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Composer Philip Glass: hard work and no compromises

For many listeners, Philip Glass is the reigning king of the "new music" world. Certainly his range is impressive. What other musician has premiered his second opera and produced his first rock record within the space of a few weeks?

Though his work attracts a varied audience, Glass comes from strict classical background. His first "hit" was the five-hour "Einstein on the Beach," directed by Robert Wilson at the Metropolitan Opera House, where it proved enormously successful in 1976. Since then Glass has toured widely, written several new works, played for capacity audiences at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere, and received a huge Rockefeller Foundation grant for general support of his career.

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Glass's music is unique, with unusual instrumentation -- largely saxophones and organs -- and rigorous structures based on repetitive melodies and cyclical rhythms. Gradually he is building a wide following comprising classical and pop fans alike. This year will see the first American performances of his opera "Satyagraha," his chamber opera "The Panther," and perhaps a new dance work. He is also completing a third opera called "Akhenaton," and is a scoring a film "about technology and the decay of the cities."

The following interview took place in his West Side apartment and in a taxi to his rehearsal hall, where a concert performance of "Einstein on the Beach" was in preparation:

More and more people are listening to your music these days. Why is it catching on at this particular time?

It's partly because of the vacuum created by the new-music world in general, which is very insular.

But also, people want a concert music that goes along with the popular culture of their time. There's a lot of good pop music these days, but people want a high-art kind of music, too. They get tired of hearing the Rolling Stones and the B-52s.

And my music touches quite a few bases. Even the amplification is part of the appeal. There's a fair amount of intellectual content in the pieces, and lots of fancy writing that musicologists can look at. But I don't talk about that much. The music doesn't depend on that to be appreciated.

What do you want to accomplish in your music?

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To make it a very physical and immediate experience, for one thing.

You have gone to some lengths in that direction, with forceful rhythms and assertive dynamics and textures.

Yes. It's a reaction to the very cerebral and theoretical way that the academic composers like. You can prove the academic pieces are beautiful, but you can't make them moving. Schools of music don't make music. They just make trouble, as far as I'm concerned!

What have your tastes been?

In the old days, I was interested in the American school of [William] Schuman and vincent Persichetti, and then the more dodecaphonic American school that began with Charles Ives and led into people like Elliott Carter.

But I was always interested in the maverick people like Harry Partch and Moondog. And I've always had a strong interest in jazz, though I've never played it.

Besides your classical composing and performing, you recently produced a pop record by the group Polyrock. Is the pop world alive and well, in your opinion?

Oh yes. The most interesting music is the new wave/punk music. The Raybeats are real favorites of mine, for instance.

I don't think they're very well known.

A lot of these people don't even record. I'm talking about noncommercial pop bands. They don't make records, and even if they do, they don't sell in the hundreds of thousands.

You see, they've found a noncommercial way of dealing in the world of popular culture. They are serious and dedicated to their work. They are more honest than a lot of people who are writing so-called experimental music.

What are some other examples?

I like the Lounge Lizards for a while . . .

I also like the Talking Heads and the B-52s.

Those are well-known bands. They're trying to strip popular music to very basic ingredients. It's similar to what I did in classical music, in a way -- going back to something very basic and readily acknowledgeable.

But your main path has been in classical music. Has that path been smooth?

At a very early stage, I decided I was going to make a living by playing and writing music -- not teaching music, like most of my colleagues.

But it didn't happen overnight. In fact, until a couple of years ago when I was 40, I wasn't self-supporting as a composer. I had other jobs which took up a lot of my time --driving a cab, moving furniture -- the usual things people do to get by. Things you can drop whenever you want to and go on a tour. No ties at all, but a fast cash turnover, so you can keep going.

Did you enjoy those years, or was it distracting?

I didn't mind it much. I didn't become bitter or angry. Two weeks after my first opera appeared at the Met, I was out working again, and it didn't concern me. I like being in the street. I like street life.

