The Sound of Glass
Famed contemporary classical composer Philip Glass establishes a local legacy with his Days and Nights Festival.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Philip Glass’s life is akin to that Johnny Cash chorus, “I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere, man.”
He was born in Baltimore in 1937, and, steeped in a music-rich childhood, entered the University of Chicago at age 15. He went on to the Juilliard School of Music, and then, in 1964, traveled to Paris to study under famed music mentor Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright Scholarship.
But the most significant time of his early development happened first in India, where he apprenticed under Ravi Shankar and studied with Indian percussionist Alla Rakha, and then when he returned to the States in 1967 and fell in with the hip bohemian denizens of his adopted SoHo, including Allen Ginsberg, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Chuck Close, Richard Serra and Steve Reich. Already he had immersed himself in Western classical tradition and theory, Eastern modality, and rock and roll, but he would go on to absorb many more influences, including world music and electronic music, into his giant body of work.
Now, at age 74, he’s bringing the culmination of his life’s work to the Central Coast, presenting the Days and Nights Festival, a two-week detail of the landscape of his work combined with a multidisciplinary arts bash of his creative friends, which Glass will turn into an annual event.
Glass’ body of work forms its own constellation of contemporary classical music, one that has swept across the mainstream and changed the way we hear music. The festival, taking place primarily at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley with side events at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library, also highlights music by Franz Schubert, Dmitri Shostakovich, Bela Bartok and Felix Mendelssohn, as well as artistic friends in other disciplines: the art-theater-performance of John Moran and Saori Tsukada; films represented in two drive-in movie nights and a live orchestration of the 1931 Dracula; chamber music with the Days and Nights Festival players and Youth Orchestra of the Americas; dance with Molissa Fenley; poets at Henry Miller, and performances by Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble.
He’s reaped unprecedented success at the top of his field for decades, his music being performed year-round all over the place. Next year, for his 75th birthday, there are worldwide celebrations and commemorations planned. But early in his career few people knew what to do with his combustible combination of musical experimentation and hybridization.
“Even people who are supposed to be presenting new and original work, don’t understand,” he said during a phone interview with the Weekly from his home overlooking the ocean in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. “That’s what happened to me.”
Traditional performance venues didn’t know what he and his peers, Reich and Jon Gibson, were up to with their new experiments in repetitive structures and modality and minimalism. Though Europe caught on early, Glass and his newly assembled Philip Glass Ensemble were relegated to playing art galleries, museums, lofts and fringe spaces in New York. And supporting themselves elsewhere, too. Glass, from 1973-78, drove a cab.
“We [artists] are not supported by the U.S. government,” Glass says. “If a painter goes home after 5 years and complains to his parents, ‘I’m not getting anywhere,’ they’ll say, ‘Who asked you?’ The garage I worked in was full of poets. We called it the ‘day job.’”
But that day job allowed him time to compose and perform. One notable early break came when the Metropolitan Opera performed a Glass opera. The next day he was driving his cab (he liked to drive by the Met and check out the crowds, says festival coordinator Jim Woodard); a woman coming from the performance got in and remarked that he has the same name as a “famous composer.”
The early 1970s marked a flourish of an increasingly embraced output of minimalist music, culminating with the four-hour-long Music in Twelve Parts. The next evolution would catapult Glass from the rarefied world of the artistic and intellectual periphery and into the next hemisphere: an opera called Einstein on the Beach. The Washington Post called it “one of the seminal artworks of the century.”
That did it. Glass had everyone’s attention, and he continues working to keep it.
In his 50 years of composing music, Glass has built up an imposing body of work. A dozen operas, a dozen pieces of musical theater, 10 symphonies (one more than Beethoven and Mahler), more than 20 solo, chamber and orchestral works apiece, maybe 50 film scores, and countless other miscellaneous musical things, including dance scores and concertos. He’s collaborated with so many people – Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Simon, Errol Morris, Paul Schrader, Woody Allen, Twyla Tharp, David Henry Hwang, Martin Scorsese, Jerome Robbins – that it almost seems easier to name who he hasn’t worked with. He’s created, or collaborated on, so many seismic works that some complain about his prolific production. Music critic Alex Ross, in a November 2007 New Yorker article, wrote, “Glass writes faster than most of us can listen.” Just a few highlights include the recording Glassworks, the Qatsi film trilogy (see story at right), a biographical opera trilogy, the contentious Symphony No. 8, and Oscar-nominated film scores for Notes on a Scandal, Kundun and The Hours, and a Golden Globe win for The Truman Show. And that’s just a splinter in the oeuvre.
“You’re not going to measure your success by financial rewards or prizes,” he says. “I’ve told many people, go to the graveyard – it never says [on headstones] how much money they made. What matters is the quality of their lives, the strength of their commitment, the depth of their talent. Nothing else matters.”
