By any measure 2017 was a very productive year in terms of major new pieces by Philip Glass. The year began in January with his latest grand Symphony, the Eleventh, largely composed the previous year, premiered at Carnegie Hall on his 80th birthday.
Symphony No.11 turned out to be the first of a series of major works premiered in the calendar year including the much-lauded film JANE about the life of Jane Goodall, Piano Concerto No.3 with Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry (composed in spring 2017), a new theater work for the Days & Nights Festival, the Passacalgia for Solo Piano (Distant Figure) which premiered in November, before the world premiere of String Quartet No.8 in January and now the recent Piano Quintet “Annunciation” which premiered in April 2018. The composer is currently deep into work on his next Symphony to premiere in January 2019 at Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
From the outside, in the past I would often marvel at Glass’ productivity with little or no understanding of how such a constant flow of new pieces could appear decade after decade. Music, unlike some other art forms, simply takes a lot of time to get down on to paper. As Glass still composes by hand with a pencil and paper, I recall when he had finished composition of Piano Concerto No.3, he said he’d be turning in the score in a week or two after copying it (for the third time after sketching, then a cleaner copy during composition, then this third final copy.). Such is his process before it is eventually engraved by a copyist into a computer to print out a proper score and parts.
Historically speaking, of course Glass isn’t very productive at all. One need only to look at composers like Mozart with 41 symphonies, 36 violin sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, 21 operas, etc etc in a lifespan of only 35 years or so. So there is no comparing eras. With that said, Glass does seem to be very productive for his era. So to see that activity from close proximity, and the timing of it all, is a fascinating thing.
For example, while 2017 was a productive year in terms of premieres, much of the music had been composed the previous year which was relatively light on world premieres. It seems to be all about the timing. For example, Glass composed Piano Concerto No.3 in the spring of 2017 finishing the piece perhaps six months before its premiere while concurrently composing the score for JANE. They just happened to premiere around the same time. String Quartet No.8 was written over the summer months before either of those premieres.
It all becomes an ongoing flow. When Glass finished String Quartet No.8 I asked what it was like, to which he replied, “It’s the kind of piece which makes you think No.9 is an inevitability.” He then moved directly on to other work, in this case the new piano quintet which was based on a Byzantine chant. In the middle of this was multiple excursions to the mountains of Mexico to play and record with the Wixárika and extensive touring in Europe and elsewhere, before again moving on to the newest symphony (one unlike any other that he has ever composed both in terms of form and subject matter.)
When asked recently about the distractions of all the travel, and all the work of a working musician, Glass stated that there was nothing missing in terms of the rewards of the work of composing-traveling-and playing, that it was grueling but that the biggest distractions during these celebratory years, in this case all the festivities around his 80th birthday year, he said, “These celebrations sound like fun, and everyone wants a piece of the birthday cake. It all sounds good unless you are the cake.” And with that Glass was off to a hotel room with a stack of blank music paper and a pencil waiting for him.