glass notes
New Interview With Philip Glass by Richard Guerin in Advance of the the Premiere of his New Symphony

“More of a quest than an arrival” 

I began working for Orange Mountain Music, Philip Glass’ record label, 11 years ago in January 2006. I was hired only weeks after the world premiere of Symphony No.8 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.   Symphony No.8 and its quiet ending was perhaps the draw for ticket sales but it was rightly placed on the first half of the program with Symphony No.6 “Plutonian Ode,” a more theatrical and a piece with a more traditionally satisfying finish.

The orchestra was the Bruckner Orchester Linz under the direction of its music director Dennis Russell Davies, a long-time champion of new music in general, American music in particular, and a figure who has had a unique musical relationship with Philip Glass.

At the time I worked for an arts management company who managed Davies and I managed to attend two of the three performances and to go backstage after the premiere and it remains a highlight of my life in music. Four years earlier, I had attended the world premiere of Symphony No.6 at Carnegie Hall with Davies a few weeks after the attacks of 9/11.

By that time in 2002 I had gotten up to speed with Glass’ output, owning all of the available recordings of his works. As OMM had only just begun in 2002, up to that point fans were treated to only one release of his music per year. So by 2005 and the premiere of Symphony No.8, I was already excited to hear No.6 again not having heard it in four years, even more excited to see a new OMM recording of the work for sale in the BAM lobby. To this day, Symphony No.8 remains my favorite Glass symphony. With its exciting beginning, its introspective variation/passacaglia second movement, and its jazzy abbreviated finale with no grand satisfying finish, it was one of those pieces which I immediately fell in love with.

In contrast to what it was like before, for eleven years now I have been following Philip Glass’ creative output as an insider – hearing almost everything he composes in public and in private – small pieces, rehearsals of big pieces before their premieres, film scores being mocked up before they are recorded (or never making it to the recording stage). This kind of unfettered access has been an incredible privilege which has caused me day by day, year by year to question my own ideas about music and its role in the world.

More immediately, as with this interview below, I am able to glimpse into a very rare part of any creative process when a piece is finished but does not yet exist for it has not yet been played by an orchestra or heard by an audience member. The piece in question is Glass’ newest work, his Eleventh Symphony (2017) which will have its premiere at Carnegie Hall on the composer’s 80th birthday.

Carnegie Hall has played a major roll in Glass’s career as a composer for the concert hall. Glass had rented the hall on his own in 1978 for a Philip Glass Ensemble concert and has, since 1987, returned there every year to host his Tibet House benefit. 2017 not only marks a major birthday for Glass but it also marks the 30th anniversary of his Violin Concert No.1, the manuscript of which hangs on the wall at Carnegie (which is why OMM is releasing a new recording of the work with Davies, the Bruckner Orchester Linz, and virtuoso Renaud Capuçon days before the 80th birthday concert.)

That violin concerto was a landmark piece in many ways – having spent most of his time to that point writing operas and theater pieces, the violin concerto was Glass’ first orchestral work for the concert hall at age 50. The viability of that piece has since led to these eleven symphonies and thirteen concertos in addition to ballets, film scores, and many more orchestral pieces in every conceivable genre. Carnegie Hall hosted its premiere in 1987, and later co-commissioned Glass’s Sixth Symphony (2002), then again his Ninth Symphony (2012), and it was before the premiere of that piece, the Ninth, on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 2012 that I sat down with Glass to discuss that work.

Sitting down with him again, this time at the end of 2016, I wanted to discuss with Glass his own feelings about many aspects of writing concert hall music, its place in his overall activity, the challenges of this kind of writing, and most interestingly – much like seeing a building in the middle of construction, to glimpse into the space between conception and realization.

Interview from 14 December 2016 at Philip Glass’ home in New York

Richard Guérin: In considering the first ten symphonies, I was thinking about how your own personal style started with purely instrumental pieces like Music in Similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts, and Music in 12 Parts. Then later you moved away from that when you started writing lots of theater pieces. So when you began to write symphonies in your mid-fifties with pieces like Symphonies Nos.2 it seems to me that you have become comfortable in to your own expressive medium of purely instrumental symphonic writing.

Philip Glass: I don’t really see it that way. For example with the Seventh Symphony: A Toltec Symphony, it’s a piece that’s based on a whole culture. It wasn’t necessary a musical culture rather it had to do with the indigenous people of Mexico. The three movements of that have to with their three main concerns: The Corn, The Blue Deer, and Hikuri (The Sacred Root). To me, it doesn’t relate to the other symphonies but it doesn’t have to. I didn’t think of the symphonies as having to relate to each other. I thought of them as a collection of pieces not related to one another. I think that’s still true. For example, the string symphony (Symphony No.3) or the Fifth Symphony (a grand oratorio) which is all about texts. The string symphony has to do with a particular kind of writing for string orchestras that I grew up with. I decided to contribute to that literature. The kind of symphonies by people like William Schuman – pieces I new very well when growing up that for me it was to go back to that period.