The festival demonstrates, in a fraction of time, what Glass has been about nearly his entire career.
There’s the early training in the Western canon, Schubert’s “Impromptus,” that shows up in this Friday’s opening celebration, the modern and vigorous stuff of Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 8 in C minor,” as well as Glass’ new 2008 work (and there is always new work with him) “Sonata for Violin & Piano.”
There’s the progressive political overture (Glass is a longtime supporter of a free and independent Tibet) in a West Coast premiere of chamber piece “Pendulum,” which was debuted at the American Civil Liberties Union 90th anniversary last year; while the inclusion, across the festival, of the young musicians from YOA (Youth Orchestras of the Americas), which finds and nurtures poor kids in classical symphony orchestra, displays his propensity toward mentorship and philanthropy.
There are also the multidisciplinary collaborations: the drive-in film screenings, Scorsese’s Kundun and Morris’ new documentary, Tabloid, shown on an inflatable, three-story screen; dancer and choreographer Fenley presenting a new work, including the Glass-scored “The Vessel Stories”; a team of poets at Henry Miller Library, including Maria Teutsch, who edits the library’s art/literary journal Ping-Pong, the very funny spoken-word artist Jerry Quickley, and others; and theater-music-performance artists John Moran and Saori Tsukada in a show that defies a neat definition.
Moran began his career as an opera composer at 17, when he asked Glass to take him on as a disciple.
“I finished [an] opera, ran away to New York and showed up at his doorstep,” Moran says. Glass took him in and provided valuable early training, but soon the gifted Nebraskan’s career grew to giant proportions, with increasingly bigger operas of imposing production scale. Then, at a career pinnacle, Moran went underground.
“I met my next door neighbor, Saori, on the street,” he says, “and we started working together. We combine dance with really new compositional and theater techniques in a way that hasn’t been seen before.”
“We’re featuring mostly chamber, modern dance and theater, poetry and film,” Glass adds. “All these elements over a period of 16 performances… where those pieces come together, the borderline between the arts.”
A common thread tying together all this artistry, including Moran and Tsukada’s performance, is music.
“What can I tell you?” Glass says. “Which is the most sublime artform? Dancers say dance, filmmakers say film. We’re all right and we’re all wrong. My expertise is music. Without music I would have no place in the other arts.”
That place has been one of reverence and awe, contention and disdain. Let’s take his Symphony No. 8. The critic Alex Ross wrote of it: “The most consistently inspired of recent Glass pieces.” More anonymous, but no less opinionated, critics on YouTube stoked a more divisive debate on its merits.
“Check out ‘Music in 12 Parts’ or ‘Music in Changing Parts,’ that was Glass being original and interesting. Since 1987 he has been functioning on auto pilot.”
“stop it man. Each of us have our own journeys, as do artists have their own… Evolution just simply can’t be judged.”
“I don’t think he is a ‘great’ composer, but then I don’t pretend to be a critic, and tend to be driven… by taste rather than by judgement. All I know is that his music can often thrill me, and in my opinion his music has evolved, rather than diminished since 1987.”
When the Carmel Bach Festival recently introduced new elements of jazz, theater and improvisation into their programming, Executive Director Camille Kolles said there were “murmurs” about it. But Kolles was happy either way: “People in Carmel were talking about art and music as if it mattered.”
And people talk about Glass, who counts Bach as a pivotal influence, as if he matters. The arc of his career has careened from secluded academic tidepools and into the bigger ocean of the broader public. Through tireless touring, speaking and performing, his feverish productivity, his film scores and media appearances, he’s become the people’s composer. He’s in demand at the most prestigious palaces of music, like Teatro alla Scala in Milan, but is happy to play to 300 people at Hidden Valley and Henry Miller (or even appear on Sesame Street). He moves between the worlds of classical, contemporary, art and popular music, which doesn’t endear him to traditionalists.
“Let’s put it in historical context,” Glass offers. “We like to say in the 19th century, the popular artform was opera. [People] went to opera like we go to movies. Opera combines text, image and music, like in film. Any artform that takes on that kind of language is a populist artform in one way or another. Popularism has always been with us [but it] gets a bad name.”
Glass’ name is so synonymous with contemporary classical music that many so-called serious critics avoid him, complaining his music is simple. That music, described in part in a Gale Encyclopedia biography as “rhythmic cycles that, when joined, move like wheels within wheels – everything precisely organized but constantly changing,” contains bounties of delicacy, lustre, propulsion and, probably to detractors’ consternation, beautiful melodies.
“When people ask me what kind of music I write, I say theater music,” he says. “Which has the advantage of actually being accurate.”
Philip Glass Presents the Days and Nights Festival runs Aug. 19 to Sept. 4 at Hidden Valley Music Seminars and Henry Miller Library. See www.DaysAndNightsFestival.com and the Weekly’s Calendar this week and next week for details, or call 831-659-7445.