, in Bombay or New
Delhi, where they understood every word?
PG: They want
to produce it there, as a matter of fact. That’ll be
interesting. I did take a tape of it down to South India, and I
played it to some friends who are members of the Kathakali Theatre
there. They liked it very much. They were very entranced by
it, but I picked that language for its sound content. I did not
want to translate it into Dutch, which would have been the language of
the premiere country. Then again, I think it would have been less
beautiful in English. The impact of the opera anyway is not
primarily literary or in the language.
BD: It’s a
mood that you create?
wouldn’t say that. It just happens to be non-verbal. That
doesn’t mean that it’s mystical particularly. Of course, it
includes that, but it can still be quite specific. Take for
example a scene in Satyagraha
where people are burning their registration cards, and they’re singing
something about that. We print it in the program book, just as
you might have to read a synopsis of Don
Carlo between the scenes. It’s preferable that you read a
translation of some of the things so you know what they’re singing, but
as in Don Carlo, you don’t
really have to. You may not miss that much if you don’t hear each
word, but it depends to what degree you take your interest. Some
people will read the program book. Some people will read up on
the subject matter before. Many people, when they go to the
opera, will read the history of the productions before they go.
With this Gandhi opera, there will be people that will review or will
read Gandhi’s works and think about it. It’s really up to the
individual spectator how involved he gets.
BD: It should
be a total immersion then, really?
PG: I feel
that my colleagues and I have made it possible to get involved with the
material on several levels, on quite a few levels, including a
historical narrative level. That may not be the way that you may
see it, but it’s potentially there. Many people that go to Così fan tutte have no idea
what it is. They just like the music or they like the costumes or
whatever. But there will be people that will know not only every
story, but the different stagings of it and different pacings that the
conductors might take. So it’s not a requirement of the audience,
but what I have done is made it possible to get involved in it in
BD: Let me
draw one parallel and see how you like it. Gandhi and political
non-violence; Philip Glass and musical non-violence.
PG: [With a
big smile] Oh, really? Oh, how nice. Do you think
BD: Is it?
PG: I don’t
know. One would think that there would not be violence associated
with music, but in 1979 we were doing a work called Dance, and someone ran down from
the audience and began throwing eggs at us. People have screamed
and yelled and run out. I remember in 1969, a man came up and
began banging on the piano while I was playing, which led to a general
performer-audience confrontation, which finally led to a discussion in
a very European manner. After the fight, they wanted a discussion
about the fight. That was quite a while ago. I’m always
surprised when someone freaks, out, yells and screams and throws things
haven’t come to expect that?
PG: I never
expect it. It does happen from time to time. It’s not the
intention or the concept of the music to generate that. Some
reactions are a little excessive.
BD: Do you
consider yourself primarily a composer, or primarily a performer?
a composer who has used the persona of a performer to bring my music to
the public. I performed in Einstein,
but with the new operas I don’t perform at all. I am on tour now
with this ensemble, and I still find the best way for me to bring my
music around is to go out and play it.
BD: When you
give your opera to somebody else to produce and direct and conduct, do
you feel safe handing it over to others?
PG: I feel
very safe with Dennis Russell Davies. I feel very safe with Christopher Keene.
I guess it depends on who the people are. If I know the people, I
feel I can entrust it to them. I would be reluctant to just send
it off. I’m the publisher of the work, so it’s not generally
available. It has to be requested from us.
BD: That way
you have more control over it?
Yes. If I don’t think that people can do it, why go through it?
BD: So, you
would rather not have it done than done poorly?
PG: If I were
convinced there was no chance it could be done well, I wouldn’t let it
be done. On the other hand, if someone had a fair chance of doing
it and needed some help, or if they had the enthusiasm and the ability
and the means, I certainly would encourage them to do it. But
mostly I think people sort that out for themselves. Someone who
couldn’t handle it probably wouldn’t want to do it. But as long
as I am in control of that part of the music, I can at least help make
BD: Thank you
very much. You were very gracious to take time out of your day
for this chat.
you. I’m sorry it was rushed.
-- -- We now move ahead five and a half years to July of
1987. Amazingly, he remembered me from our previous chat . . . .
. . . . .
PG: Do you
still have that all-night program, or whatever it was?
BD: I’m still
working evenings and overnight, yes.
PG: I don’t
know how you guys do it.
PG: It’s just
that my schedule is I work early in the morning and by ten o’clock I
can hardly stay awake.
BD: Do you
get a lot of work done early in the morning?
