James Bagwell: What prompted you to write this symphony, especially one that uses chorus and how did the traditions and influences of ancient Mesoamericans influence your work on this symphony?
Philip Glass: I have been visiting Mexico for many years, sometimes in the big cities but often in remote areas. One such visit, I was given a recording of a Marakame (mara'kame), who would be a singer and story teller of the indigenous people who still live today in Northern Mexico. It was a recording of an elderly man singing words that I couldn't understand, firstly because it was an indigenous language and secondly because had no teeth. I based the second movement of the symphony on this recording. I imagined as best I could the actual syllables he was singing and the sounds he was making. That became the text of the second movement.
JB: How did the traditions and influences of ancient Mesoamericans influence your work on this symphony?
PG: Later I connected that piece with in the context of three elements that are important in the traditional life of the indigenous people still living in that area of Mexico: The corn, the Sacred Root, and the Blue Deer. Each is represented in the movements.
JB: How long did the composition process take and what prompted you to incorporate chorus into your work?
PG: Well I began writing music when I was 15, and I wrote this symphony in 2004, so 67 years! (laughs). That happens to be truthful! I sang in choruses when I was still a student at Juilliard. And from those experiences and from earlier times, when I was 10 years old when I played in things like church orchestras and sang in choruses that were performing the masses of Bach and Mozart. After Juilliard I had a lot of personal experiences in singing in choruses. I drew mainly on my own experience to have my own personal approach to writing for choruses.
JB: The Collegiate Chorale has been performing quite a bit of your music recently, from the performance of the opera The Juniper Tree, to Koyaanisqatsi, to Another Look at Harmony, Part IV, and now A Toltec Symphony.
I've known (you) and the chorus for a long time. They are excellent. This piece was originally written for the 60th birthday of Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in 2005. The Collegiate Chorale knows my music well, sing it very well, and I'm pleased that they have chosen this piece to perform in its NY premiere.
1 thought on “Conductor James Bagwell & Philip Glass – Toltec Interview”
I didn’t know that the second movement’s text was based on
a recording! That’s very interesting. When I listen to it again, I’ll know that the chorus is singing a language.