glass notes
Remembering The Looking Glass Studios, New York

Philip Glass’s former recording studio was called Looking Glass Studios and was located on the ninth floor just a half a block north of Houston Street on Broadway.  To most visitors it was the Looking Glass Studios but it also was home to Glass’s publishing company and later to Orange Mountain Music.  I had seen glimpses of the studio in documentaries about Glass and as far as I could gather it was established in that space sometime in the early 1990s.

Anyone obsessively pouring lover liner notes (back in the day when liner notes existed) would see the byline “Recorded at the Looking Glass Studios” would be intrigued about what Philip Glass’s recording space might be like.  Of course it was where Glass’s music was recorded constantly, but it was also a place where artists ranging from David Bowie and Bjork to Coldplay and The Cure would record.  As a hardcore Philip Glass fan I was intimidated the first time I visited the space back in early 2006 when I showed up for my job interview with OMM.

The building is like any other in that section of town.  You’d walk through the front door and encounter one of the rotating shift of Ukrainian doormen sitting at a lectern in a minuscule lobby space made smaller still by a bank of two mini-elevators.  As I ascended to the ninth floor I remember clearly being struck by the fact that these elevators had glass windows in them. You couldn’t really see anything other than the occasional passing of the other elevator but it was still a memorable detail.

Upon arriving at the ninth floor you encountered a small square room with hardcore heavy duty doors with a punch code pad (code 4620 in the shape of a cross).  The big orange-red door on the left belonged to the Looking Glass Studio and once you gained entry you were immediately faced with a long skinny white hallway.  It’s actually best to envision the whole suite as one long hallway with doors mostly off to the right.   After about 20 paces there where huge windows on the left looked out towards nothing but a light shaft.  On the right, below a dnagling arrow that said “Reception” was an opening where the reception area was complete with a wall featuring all the albums which had been recorded at this historic studio.

At the time a nice guy with a mohawk named Carlos manning the phones.  Carlos was on the right, the music publisher/lawyer were straight ahead, and on the left right across from Carlos was Studio C.  Studio C has been seen in a number of documentaries about Glass as during the early 2000s that were all the film scoring work was done.  Directors and producers would meet in the publishing offices and then go into this little dark room, where at the time a young Nico Muhly or Trevor Gureckis would be taking Glass’s manuscripts and entering them into the computer, sequencing them and putting synth demo version up against the picture. Studio C was a small room maybe 12 by 12 feet. It’s all very small in my memory but up against one wall was a couch – on the opposite wall was a big flat screen TV with a keyboard and computers below it, and there was a desk off  to the left. It was always dark in Studio C. I don’t recall the light ever being on in there just a small desk lamp or two.

All of Glass’s manuscripts and anything else of value ended up in a room behind reception.  It was incredible.  You’d see rows and rows of gray boxes on shelves with tags.  Imagine plucking a box off a shelf that says “Satyagraha” and seeing the yellow three-decade-old original score written by hand.  Another box would say “Music by Philip Glass” and there was the manuscript of Glass’s first book written by hand on yellow legal pads.  On another shelf would sit his Golden Globe for The Truman Show. I can’t even remember why I would have a good reason to be in there but I was in there all the time ogling old photos or scores, probably unconsciously mumbling “my precious” for all I know. It’s all a blur at this point.

A clandestine peak at the Satyagraha manuscript in the Philip Glass archive July 2007:

Satyagraha

Back out in the hallway if you were to walk past reception you had another 15-20 paces to go, always passing large posters of films Glass had scored or operas which he had composed, before you got to a kitchen area. Once nice thing about recording studios is that they usually seem to have an endless supply of fresh coffee. There were always two coffeemakers going most of the time and there was an inexhaustible supply if for some reason they were out.  Right off the pantry on the right, was Studio B.

I admit in the years I was at the Looking Glass I only went into Studio B a few time. It was usually where outsiders who were coming there would work.  Since I’m so into my own musical interests I have lived a sheltered life.  When the studio was in full swing all sorts of people came through Studio B and of course I didn’t know any of them.  I eventually learned to watch how nervous the studio interns got around certain people.  Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti was often there. I remember Roger Waters, who I learned later was in a band called Pink Floyd was there (I’m being only a little snarky here – of course I have heard of Pink Floyd but other than that “hey teacher leave those kids alone” song I’d be hard pressed to identify another).  But these were the type of people who were always there around Studio B and the kitchen.

A final door right off the kitchen was for the biggest studio room in the whole suite, Studio A.  Studio A was a big set of rooms. If you accessed it by the door from the kitchen you had to walk through a climate controlled room where all these big computers were running all the time. You had to go through a sound proof sliding door to get into the biggest room, the control room, with the big SSL console and all sorts of other things which made you feel like you were on the bridge of the SS Enterprise.  The control room looked onto a “live room” where about 15-20 players (at most) could be recorded. This is where lots of Glass’s scores were recorded sectionally.  In general the control room was a comfortable place.  There was a big floppy couch in the back. In addition to loads of coffee, another thing to know about recording studios is that people eventually have to eat and when they eat they order in.  All studios seem to have a huge binder of current menus of all the local food joints, and in New York that’s hundred of menus.