Yes. I do it that way because the phone doesn’t start ringing
until about ten or eleven, and my workday is almost done by then.
into the conversation] Where is music going today?
[Laughs] Well, if you’re asking me, I’ll say it’s going in the
theater. But I would say the style of the arts today has been
informed more by theatrical collaboration than anything else. In
the sixties and seventies we used to say that it was the art world that
made the rules, in a way, with people like Andy Warhol and Jasper
Johns. They set the tone for a lot of the other arts.
Whether it be dance or music, it just spilled over into that. But
it seems to me that in the eighties, and it’s going into the nineties
now because we’re practically there, it’s shifted away from the visual
arts and into the performing arts. Partly the whole emergence of
what we call the performance artist is a sign of that.
BD: Are you
part of this shift, and if so, are you pushing this shift or are you
reacting to this shift?
PG: I’m all
of those things. I’m not separate from it, and I’m not exactly
all. It was my generation of people who made this happen.
On the other hand, I was both acting and reacting at the same
time. That’s what a community does. The strength of an
artistic community is that it incorporates all those things, that we
don’t have one person, or not just simply one person, being the
contributing element. It’s using a matrix and a network of things
that are happening.
BD: Are you
comfortable being part of this big matrix?
Absolutely. Yes. In fact, I find it somewhat reassuring, to
tell you the truth. The people who I consider my contemporaries
may not all be composers. They could be dancers or young
directors or other composers like Glenn Branca or Scott Johnson, people
that are younger than me. I consciously try to distance myself a
little bit from the center, where I’m always working from, that very
intense, focused place that we live our lives in, and which causes us
very often to lose perspective about what we’re doing. So I
practice slightly moving away from it and looking at what’s going on
around me, and I find that these cultural events we’re talking about
are happening in a very interconnected way. Whether it’s a man
like Bob Wilson creating pieces, or young dancers or performers or
composers, very few of us are actually working alone. In fact, I
think no one is really working totally alone.
BD: Do you
feel that all of the influences in your life have contributed to your
style of music, or is that almost incidental?
style is an interesting question. For one thing, we can talk
about style in terms of the style of the times, and we were just
talking about that — the performing arts and
these general cultural events that seem to take place. We see it
in popular culture very clearly as trends and fashions, and we see it
in what we call a more serious culture in terms of more long-term
things. That’s style seen in a social/artistic context.
There’s another thing, which we call personal style, which has to do
with your language. When a poet writes in a certain way, or when
a musician chooses his predilection to work in a particular harmonic
language, that’s the difference between, say, someone like a Milton Babbitt or
an Elliott Carter.
They’re very different. We hear them differently, and yet people
generally say they write in the same style, but they don’t. They
have personal styles. When we start talking about personal
styles, then we’re talking about something very, very interesting.
BD: Yet your
style is so outwardly different from that of these two composers you
Yes. I’ve purposely picked people who didn’t sound like me.
I could have picked people that did sound like me, but my point is that
what we mean by personal style is something which, when we have it —
and not everyone does — refers almost to a special case of technical
usage of musical language. So it’s quite a definite and
BD: Do you
expect the audience that comes to hear your pieces to understand all of
this technical language?
PG: Of course
not. But then again, when they get on the highway to drive home,
they don’t know how the roads were engineered either, but they lead
them to their destination nonetheless. When I get on a plane, I
don’t know how the guy’s running the plane, but I arrive in good
condition. [Both laugh] What we require of our colleagues
— and by that I include not only the people that write
music and play music, but the people that talk about music, and people
that write about music, like yourself — we expect to have a more
technical understanding, of course. But for the audience, nothing
more is required than what we’ve always asked of an audience, which is
to come with an an open heart and an open mind.
BD: Do you
feel your music is a road to something?
PG: That is a
very leading question, isn’t it, because then I would have to tell you
what that would be. I don’t think of it particularly that
way. However, a work like Satyagraha
has a program. It has an aesthetic intention which you hear in
the music. It has an argument that takes place on the level of a
sexual relationship and social justice, and it has another argument
that takes place on the level of reconciling the internal and external
forces that every human being has to exist with. So there are
different levels that it happens on. To the extent that it
becomes only one thing, it would be just a kind of a propaganda.
If the opera was just about civil disobedience, then we’re not doing
very much — not that it isn’t an interesting
you’re not doing enough?
PG: I’m not
doing enough if we’re putting it on the stage.