Symphony No.1 (Low Symphony) was an adaptation of music by David Bowie and Brian Eno.   It was really a re-writing of someone else’s music. Symphony No.4 (Heroes Symphony) is a dance piece. Symphony No.6 “Plutonian Ode” is based on the poem by Allen Ginsberg.

If you look at each of these, the only one that makes a reference to symphonic tradition is Symphony No.2. I approached each symphony as a sui generis, each work unto itself.

However, later on I composed Symphony No.9 and then quickly wrote Symphony No.10. Symphony No.10 is a piece based on a fireworks piece I had written (in 2007). I wrote some new material and re-wrote the piece but it became an extremely interesting piece to me. It was a symphony which almost had no melodies in it. It’s a piece about musical energy. It’s very rhythmic. There are no memorable themes in it.

With the concertos it’s different. I was always working with the history of the concerto literature. Almost all the concertos have three movements. They almost all have a slow middle movement. I was thinking of a formal structure that I could then continue to work in. They are almost all in three movements aren’t they?

RG: The Saxophone Quartet Concerto is in four movements. The second violin concerto is in four movements with interludes. You’ve gotten away from the traditional model in the recent pieces. When we last spoke about these kinds of subjects, you asserted that concertos must be always considered program music because the soloists were the narrators, the heroes of a dramatic musical narrative.

When it comes to the concertos, I was thinking about those pieces in a more conventional way. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the concerto as a musical form. It was only recently in pieces like the Second Cello Concerto, which is adapted from a film score, that featured a cello in the original film score, that I knew when writing it that I knew it was going to become a concerto. Then with the Second Violin Concerto (“The American Four Seasons”) I introduced the idea of completely different structures by having solo pieces in between the orchestral movements. That also happens with the Double Concerto for Violin & Cello. I began to think about it in a different way. With the concertos I began with a more traditional attitude towards composition and they evolved into something more different.

RG: Because you are interested in so many other things, I look at pieces like the Double Concerto for Violin & Cello and remember its premiere as a dance piece in Holland with the Netherlands Dance Theater. Before its composition you thought of the work as a perfect analog of the violin portraying the prima ballerina and the cello taking on the role of the primo ballerino. Then in the recent Double Piano Concerto you approached things differently – the pianos weren’t heroic soloists but rather the orchestra acted as an extension of the pianos. Everyone belonged to one big tapestry. It’s a totally different approach.

Those (programmatic) thoughts are dispensable. The Double Concertos, of which there are now a few, have taken on qualities of their own. There’s a Double Timpani Concerto, a Double Concerto for Violin & Cello, a Double Piano Concerto. The concerto for saxophones, in which there are four soloists, almost comes into that plane in a way.

RG: You can see in each one of those pieces it’s easy to see what the compositional challenges might be. In the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists you spoke in the past about how it was hard for you to get into the writing of that piece, how you’d approach it. Then in a work like the Saxophone Quartet Concerto, you knew that the piece would be in four movements with each movement featuring a saxophone from each range – but you also knew that you needed to prepare a piece without the orchestra, a quartet only version, in which the three saxophones would take up the accompanying parts when the orchestra was omitted.

So while we can see the background and tradition from which the concertos have emerged from, in regards to the symphonies you have said many times simply that Dennis Russell Davies “forced you to write them.” Secondly, you have consistently gravitated towards collaborations of all kinds as an engine for your own creativity.   Collaboration is a common thread of your creative life. In the symphonies this has manifested itself in pieces like the Bowie/Eno symphonies (using preexisting music), Symphony No.5 (using texts), No.6 (using Ginsberg’s epic poem) and No.7 (a rumination on the Toltec tradition.)

Whereas only in Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 8, 9, 10 and now Symphony No.11 you have approached the medium in a purely instrumental way, perhaps a more traditional way. I recall when Symphony No.8 premiered in 2005, you were in a very intense period of composition when you were composing the opera Waiting for the Barbarians, a number of film scores, and in the midst of all this anarchy you produced this Eighth Symphony, an incredibly involved, densely orchestrated, purely instrumental work that, as you said at the time, “had to do with the language of music itself.”

Now we see that these recent symphonies, from No.8 through No.11, have all become about the language of music.

That’s right because I became aware of myself, I became aware that the way I was hearing music had changed. I hear music differently now. With Symphony No.11 I was continuing the ideas of Symphony No.9.

