glass notes
Glass Notes: No Man is An Island (Philip Glass and Collaboration)


Starting this past spring, I started to toy with the idea of writing a book on Philip Glass.  Perhaps it was in response to the excitement of his new book, Words without Music.  Or perhaps it was because of what’s not written in either of his two books.  Glass’s first book, Music by Philip Glass was written in the mid-1980s and contains a sort of “how we got here” narrative which I love.  At that time, Glass was right in the middle of an incredibly creative period – those ten years right after Einstein on the Beach through the first Violin Concerto when he left Minimalism behind in the pursuit of a thirty year rapprochement with tradition.

Glass second book, Words without Music, covers some of the same ground and in fact only goes up to the death of Allen Ginsberg in 1997 and only covers a decade after the end of Music by Philip Glass.  For many of Glass’s fans, that totally omits the last two decades of his creative life – some ten operas, ten symphonies, twenty film scores, and much more.  Words without Music is also clearly thew work of an older man looking back with a sort of distance between him and the story he was telling. In Music by Philip Glass, Glass still had something to prove, still had very vocal and powerful musical enemies, and Glass did not have the perspective of knowing how it was all going to turn out or what future work lay in front of him.

So both books are very valuable documents from two very different perspectives.  But neither book presented the narrative of Philip Glass’s career as I see it.  So I began to conceive of a story that began with my first exposure to Glass’s work in a “Music Appreciation 1827-Present” course through my decade of experience actively working for Glass and on behalf of his catalogue.

Glass has been fully supportive of this idea and because of many extensive interviews that I have conducted with him, I felt I had the raw material to endeavor a trial chapter of a proposed book. Because of timing of OMM releases, the first chapter would be about the Glass symphonies.  In more than one interview about his own symphonies, I found Glass actually quite taciturn on the subject of symphonies – not other composer’s symphonies or the great masterpieces of the past, only his own.  This was not the case when we spoke about theater work, operas, and other projects when Glass’s eyes would light up and he would be overflowing with ideas and stories. But on the subject of his own symphonies, I ran into a wall of “Dennis Russell Davies forced me to write symphonies.”

So after three interviews over the period of three years on the subject of symphonies my frustration led to a simple path away from the composer and to the conductor, and from the conductor to Glass’s other collaborators.  If Glass wasn’t going to give me in insight I was looking for in his own work, perhaps Davies and the rest of the people with whom Glass has worked would.  This immediately led to the bigger revelation of planning a book.

To go straight to the point:  I would go straight to the collaborators!  Over the course of five decades Glass’s collaborators have ranged from major film directors, to conductors, poets, instrumentalists, world music stars…the resources are endless.  So I wrote my chapter about symphonies and I will soon be moving on to the next subject and conducting more interviews.  Returning to the idea of my own personal subjective narrative about Philip Glass and his music invoked a common phenomenon among many of his collaborators – it seems a lot of people have different ideas about who Glass is as an artist and what his music about, where it comes from, and what effect is has on them and audiences.   I also don’t intend on leaving it there.  After my interview with Davies on the subject of the symphonies, another fascinating thing happened.  I asked Davies flat out which symphonies were among his favorites and why.  Then I told Glass about his response and asked him the same question.  The resulting proxy dialogue is really quite interesting and I look forward to seeing how this process evolves.

3 thoughts on “Glass Notes: No Man is An Island (Philip Glass and Collaboration)”

  1. I listen to Itaipu as a choral symphony. Days and Nights in Rocinha and The Canyon seem to me as a one-movement symphonies.
    Whereas the Requiem or Number 5 symphony seems to me a sort of oratorio, and Hero symphony as an orchestra song cycles.

  2. Mario,
    I somewhat agree. There is always the question of what exactly is a symphony. It seems to be a personal definition. If Mahlers 8th symphony is a symphony then why isnt Das Lied von der Erde? I was thinking of this yesterday when listening to William Bolcoms 8th symphony. He wrote after his 8th, a Symphony for Band, before writing his 9th. Is Shostkovichs Babi Yar a symphony? Definitely…what about Sibelius Seventh? That seems more a one-movement tone poem like Glass The Light. To me, Days & Nights in Rocinha is more a bolero. Glass submitted the piece a dance for Dennis Russell Davies and orchestra. In the end, whats in a name?

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