BD: Have you
purposely tailored your music at all to fit these premises that are on
PG: I think
so. I do think so. Though I don’t follow the literal
conventions of opera, there are certain conventions that I do
follow. For example, it’s a work done in a large theater for a
somewhere upwards of three thousand people. Now that’s not the
moment when I have chosen to do a rather abstract piece. There
are composers that have worked that way. Lulu, which is also being done this
year, is a very abstract piece. It’s also a very passionate
piece, so it balances itself out in a different way. I think of
opera as a very public affair. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t
be a theater composer, so I have no problem addressing myself to it in
that way. I’ve also picked social issues in the way we’ve talked
about already in this brief conversation. I’ve picked things that
address themselves to broad social issues. I’ve also done it in
an aesthetic way that can address itself to a large number of
people. So there’s no doubt that Satyagraha, as an opera, is meant
to be perceived that way. But then again, look at my
subject. Who lived a more public life than Gandhi? There’s
a certain appropriateness to taking a subject like that and presenting
it in that way.
BD: You keep
calling the work an opera. Are you happy with that label?
PG: Well, in
fact I’m not. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not.
Music-theater is a better word. The difficulty with opera is that
we don’t want to mislead people [laughs], though I suppose we will do
that anyway. This is not an opera in the tradition of repertory
opera. It’s not a tragic or comic or romantic story that you
might find in a Puccini, a Verdi, or Wagnerian opera. No, let’s
exclude Wagner for a minute because he tends to be more conceptual in
certain ways. My work is certainly not of that particular Italian
tradition. The kind of work that I do, as it appears on the
operatic stage and as it appears in a repertory company like the
Chicago Lyric Opera, really finds its roots in the world of
contemporary experimental theater. If we look at it that way, we
can see why it looks different and where the differences derive
from. The people that were important to me as a young man of
twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven — when I
began working in the theater — were the people
like the Living Theater, the Mabou Mines Theater, Bob Wilson’s Theater,
Richard Forman, Meredith Monk. In the European tradition it would
have been Berthold Brecht and Sam Beckett. I wasn’t looking
towards the theater of naturalism and realism. I was already
thinking about experimental theater. I took my practice of
experimental theater and began working with theater companies at around
1965. I began working as the music director of one of these
companies, the Mabou Mines, in 1968, and have been working with that
company ever since. I still work with that company. At the
point that I moved from writing experimental music for the theater to
writing large-scale music pieces for the stage, I was really bringing
with me a point of view and an aesthetic that was informed by the world
of contemporary experimental theater. I just mentioned some of
the names, but in contemporary European terms it would be people like
Peter Brook and Grotowski, and all these people that we in the theater
and we know a great deal about, but who have until very recently not
played a great role in the development of contemporary opera.
BD: You use
the term ‘experimental theater’.
In science, you experiment to find an answer. In theater, what
are you experimenting for?
Experimental in that sense, simply means it was non-narrative. We
use theater as a narrative story, and it simply wasn’t approached that
way. These companies that I work with rarely took a play and set
it on the stage, and yet they’re a theater company. So how do
they do it? Well, they sometimes began with the title, an
image. Einstein on the Beach
began as a title. We had no story. We ended up with a
libretto, but the libretto was the result of our work and not the
origin of our work. We are talking about people that consider the
process of making the work, and the making of the work, identical.
BD: Are you
very concerned with the process, or are you more concerned with the end
product, the way it looks on the stage?
PG: Even though I’m
not doing music like Einstein
or Satyagraha right now, I am
very tuned in to the actual process of making a piece. Here’s
another difference between music theater and traditional opera.
These kinds of works tend to be composite works that usually involve
joint authorship. Now, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart or whoever, no one
stated that they hired a librettist or engaged a writer.
Nevertheless, those were the visions of those particular people.
No so true of Da Ponte, perhaps. It’s arguable, but when we think
of a Verdi opera, it’s the vision of that man. When Bob Wilson
and I did Einstein on the Beach,
it was a shared work. I just finished a work with Doris Lessing
called Making the Representative for
Planet 8, based on one of her books. We worked with a
designer, Eiko Ishioka. We worked through the process of making
the work. When I did Satyagraha,
I worked with Bob Israel, whose designs we’re seeing here in
Chicago. David Pountney was involved in those early stages in the
work, and the creation of the work — we use that word — was really
result of our working together. In a way, I became rather like
the leader of a creative team with associated authors. That’s
really the way it works, and this is a very different way of working.
name should go on top, or should they all be in a line?
it’s different. It depends and those things you have to
decide. In the case of Einstein
on the Beach, Bob Wilson and I have our names together.