The SSL in Studio A at the Looking Glass Studios

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Of small note were the adjoining rooms to the kitchen area. There was a really small room with a couch which was actually quite handy, you could disappear into that room to talk to someone privately or to take a phone call. There was another tiny editing suite as an appendage to Studio B, and of course the mens and womens bathrooms.  There was also that iconic cartoon strip of a woman in the back of a cab driven by Philip Glass looking at her license saying “You have the name of a famous composer.” In my mind’s eye I also remember hanging in the kitchen a poster for Les Enfants Terribles, also recorded at the Looking Glass, signed and dedicated by Philip Glass to the studio.

The whole studio was long and skinny.  If you continued down the hallway towards the window at the back wall of the building there was a freight elevator on the left and a door on the right. The door on the right housed three offices and a tiny desk area.  This was the original home of Orange Mountain Music.

I have no conception of how my descriptive prose is coming across but at all times you should remember New York spaces are small.  They might not be Paris small, but they are small. This back suite was a small claustrophobic hallway lined on the right with the impressive and complete recorded archive of Philip Glass recordings, and three tiny offices on the left. Once going through the door the studio manager’s office was the first office, Don Christensen’s office was in the second, and Michael Riesman’s office was third.  Past Riesman’s office was a small back area with a window looking at the rooftops of lower Manhattan with their watertowers and a small glimpse of the Manhattan bridge.  In this back space was a small desk.  That’s where my first working area at OMM was.

I actually quite enjoyed being in the back corner there.  Glass lived nearby, only about 2 or 3 blocks away and came very frequently to the studio at that time especially during that his most intense period of film work.  Since he was coming from the east side he almost always came up by the back elevator.  The elevators in the front of the building weren’t particularly fast but it’s fair to say the elevator in the back was incredibly slow.  It also froze up from time to time.

The scariest story I have ever heard came from Don Christensen who told me that one day, when leaving for the day was shouting to someone in the kitchen saying goodbye. He was still looking down the hall at the kitchen when he stepped into the elevator without looking.  For some reason the elevator had stopped about 3 feet too low and Christensen was sure, as he stepped into the void, that he was a goner.

The back elevator exited onto Crosby street and an environment which is the epitome of “downtown New York City.”  If you looked to the south you’d see the vista which is on the cover of OMM’s second album Early Voice:

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If you looked to the left you’d see a small sandwich shop jammed into a closet-sized space. It was called the “Crosby Connection” and was manned by a big overweight guy and another skinny guy with a baseball cap and hardly any teeth and across the street the Bleecker Street Bar.  It was quite a place to be.

 

From the beginning when Christensen was starting OMM, part of his deal in trying to make a go of it with the company was that he’d be given room to work including an office.  In January 2006 I was hired as OMM’s second full time employee after the person who was previously helping Christensen had left.  The hiring of a second person was a big step at that time for OMM and in addition to our office space we needed room to store boxes of new CDs and to ship CDs out.  These boxes wended up being crammed into the many nooks and closets all over the studio and office suite. I’m sure it aggravated all the people who worked there.

When I say we crammed boxes into every space available, I mean it. We had one really skinny closet where I had stacked some boxes, each about one square foot and weighing about 25 lbs (12 kilos) about 8 feet high. I had two or three of these wobbling towers built when one of them started to descend on me.  I caught it just in time but I remember having the thought, “Imagine being crushed to death by boxes of Philip Glass CDs.” My maladjusted mind at the time decided that “there were worse ways to go.”

In 2009 it was decided that the Looking Glass Studios, unable to fight against the rising tide of New York City rent prices, would close. The publisher and OMM would move to a small office space one floor down in the same building.  It was sad to see it go. I was sad to no longer be working with all the great people who had been there: Christian Rutledge the studio manager, Michael Trepagnier who first was interning for OMM but advanced to a proper studio employee, Ichiho Nishiki, Hector Castillo, and many others.  It was most sad to see people lose their jobs, it was also sad to see a creative space extinguished like that.  I don’t think I really understood it until a couple months after we had cleared out, I was still going to work on the floor below, and one day I had popped up to the ninth floor to see what was going on up there and they had commenced demolition.

Those rooms where Low and Heroes Symphony had been recorded as well as countless others had been ripped down.  Some of the last recordings we had made in that space included Michael Riesman’s Dracula for solo piano, extensive recordings of Brooklyn Rider of the string quartets, Monsters of Grace and Paisajes del Rio with the Philip Glass Ensemble and many of Glass’s film scores.  It was devastating to see ripped apart.

So for three whole years this was the place that I had called “the office” and it’s full of fond memories many of which include Philip Glass personally. In fact, my first conversation with Glass happened when I was by the freight elevator on the phone speaking in French with my father.  When I finished, Glass said to be, “ben, tu parles francais alors...” and we conducted a whole conversation in French. later, I recall during the composition of The Passion of Ramakrishna, during one of those really slow trips down in the freight elevator I asked Glass how he managed to keep two film scores and an oratorio straight in his mind when doing them all at once, he said simply, “It’s not a problem” and continued “You know, I really love to compose music.”

I’m forever thankful for that wonderful environment and such fond memories.  What a wonderful place the Looking Glass Studios was.

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