Symphony No.10 was a retreat into something that was popular and easy to listen to. The Ninth Symphony was about working with a language of music that essentially didn’t have a programmatic idea to it. You need to remember that while all this is going on, all these operas are being written, music for plays, ballets, etc.   There’s always theater work going on. As you know when people ask me what kind of composer are you I always say that I’m a theater composer because it has the virtue of being true.

RG: What I’m getting at is that I am observing your overall activity over a long period of time and seeing interesting things. Some composers do big projects like an opera and then retreat into a small piece of chamber music: A big thing then a little thing. For most composers symphonies represent a grand form. However for you, it seems that your symphonies represent a more intimate activity for you.

That’s possible. Certainly the string symphony is like that. In many ways the Toltec Symphony is like that. Very few people are equipped with the background of that lineage to understand what the music is about. It’s about those things I mentioned: The Corn, The Blue Deer, and the Sacred Root. Each one of those things is a volume in itself and would take a long time to understand what they represent.

What is the essential message of a piece?   When I say essential I mean abstract. When we talk about abstract ideas it’s not that we boil away all the extraneous stuff and are left with the essence. When we talk about abstract ideas we are talking about the heart of the piece.

RG: When we talk about these instrumental symphonies do they concern themselves with this idea of the abstract?

They almost always do. Well, they almost always do but they are occasionally corrupted by my other interests. For example, I got interested in doing a piece with Allen Ginsberg. I wanted to do a piece with him then he died so I didn’t have that chance. So with the Sixth Symphony I composed the piece I would have done with him. I made his voice a soprano and I picked a poem of his that I liked.

I got waylaid on the idea of a symphony based on a poem. At the same time there was definitely a reference to Mahler’s symphonies like his Fourth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde – I got interested in a symphonic piece with voice. The idea of my Sixth Symphony had more to do with Mahler than anybody else. It doesn’t sound like Mahler but the impulse to set words into a symphonic environment is definitely what my piece is about.

RG: In our conversation five years ago about before the American premiere of Symphony No.9 you had said that Mahler was also an influence in some way on that piece, regarding the slow second movement and I had remarked that the piece began in D minor as Mahler’s Ninth does. In this way, who else “is in the room” with you when you are composing these pieces, who is in your mind?

Well, you think about Beethoven, he comes up. It really has nothing to do with Beethoven. Symphony No.2 has a lot to do with Shostakovich. For me, I don’t see how you can hear it any other way.

RG: The middle movement of your Symphony No.8 is another one where it seems to me that Shostakovich appears.

Yes, that’s another Shostakovich piece. I was very touched by his music though I don’t particularly like it. (laughs) I am very ambivalent about Shostakovich. I think he’s a great composer but I don’t particularly like his music. When I began to write symphonies, his impulse was to make a symphony as if it were a great novel like The Brothers Karamazov or something.   The Russian symphonic composers were seized by the Russian literature that was around and their big subjects like War & Peace. In terms of depth and importance the symphonies of that time were supposed to be on that level.

RG: Clearly Shostakovich retreated into purely instrumental composing of string quartets and symphonies in part to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities. Even then he still got into trouble. In a way, are you retreating into purely instrumental music?

There are two ways to answer that: either I’m a born experimenter or I’m just a dilettante. I just feel like doing something different sometimes. That’s probably the dilettante – when I say that I mean that I’m taking a huge body of music and boiling it down to a few ideas. Not only my own music but the music I’ve been hearing all my life. I’m taking all that music and putting it together and making a language out of it which is what I do. The essence of the music, getting back to that word, that it reflects my compulsive need to digest music, to absorb it, then to see what happens to it.

I find my music is full of influences from other people. Rather than deny them I embrace them. People say that I don’t sound like anyone else. No, I say I sound like everybody else! I can talk about that and Shostakovich, I can talk about Schubert, about Mahler, Beethoven, Vincent Persichetti, William Schuman. I can say that about Hans Werner Henze. I think he was a really good composer whose music I don’t like. Whether I like a piece or not has nothing to do with whether it influences me.

RG: What do you mean by that: The mechanics of the music? The technical capacity?

I mean that there’s an aspect of the music which is alarming and interesting and yet I don’t like the piece.

RG: Since at the time of this discussion no one knows what Symphony No.11 is – it only exists in your mind’s ear and on paper, to be premiered in about a month and a half from now. What can you tell me about it.

What I was trying to do in that symphony was trying to put some order to the post-Minimalist, post-Romantic, post-neoclassical periods that I’ve gone through. You can find all those periods in my music. I was trying to go beyond them into a language of music which is more expressive. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded or not.

One of the things that has really liberated me in writing these symphonies is that I really don’t care what anyone thinks.   I’m just interested in what I’m interested in. If people say ‘it doesn’t sound like this, or it doesn’t sound like that’ I say ‘who cares?”