That’s because we conceived the work together. In the case of Satyagraha, my name goes on top
because I had the idea to do an opera about Gandhi. I asked some
people to help me work on it, but it was always acknowledged that I had
principal authorship, and they had a secondary authorship, though their
names appear in the work.
the chairman of the board on that?
PG: In that
case, yes. One of the interesting things about the way we work in
theater today is that these rules can change, and depending on the
nature of the working relationship of the authors, we find the
authorship will be different. There are even works in which I’ve
done pieces for collaborators whose names I don’t know. For
example, I did a piece called A
Madrigal Opera. I got the idea of writing a piece of music
that could be staged dramatically in different ways, very much the way
a dance choreographer would create a dance work on a piece of
music. So I wrote a dramatic theater work in which the subject
was not specified, and so far three different directors have supplied
stories and scenery. This piece has had several other
names. It’s sometimes called The
Panther, but the original person I worked with — a
guy named Rob Malasch with whom I also did The Photographer — had another
story that was based on memories of his childhood. So in other
words, I actually did a piece in which I invited people to come in and
complete the piece. That’s another way of working. What I’m
suggesting, talking about it this way, is that these forms of
collaborations are much more varied today than one would have thought
possible maybe thirty or forty years ago, and when you say, “Is it
really opera?” in a certain way Satyagraha
is more like an opera than, say, The
Photographer, which doesn’t even use an orchestra. Satyagraha requires a pit
orchestra, a chorus, soloists, etc.
BD: A pit
orchestra of traditional instruments or electronic instruments?
Traditional instruments with one exception — one electric organ.
In order to do Satyagraha you
need a proscenium stage; you need fly space and wing space. You
can do it anywhere you want to, but the best place to get it done is in
an opera house. They’re the people that are set up to do
it. Something like The A
Madrigal Opera could be done in a small theater, it could be
done in a garage, it could be done in the open. So it’s not so
defined. Within the range of theater works I have done, some of
them do fit more within the general rubric of opera, and so we end up
using that word.
continuing to talk about being a theater composer, so is this where
your life is going? Are you eliminating concert works?
PG: As a
matter of fact, I do say that. I was talking to Virgil Thomson very
recently. We were together for something to do with his
birthday. He was ninety this year, and he is one of our great
theater composers. We were sitting around and talking, and he
turned to me and said, “People like ourselves, we’re really theater
people.” I was very flattered that he included me as, ‘people
like ourselves.’ He said, “We might do an
occasional concert piece as a kind of exercise in abstract music, but
really we work in the theater.” I felt that he had hit upon
something which was very accurate. On the other hand, this year
I’ve done a violin concerto, which was performed with American
Composers Orchestra in New York and will be performed by some other
orchestras this year. I’ve just finished a piece for Dohnanyi and
the Cleveland Orchestra which is a concert work about twenty-four
minutes long, and I am doing a choral piece next year for Atlanta and Robert Shaw which is
basically a concert piece. It’s a symphonic work.
BD: You get
commissions all the time. How do you decide which commissions
you’ll accept and which commissions you’ll turn down?
PG: That’s a
problem because the real problem is the time. I’m interested in
so many things. I’m kind of a pushover in a certain way. I
can be talked into doing anything, really, but I don’t really have the
time to do it. For example, I got a letter just the other day
from London. There is group there that has a steel band and they
wanted to know if I would write a piece for them. What a
wonderful idea! The person said in the letter that, “We’ve been
thinking about your music. We think that your music would be
extremely appropriate for our instrumentation. Would you consider
doing it?” So I put the letter aside and I’ve got to answer it,
and I’m thinking, what a nice thing to do! What I’d like to
do is little pieces between these large works. It’s refreshing in
a way, and the change of scale from large piece to small piece in
itself is kind of refreshing.
BD: Do you
get ideas when you’re doing a large piece that you know you can maybe
use in a small piece?
PG: No, I don’t
usually work that way. Ideas do turn up all over the place, so
you work on one piece and like something it stays with you. For
days I was playing through The
Representative recently because I was about to have the
piano-vocal score reproduced, and I wanted to check and make sure I had
all the words right. During that time I realized that there were
elements in it that were in Songs
From Liquid Days. I said to myself, “Oh, my
goodness! I took that and I put it there.” Either I had
forgotten or hadn’t noticed — not that everyone
would notice that; it’s not a theme, exactly. It’s a certain
treatment of harmonic material that had come up in both pieces, so that
does happen. But I can’t say that I was so aware of it at the
you’re writing a piece, you write it all out and you go back and tinker
with it a little bit. How do you know when you’ve finished
tinkering with it, and you’re ready to launch it on the world?
always a good question — when do you know you’re
done? There is a story about Pissarro, that as an old man he
would go back to the museums where his paintings were, and he would
touch them up. [Both laugh] He was regularly chased out of
the museum by the guards who were protecting the works. I guess
they thought it was just a crazy old man with paint. Actually, he
was going back to touch up his work, so when do you stop?
