Composer / Performer Philip Glass
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 source]
-- 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?
Philip Glass: 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 fragment?
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.
That’ll be the day.
BD: Why wouldn’t
that work... or is there any possibility that it would work?
PG: From a musical
point of view?
I’m coming to you with the contract.
PG: You got enough
money to pay this guy?
BD: The 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.
PG: Meaning 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
BD: Are you coming
to more traditional kinds of settings, or are we coming to more Philip Glass?
PG: It 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
BD: It’s something
PG: It’s 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.
BD: I understand
with Einstein the music was set
down first before the text?
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 conduct
PG: Yes. 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 Fritz.]
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
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?
PG: I 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 various ways.
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 that’s true?
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 at us.
BD: You 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
BD: Do you consider
yourself primarily a composer, or primarily a performer?
PG: Primarily 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?
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 that decision.
BD: Thank you very
much. You were very gracious to take time out of your day for this
PG: Thank 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
BD: Do you get
a lot of work done early in the morning?
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.
BD: [Settling into
the conversation] Where is music going today?
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?
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?
PG: Well, 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
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 just mentioned.
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 particular thing.
BD: Do you expect
the audience that comes to hear your pieces to understand all of this technical
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 subject...
BD: Then 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 the stage?
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?
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.
BD: Whose name
should go on top, or should they all be in a line?
PG: Sometimes 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.
BD: You’re 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?
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.
BD: You’re 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 Dohnányi 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
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 time.
BD: When 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?
PG: That’s 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
PG: Good 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 needed.”
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 please
PG: Of 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...
BD: You’d rather
give them this piece than slip something else in to get a bigger audience?
PG: Well, 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
BD: When you’re
writing a new piece, are you conscious of whom you’re writing it for?
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 different
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.
BD: Then would
you be offended if this other company takes over the piece that you wrote
for Twyla Tharp?
PG: No! 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
BD: Are you going
to try, then, to draw the audience from one to the other in both directions?
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 good?
PG: Well, 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 for them.
BD: Should the
people who go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion all the time come to see you?
PG: I don’t get
those people anyway.
BD: Do you want
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 composer.
BD: You were just
the guy who wrote that piece.
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 music
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.
PG: Exactly, 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
BD: Do you feel
you’re part of this line of composers?
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 interested in.
BD: You don’t want
to disown those pieces, do you?
PG: One 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.
BD: Is composing
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 sustained me.
BD: What 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 seen?
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.
BD: What advice
do you have for performers?
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?
PG: Clearly 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.
PG: [Laughs] 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 website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as 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 like 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.