Of course, there were other things I could have done: writing film music or jingles. I just decided I didn't want to. I wasn't so anxious for an audience that I would change what I was doing. And now an audience has emerged so I can spend more time writing, and doing what I really want to. The turning point came when I realized I could make more money just doing my music.

You see, I have a very deep commitment to this music. It's more than liking or loving it. It's been part of me so long that it's the natural thing to do. It would never occur to me to give it up or change it in any way. I've had offers to do other things. But I'd rather have it my own way, no matter how long that takes. And to be honest, I'm surprised it didn't take longer. I was prepared for a longer haul than I've had to go through.

So you would have gone on with your ideas indefinitely, even if an audience didn't develop?

Well, I never thought it would be forever. I could tell there would be an audience, from the responses I was getting. Even when I was down in SoHo, the experience of the audience was so real, so authentic. It was just a question of dissemination.

Now that an audience has emerged, it must feel good to devote all your energy to your music, with no time siphoned off to mundane jobs.

It turns out I don't spend more time composing, after all! I just do different things --talking to people like you, for example. I'm a real activist in my work. play all my music, and publish it, and get involved in lots of activities.

What's your background?

Very academic. I started music when I was about eight, at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. At 15 I went to the University of Chicago, got a liberal-arts degree, and studied music there. Then came Juillard, from age 19 to 24. Then I got a Ford Foundation grant, wrote music for the Pittsburgh public schools, went to Paris, studied with Boulanger. So for 20 years I was in music school. I really had a dose!

What sort of music did you write when you were younger?

I didn't really have a music of my own. I was learning from other people. I studied their work, and wrote about 70 pieces in the style of my teachers: straight, middle-of-the-road American music.

Then what happened?

Something unexpected. In 1965 I put all the music in a box, and said I wouldn't write that any more! I just turned my back on it, overnight.

So you rejected the influences on you to that point. How did you find your own voice?

I was hired to be Ravi Shankar's assistant on a movie score. Through him, I got in touch with a whole different world: non-Western music. I traveled in North Africa, central Asia, India. I became aware of traditions that had nothing to do with my background. I was inspired by it. I saw there were other powerful ideas and ways of organizing music. I got involved with it, and tried to invent things. It sounds pretentious, but it was more desperate. It was like I really didn't know what else to do!

What was your approach in this "inventing"?

I had to start somewhere, so I started at the beginning. Looking back, it seems almost arrogant: to put aside 400 years of music, and say I'm not going to do that any more! But there was no other way -- I had to do something very radical. So I reduced my music to the style you find in my early pieces, where there's just one line of music that gets longer and richer all involved with the rhythmic profile. Then I found out nobody would play this music!

Did that distress you?

It was a big shock, because my earlier music had always been played. I showed the new pieces to people, and they were offended, they laughed at it.

But looking back, the surprising thing is that I was so surprised. I should have known --weird, though it didn't seem so to me.

Basically, your starting point was a radical simplicity.

That's true. And it was a real reaction to what I perceived as a sterile and uncommunicative new-music situation.

From those basic starting points, your work has evolved and changed a great deal. It certainly sounds richer and more sensous than it used to.

I've noticed that, too. I like it, actually. It's kind of a pendulum effect. I started with things that were so severe -- no fat, just muscle and bone. Then gradually, I've brought in all this other stuff.

You have brought your music to some unlikely audiences, or at least unlikely places --rock clubs, for example.

Yes, and we were the first to do some of these things, like playing new music at the Bottom Line. You see, there are these hidden, unspoken rules of behavior. and I simply decided I was going to ignore them, and do whatever I wanted.

Do you know what will come next in your development?

It's hard to predict. I like surprises. I like to surprise myself. When I know what I'm doing, I'm so bored that I don't want to finish the piece. So I tend to go into projects without any idea of what I'm going to do. And so oner or later, we all find out. . . .

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