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Should museum guards or opera conductors protect
works from the composers?
question! I’ve been with some conductors, like Dennis Russell
Davies, whom I like very much and who will be conducting here this
year. We were discussing Akhenaten
and I said, “You know, Dennis, I’m thinking of cutting out this repeat
here,” and he said, “But Philip, it says that here in the score.”
He defended the score! I was kind of surprised in a way, but
conductors do sometimes have a tendency to do that. On the other
hand, they can also suggest changes, and there are those they might not
tell you about. If you catch them you say, “Wait a second.
Wasn’t there another part of that passage? I seem to hear
something...” We don’t remember everything we wrote.
BD: How much
leeway do you allow the conductor to interpret?
PG: The thing
that makes theater interesting is that the pieces do continue to
change. I’m not talking about whole revisions, but one of the
things that’s so disappointing about working in film is that on the day
you mix your film, you’re done. It never gets done again, and
there’s something I find a bit strange about the fact that the piece
can never change.
BD: You find
the same thing on recordings?
PG: To a
degree, though recordings are a resolution of a piece in a particular
medium and way. I don’t mind that so much. I remember with Einstein on the Beach¸ when
we did the revival in 1984, I went back and I had to write new material
for the transitions, because though Bob Wilson was redoing it, the
timings had changed in between certain of those scenes, and suddenly we
had two minutes of an empty place that wasn’t in the music. So I
had to write new music. I wrote that music out and I added as an
appendix to the score, and I wrote on the bottom “To be used when
BD: In that
particular case, did you try to go back into your old style and write
it to fit in?
PG: Oh, sure,
I could do that. Absolutely. It would have been silly for
me to write it in the style of something like Songs from Liquid Days. It
would have sounded odd. It’s no problem to do that. Now,
when I conceive or think about a new work, I would never do it in a way
that I had done ten years ago, but going back to Einstein and coming to a
transitional section that had to be supplied, I simply looked at the
music before and at the music that came after, and I saw what went in
between. It wasn’t hard to do. Who knows whether it will be
present in the next production? Bob or another director would
have made the scene a bit shorter, so these things do happen. The
thing about a theater composer is that you learn to be flexible, the
way a new director comes in to do a work. If he has an authentic
contribution to make and we have some trust in him, I feel that the
best thing to do is to go listen.
BD: Do you
really have to trust your collaborators?
PG: You try
to pick them, and sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you
don’t. You win a few and you lose a few. It’s not a cut and
dried affair. There are no rules.
BD: Are you
at all surprised by the immense popularity of your music?
PG: You know, in a
way, I’m a little bit [mumbles a bit of wordless exasperation] about it
in a certain way, though that may sound surprising. I do a lot of
concerts and I talk to a lot of people, but I don’t see myself the way
the world sees me. I see much more of a continuity between myself
and the person that began with an ensemble in 1968 doing six or eight
concerts a year for a handful of people. I experience my life as
a continuity in that way, so it creeps up on you, in a way. For
example, on my schedule this year I can’t help but notice that I’m in a
lot of different countries, going to a lot of different openings of a
lot of different operas. Obviously, something has happened.
I don’t have as much time as I used to.
BD: Does that
course. It seems an odd way to put it, but I don’t take it
personally. For example, Satyagraha
is being revived here in Chicago, and a few changes will be made.
David Bellamy has thought about it and has made some very interesting
additions to the piece, but basically it’s the original piece.
But I’m very pleased to see this opera being done again. I can
almost say that I’m pleased for the opera, as if the opera had a life
of its own. Artists often talk about their work that way.
It had been in production somewhere almost continuously for five years
from 1980 and 1984, either in Germany or Holland or America. Then
for a few years it wasn’t around, and now I see it starting
again. It goes here and we expect it to go to Seattle next year,
then it’ll go back to the New York City Opera. There is a company
in Argentina that’s interested in it, and I’ve had a letter from the
Moscow Art Theater. I don’t know if they would want it.
