Archive for April 18th, 2015

“I tricked myself to write”: Philip Glass discusses his new book on home turf

Saturday, April 18th, 2015
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Philip Glass with Ira Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Cousins: Ira Glass interviews Philip Glass at Barnes and Noble in NYC. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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The latest word from the big city on the Atlantic, from our roving reporter/photographer Zygmunt Malinowski (he’s written for us before here and here and here and here, and lots of other places):

Philip Glass, considered to be one of the best contemporary composers, is part of the New York City fabric. He is a quintessential New Yorker who had his start in the New York downtown scene of the 1970s.

So I was pleased when I picked up a local paper for a subway ride recently, and learned he would be appearing locally, at Barnes & Noble on April 6, to discuss his new autobiography, Words Without Music. I had photographed Czeslaw Milosz for his book launch of Roadside Dog, the same sort of event at the same venue.

Philip Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Time for a close-up. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with Robert Wilson, catapulted him to fame in 1976. He had honed his craft in Paris, where he was inspired by avant-garde theater and Samuel Beckett plays. He went to India in 1966, and encountered refugee Tibetans and Buddhism. Eventually, he would write the score for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film about Dalai Lama, Kundun, using the repetitive Tibetan cymbals and horns as a motif.

At Barnes & Noble, the 78-year-old composer was accompanied by his cousin Ira Glass, who was also his interlocutor for the event, as well as the host and producer of NPR’s “This American Life.” The organizers warned me that the photo-op would be short, but I still had enough time to get a good close-up as he posed in front of bookstore’s logo. The overflow event, on the bookstore’s top floor, featured a large panel of Moby Dick graphic and Gulliver’s Travels. The green panel behind the center table blocked the large windows and view of city buildings, a photographer’s minor disappointment at a great event.

“Before age 41 I had a day job, I was moving furniture and things like that,” Glass told his cousin. “This is very common in our country, artists, dancers …have a day job … I thought I was successful. I had an ensemble, I went on tours. I was traveling in Europe and America.” However, even after the Einstein on the Beach triumph at the Metropolitan, he returned to his day job, driving a taxi. Soon afterwards he received a lucrative commission from Netherlands.

He claimed that it is still hard to write and sometimes he has to throw away what he started and start over. One of the ways he described it is that writing music is like “looking out the window at buildings on a foggy morning, and after a while you can see a [an outline of] a window.” Then he has to figure out a way to describe it in music. Rather like writing, in fact.

Nowadays, he particularly likes “offbeat music, especially music from other countries and music from 30s and 40s.” His tastes are omnivorous, he likes all music, and said that he has heard “some awful playing but young people are doing wonderful things.”

The written questions from the audience were randomly selected at the end of the session.

Q: Is it best to write music when you are heartbroken?

Glass: No. To me music is continuous like an underground flow…

Q: What music do you listen on a subway?

Glass: The other day, symphony music … that I composed. When we have a Tibet concert I listen to everybody. [Glass is the artistic director of annual Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.]

Q: It’s hard to sell music.

Glass: The question should be who wants music [i.e., dancers and others need music.] Find someone your age…theatre needs music. One of the things that goes on today is collaborative. No one says you will make money; you do it because you love it. This is what we call vocation, from Latin word ‘vocare’ [to call, to name, to invoke]

Glass recalled that when he was young he set aside a period of time to compose. “I sat at the piano between 10:00 and 1 in the morning waiting for what would happen. I tricked myself to write. At first it was difficult and finally I wrote music to pass the time. Now I write anytime I want to. Now there is a feeling of anticipation, of satisfaction to come. Writing now has become joyful, but it was not like this when I was younger.”

 

Philip Glass books; Barnes & Noble; Uniion Square; NYC. 3/6/2015

In prose, not music. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)