With Symphony No.11 I was looking for, I was hoping perhaps that with the experiments that began in Symphony No.8 onwards, the music starts to get abstract in certain ways, there appears to be a search for a language.

There is more searching in this piece than in Nos.6 & 7 which seems to be playing with things I already knew. With Nos. 8, 9 and 10 I was working in ways I hadn’t done before. With No.11, having done these other things along the way like operas and ballets, I had arrived at a new musical plateau where I could write a piece which reflected a coherent musical and emotional expression.

RG: Isn’t that where this conversation started? – that your evolving language of music has evolved with this search for a musical language appearing in these works?

Well, it’s the case in Symphony No.11. Writing the piece was more of a quest than an arrival.

RG: Is that a different experience than your other symphonies?

I don’t know. I left things in this new symphony unresolved.   Not purposefully but because there was no resolution for them.

RG: I would say No.8 is unresolved in that way.

I don’t think so. The final movement of No.8 removes any doubt about the intentions of the piece: Dark, darker, and darkest.

RG: Are you looking to do more symphonies? Does this continue to be an interesting way for you to go forward?

Oh yes. I’m planning on a Symphony No.12. It would be nice in these next symphonies if I could come to an arrival place or a resolution to all these questions but frankly it seems unlikely. When I look at the body of symphonies up to No.11, they are playable, listenable, you might even say they are successful if such a word can be applied to contemporary music.  

But to me writing a symphony is always more of an adventure than writing an opera. With operas I know what’s going on. I have a text, a story, etc. For example, recently with my opera The Trial (based on Kafka’s novel) I knew the book for years. So when I get into symphonic writing I’m looking for what the essence of a symphony is for me at that point. With the Eleventh, I’m looking for resolution of ideas a polytonal and polyrhythmic language which defied a simple analysis. In other words, not only would a piece be in two keys at once, but one couldn’t be even sure that they were in different keys.

For some reason I’ve used symphonies as a great laboratory to try out ideas. For other people, they’d rather do that kind of experimenting with things like piano pieces. My piano pieces aren’t like this at all. If you look at my etudes, each etude is a complete statement of an idea.

RG: You’ve said in the past that symphony writing provides you with a compositional liberty, the proverbial blank page – a liberty that you weren’t sure that you liked but one that after so many symphonies has now set up an expectation for yourself.

When I start a symphony I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like being invited to a dinner not knowing what clothes to wear.

RG: Isn’t that the best situation for an artist to be in? As you have said, to not know what your doing is the best space for creativity?

I think so. To continue the analogy: Do I have to wear a tie? Is it too cold to wear a raincoat? When I start a symphony I have nothing but questions. With operas I have nothing but resolutions of ideas.   I find theater work very interesting because I’m able to tell a story, I can re-tell a story in a way that I think of it. And that’s true for films too. When I’m allowed to, I can write a film score which makes you look at the film differently. I’m rarely allowed to do that though I’m allowed to do that with Godfrey Reggio.   He has no idea what the music will be like, and when he hears the music it helps him to understand the movie.

RG: Thank you for your time but I must say that I now have more questions than answers.

Welcome to my world. One of the confusing things, it has been my fate, and it’s not that I chose it, it just happened to be that way that I have written so much music, much more than I intended to write, that the pieces often don’t have much to do with each other.   It’s like going into a used clothing store and everything looks interesting but you don’t know why.

RG: I see all this differently because I see it from the outside.

What does it look like to you?

RG: Take the Toltec Symphony for example. While I’m unprepared to understand those ideas you talked about concerning The Corn, The Blue Deer, and the Sacred Root, when I hear the first movement of this Symphony No.7 I hear the ideas of Symphony No.8 (written the same year) waiting to burst out. And personally I have no connection to the things that inspired you to write the piece, but rather I’m just a listener.

When I listen to something like Music in 12 Parts, I hear all the pieces of Minimalist music which came before it and were fully realized in 12 Parts. I see your whole body of work as a continuum with one piece leading to another, possibly to be reappear in later pieces and elaborated upon…or not.

I think the answer is that my musical personality is a little bit psychotic. There are lots of different drawers that I can open up.

RG: You have said in the past that the great musical innovations that have happened have happened in the theater from Monteverdi through Wagner and Stravinsky and not in the concert hall.

Nowadays, with more people interested in the theater and fewer people interested in what’s happening in symphonic concert halls. Perhaps it’s why you have chosen this field of writing symphonies to be the laboratory that your talking about.

What I’m getting at is that a substantial part of your musical innovations have happened in these symphonies where perhaps fewer people are noticing.

It’s simpler than that. At first I wrote symphonies because Dennis Russell Davies asked me to. Now I write symphonies to see what they sound like.