Actually the Moscow Art Theater asked me if I had a piece for them, and
I replied the only piece I wanted them to do was Satyagraha. I thought that
would be interesting. Gandhi is the first refusenik of all
time. I thought if they could do that, that would be quite
interesting. Let’s see what happens...
rather give them this piece than slip something else in to get a bigger
it’s the best piece for them! Now in Rio and São Paolo in
Brazil, there’s a company that wants to do a work, and I’m giving them Akhenaten, because I think that one
is the right piece for that company. I have enough pieces so I
can kind of think of it that way. That director would be the
right person for that piece.
you’re writing a new piece, are you conscious of whom you’re writing it
PG: Oh, yes.
BD: Are you
writing the right piece for that time and place?
PG: Well, you
try to, and sometimes what happens is you miss the date by a year or
two. Sometimes you end up in the wrong city, which is exactly
what happened with The Representative.
Originally, I wrote The
Representative for Planet Eight with David Hockney to be the
designer. David was very ill that year. He had trouble with
his ears, actually. He has recovered now and is fine, but at the
time I was doing the piece, I lost my designer. Fortunately, I
was working with Eiko Ishioka, and I involved her in the project.
But in the meantime, the schedule got changed by a year or two.
The original company that was going to do it was no longer able to do
it, so a piece that I’d originally written for the Dutch Opera is now
turning out to be for the Houston Opera. So our intentions are
one thing, and the results may not always conform to that. Twyla
Tharp asked for music for her company. I went to see her company
dance. I’ve seen it before, of course, but I went to a number of
rehearsals and I talked with her. She wasn’t specific about what
she wanted, but...
BD: When you
go like that, are you looking with different eyes and listening with
Yes. I was very much thinking about a piece for her
company. I have the feeling that if I were writing it for Molissa
Fenley’s company or The American Ballet Theater, or another company, I
would have written a different piece. I don’t doubt that I would
have written a different piece.
would you be offended if this other company takes over the piece that
you wrote for Twyla Tharp?
No, no. It just becomes different. There is the original
conception of a work, and then there are these other things that
happen. After all, Satyagraha
has had two productions and it’s been in five different opera
houses. This is the first American opera house, really.
Don’t forget, in Brooklyn, in New York, where it played in 1980, that’s
not really an opera house. That’s a presenting house. To be
in a real opera house is quite a different matter. Another work I
did, The Juniper Tree, is
going into the third production, so it’s well beyond the
original. That work I did with another composer named Bob Moran,
so I’ve even collaborated with composers. That was a very
interesting process, by the way. At one point I wrote a theme and
he wrote the variations. Things like that have happened before,
but it was very interesting to do it. We originally wrote that
piece for a children’s music school in New York. They never did
it; another company did it, and now it’s being done by a German opera
house, and the opera company in Omaha. It’s interesting when
people come to a work and they bring something new to it.
BD: I want to
talk about the large gulf that is apparently separating the big concert
public, with, say, the Saturday Night Live public. You have feet
planted in both sides.
BD: Are you
going to try, then, to draw the audience from one to the other in both
PG: The differences
aren’t as great as we imagine. Most of my friends stayed up that
night to watch me on Saturday Night Live, and that wasn’t the first
night they had watched it. Most of my friends watch it all the
time, anyway. So the difference between a high culture and a
general public is sometimes the same people and how they feel at a
different time of the day. The differences are not that
great. I have friends who have a hard time if they have to choose
between Twyla Tharp and going to a Mets baseball game. They don’t
know which one to go to, and they’ll somehow try to do them both.
So our loyalties are less defined. We as a people experience our
culture in a lot of different ways. We define ourselves less
rigidly than we used to.
BD: Is this
it’s good for the artist. It means that it’s more
challenging. It’s more difficult for writers and analysts of
culture, because the old formulas don’t work anymore, and you have to
think of new ways of defining art.
BD: But artists
never really seem to be concerned with formulas and definitions.
PG: Yes and
no. Yes and no. How’s that for an answer? [Both
laugh] When I played on that particular program, I played the
same music on Saturday Night Live that I play at my concerts. So
what I do is I take my work and put it in different places. The
interesting thing is that we tend to experience it somewhat differently
in those different places. But has the work really changed?
I’m not sure. Our perception of the work has changed, because we
put it in those different arenas. I began doing that years ago
when I would go to Los Angeles, for example. One year I would
play at the Roxy, which is a nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and the
next year I would play at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I just
thought it was interesting because the people that came to the Roxy
were the same people that went to the other place, but it was different
the people who go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion all the time come to
PG: I don’t
get those people anyway.
BD: Do you
PG: I want to
get everybody! [Both laugh] I don’t exempt anyone as a
possible follower of my work or anybody else’s work. Why should
I? There’s no reason to do that. I don’t know who those
people might be. You’d be surprised. I was down in El Paso
once doing a concert, and a lady came up to me after the concert.
