This is PART 2 of a two-part interview with Philip Glass discussing his complete piano etudes. Part 1 can be found here
Richard Guérin: What can you say about the evolution of this piano music. You first started this collection in the early 90’s. How has the music itself changed?
Philip Glass: It’s quite different; the first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas. The issue of tonality has been a major issue in music for about 300 years and it hasn’t gone away. With all the 12-tone music of the 20th century we still have tons of tonal music around. (12-tone music) made a slight dent and not a very big one.
Tonal music seems to be an addiction of human beings. Almost every composer has to address the issue of tonality and the second sets of 10 etudes do that. The kind of harmonic sequences that happen in number 15 are very unusual. However, if you hear it a couple of times they sound completely normal. The human mind and the human ear is such a thing that it can adapt very quickly. That happens all the time: people were yelling and screaming at Stravinsky and people were yelling and screaming at me. In 1979 we created DANCE with Lucinda Childs. We were hooted off the stages in Europe during a three-month tour. We did that piece again recently and in 2008, ‘09, and ‘10. It’s now considered a masterpiece. I mean that’s within my lifetime, I mean not just in my lifetime within the last 30 years. People have learned to hear music that differently. The curious thing is that we adapt very quickly to languages that seem very foreign at first. I’m sure there are parts of the second 10 etudes, which will be very puzzling at first, but with a couple of hearings it will sound right.
RG: Another piece that you wrote that took you a long time to write was Music in Twelve Parts. This entire set of etudes relates to Music in 12 Parts in that it took a long time to write, and it also took you a long time to understand the piece as a whole when you experience the whole work from beginning to end in one sitting.
PG: If anything this is the closest thing to Music in Twelve Parts to anything I’ve done. In the sense there’s an overall kind of architecture that covers a lot of time. The 20 etudes can be done less than 3 hours, but not much less. Music in Twelve Parts goes to 4 – 4 ½, Something happens anytime you have an evening where you have people listening to a significant amount of music which is in different sections. This is in 20 parts. It’s an idea of an evolution that happens within that one period of time.
Now with Music in Twelve Parts I wrote in a period of 3 years and the etudes I wrote in a period of 22 years. So you would think that there would be a big difference, but the funny thing is that it isn’t that different. I finished the first 10 and didn’t write any piano music for years. When I began to write piano music again, it seemed almost as if the second 10 had been conceived before. Some of them I wrote very quickly, the last four I wrote in about three weeks. When I got to 20, I thought to myself “you’ve done 19 and you have to finish the 20th, what am I going to do?” I didn’t think about it at all I just sat down and wrote a piece that was waiting to be written.
Another curious thing happened. There’s a theme that was also shared with The Visitors…and now I can’t remember which came first, I don’t know if I wrote the piano music first or if I wrote the music for the film first. It sounds very different, you may not even have noticed if I hadn’t mentioned it. In the orchestra, there’s a descending passage in the woodwinds and is picked up by the strings and the harp. The piano is just the piano. That almost never happens in such a short period time: the same musical idea appeared in two closely related pieces. So that makes me think that there’s a subterranean kind of, that is to say, an unseen development, that is always happening that one is not aware of. I call it the underground river. You have water moving under the earth but you don’t know where it is. Music can be like that too. The second 10 I think were there for a while waiting to come out. I almost didn’t write them.
RG: To what degree do you consider the tradition of piano etudes when you were composing?
PG: I was considering it! There’s a contemporary tradition too: the Ligeti etudes are one, and they’re beautiful. It’s a different way of working. I think I was thinking more for the piano than he was, but I’m not sure. If he were here he’d probably disagree. They seem, strangely, if I may say, more impressionistic; it’s more of a feeling of a piece. The structure of the piece you don’t hear very clearly. That’s a beautiful set of modern pieces, but then there are also the Debussy preludes. It’s a 20th century tradition to a degree.
RG: What would be your goal in printing the music and making it available to people?
PG: That’s unusual because I haven’t printed music that way. I haven’t encouraged people to have performances of the string quartets or the symphonies. A lot of that music wasn’t printed in a form that people could buy it, I wasn’t interested. I was interested in having first-rate ensembles play the music and I figured most people would hear recordings. It’s not like the 18th century, when people want to hear music they play it at the piano. When you write piano etudes, that’s music that many many people can play. Even in the set of twenty I would say that three or four a good amateur could play very easily. But I would say that a good ten that are very difficult. But even a modestly able pianist can play through the music.
RG: Regarding this new recording and the performance of Maki Namekawa. As opposed to the live performances (so far), when we were making the recording we were interested in a single player interpreting the whole set of two books of etudes.
PG: Maki is a very strong interpreter. She is one of the strongest players that we have, and there is no question that she has an affinity to the music. She plays from the heart. Her performance of Etude No.12 is breathtakingly fast and completely clear. She can play rapid music with great clarity and strength. She’s not a big person and she plays with the seat low. In fact, she has the seat much lower than I do. When she has to play loud she almost stands up! I see her listing off of the piano stool. In order to gain the strength she’s adapted her body to that. We are talking about physical presence, but in terms of interpretation, understanding, and intuition.
-Interview Transcribed by composer Ben Brody-
THE COMPLETE PIANO ETUDES AVAILABLE ON iTUNES NOV.25 – Etudes Nos.11,12,13,14,15, 16 and 17 available now