She said, “I just love that music.” I said, “Oh, really?
Where did you hear it?” She said [in a southern drawl], “I was
driving in my pick-up and I heard this come on the radio, and I said
‘that music’s for me.’” She then said, “Tell me something.
What is it?” I didn’t know what to say exactly, and I said, “It’s
just music.” But the point is that kind of thing happens to me a
lot. That’s a person who didn’t know I was a Soho artist or an
underground composer, or an experimental composer, or a minimalist
BD: You were
just the guy who wrote that piece.
Right. There was someone driving around in her pick-up and heard
it on the radio, and heard I was in town so she came to the
concert. I didn’t write the music for her, but I didn’t not write
it for her either. I think that’s real interesting.
BD: The great
big philosophical question, then. What is the ultimate purpose of
PG: Of course
that’s a complicated thing to talk about. One of the things
that’s interesting about the theater is that I’m getting around to
answering the question. I’ll do it in a backwards kind of
way. One of the things that interests me about the theater is
that you can do a performance of a work, let’s say in Chicago, and you
can do seven performances in a theater, and close to twenty thousand
people will come. But I come to Chicago, usually to perform with
my ensemble, and I do one concert. If I played in New York, I can
do one or two concerts, but I can run a show for twenty
performances. It’s interesting that the theater and the concert
audiences are so different. Concert music doesn’t stretch that
well, but theater music does. You can stretch it over a much
larger audience. I began to see this by working this way, because
after all this is what I do. Some years, in the same year I’ll do
fifty concerts, and at the same time there may be two operas and a
couple of ballets going on. So I’m seeing that all the time, and
I see now that the theater is this very special place. It’s a
place where the world of art and the world of entertainment
intersect. It’s a very curious place, and when I look back I
think about Verdi. I’m not exactly comparing myself, but whatever
you might think of the relative merits of the work, basically we’re in
the same business.
BD: [With a
big smile] I think he’d be happy with that.
PG: [With a
pleased look] Thank you. The theater is a public affair and
the opera is that interesting place where art and entertainment come
together. That’s not so true in the concert hall. There
we’re talking about art in a more abstract way. However, we have
organizations and people now who are even challenging that. I
went to see the Kronos Quartet recently and I found that extremely
entertaining. They meant it to be. They absolutely meant it
to be. You could say, “Are they selling out?” Well, maybe
they are, but I heard a concert of all twentieth century string quartet
music, and it was marvelous! There were pieces I never would have
heard, and some pieces I knew. They did it with a style and a
show-biz savvy that any rock band would admire. They knew what
they’re doing. They’re not doing this unconsciously.
They’re very clearly working that way, and what they’ve probably done
more in a few years and probably played more pieces of twentieth
century music than the Juilliard String Quartet has played in its whole
career. I don’t mean to knock them at all. As an
institution the Juilliard’s been a powerful force for contemporary
music, but the Kronos players have committed themselves.
BD: It’s a
different approach to concert giving.
and they’ve made a full commitment to this. So, it’s
interesting. You say, “What is the purpose of music? Where
is it going?” The parameters of music are very broad. We
have composers amongst us who write in a very abstract way and can
write beautiful pieces, complex pieces, pieces that they would admit
are not meant for the general public, and we would be misunderstanding
them if we put them in an outdoor space and brought ten thousand people
there. It wouldn’t be fair to anybody, particularly. I
don’t think those pieces are meant to be heard that way. You have
pieces that are more abstract, and you have other composers who are
willing or able for temperamental reasons to address themselves to a
broader audience. We can’t say that one is better than the
other. I’m afraid that the populist pieces of Rossini are going
to be around forever. I think that Mozart is one of our best
theater composers and one of our best composers of any medium or any
genre altogether. There’s no one that wouldn’t agree that Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute or Così fan Tutte are works of
supreme musical importance.
BD: Do you
feel you’re part of this line of composers?
[Laughs] Which line, because I’m mentioning several.
Certainly I fall within the range from the abstract to the more
accessible. Clearly, for temperamental reasons and for personal
reasons and for artistic reasons, I’m a person who, very frankly, spent
my time writing for the broader public. The curious thing is that
for so many years I was considered an avant garde composer, an
underground composer, because the personal style that I chose for
almost fifteen or twenty years was considered very radical. But
in the perspective of 1987, it doesn’t seem radical at all.
BD: Are you
ever going to be old hat, or passé?
PG: I don’t
know. [Both laugh] The interesting thing is that in
concerts I do now, I play pieces from 1969, and some of them sound very
fresh still. It’s interesting. If you’ve written music that
spans twenty-five years, you can go back to it. You can look at a
piece, and some pieces have survived better than others. That’s
true for everybody. I have pieces from my thirties that I still
can listen to, but pieces from my forties I’m not particularly
BD: You don’t
want to disown those pieces, do you?
doesn’t have the choice. I’m too public a person to be able to do
that anyway at this point. But I don’t know exactly what point is
the best point to make about all this. A lot of these things have
to do with where our natural gifts lie and where our temperament
is. I always felt that my music was meant for a public of some
sort. The fact is that I began as a performing musician with my
ensemble when I was barely thirty, and against all kinds of obstacles I
continued to play in small houses and out of the way places for years
and years until finally I got an audience. But my conviction was
that the music was for those kinds of places. It was meant for
public consumption in that way. It took a while for everyone to
agree with me, but now that people have, it shouldn’t be a
surprise. After all, that’s what I’ve been doing all along.
So it’s a complicated question, and it’s not one
that anyone can answer very easily. We have too many cases of the
popular composer who is also the great composer, and to be unplayed
doesn’t guarantee any authority to your work, either.
PG: For me it
is. It’s what I prefer to do.
BD: Do you
prefer composing, then, over performing?
PG: In a way
I do but it’s a nice balance between the two. I am a nice
combination of introvert/extrovert in person. If I start working
at seven in the morning and work until noon, there’s nothing I like
better than going down to the recording studio and spending the rest of
the day around with musicians. It’s a very nice balance for
me. For some people, that might be balanced perhaps by
teaching. There are other ways of being a public person, or
sharing what you know with other people. I chose to be a
performer. I find that I have a tremendous appetite for working
on music, and I turn out a lot of music every year. Clearly it
isn’t for the money, because years ago I didn’t make any money and I
did it anyway. It’s an appetite for the work that seems to have
advice do you have for young composers coming along?
PG: What I
have to say is the same old platitude that you hear from everybody
— that you have to really follow your own beliefs.
For a long time I didn’t have a public, and I continued until I
did. That doesn’t mean it always happens that way. I was
lucky in a certain way. You really have to believe. My
teachers told me things which I didn’t believe. They told me I
would never make a living writing music, and they were wrong. I
believed that I could. I believed there was a public for new
music, and I was right about that. I believed I can do operas
that would fit into places like the Chicago Lyric Opera, and it’s
turned out to be true. Twenty years ago no one would have thought
it really possible. Satie once said, “When I was young they said,
‘When you grow up, when you’re older, you’ll see.’ Well, I’m
older now, and I’ve seen nothing!” [Both laugh]
BD: Have you
PG: Well, the
idealism of youth is something, and that’s what the opera about Gandhi
is about — the idealism
of youth is something that we need never grow out of. What the
young composer has is something that some of the older composers don’t
have, and that’s what they should hold on to.
advice do you have for performers?
Especially with new music, it’s bound to be difficult in a certain
way. Any new language requires a new technique to play it.
It shouldn’t surprise us. How could it be otherwise? How
could you have a new musical idea that could be played in the same old
way? If we remember that and if we give the work a little chance
to speak for itself, I think we come around to it. That’s
happened with me with the singers I’ve gone to for about ten
years. The first couple of weeks a singer has to deal with my
music they can be quite anxious about it. Then if they stay with
it for just another day or two longer, it suddenly opens up. Many
singers have told me that. They said, “Oh, I didn’t get it at
first and now I do.” I said, “What’s happened?” because I want to
know. I said, “What changed your mind?” and they said, “I kind of
got into it.” It’s not much of an explanation, but what it means
is that what seemed strange and what seemed arbitrary at first ends up
being natural, and becomes a function of the music.
BD: Does this
same metamorphosis happen with the public?
it does. I’m playing more in public than I did before, and my
work is being played before the public more. It’s on the radio
more. I can tell from my ASCAP reports. I get these reports
twice a year so I know what’s happening. In that way, time is
always on your side to a degree.
BD: Thank you
for being a composer.
Thank you. I’m glad I could be here to talk with you.
To read my Interview with Iannis Xenakis, click HERE.
To read my Interview with John Cage, click HERE.
© 1982 and 1987 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago. The first
at the University of Chicago on February 19, 1982, and the second at
Lyric Opera of Chicago on July 29, 1987. Portions were broadcast
on WNIB twice in 1987 and again in 1997.
Copies of the unedited audio of both have been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.