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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

An Interview with Philip Glass

PhilipGlass_PhotoCredit_FernandoAcevesCondensed and edited from a June 2016 conversation with the composer.

On celebrating his 80th birthday

It’s great, actually! To get to be 80, and I’m doing it at a time when I’m very active. I’m still working; I haven’t slowed down at all. I’m not close to retiring, so in my case it’s been very fortunate. The only thing is that the planes are more crowded than they used to be, and the jetlag is a little more severe than it used to be. But apart from that, everything is pretty good.

On his career

What’s surprising for me is how I surpassed what I thought I was going to do. I didn’t have any idea I was going to be a very well known, widely played composer: I had no idea. Like everybody else, I was going to school; I was working for whatever opportunities I had to play and to write music, and it just added up that way. I really don’t know why that is. That’s just the way that goes. It’s surprising, in a way, and yet it has to happen to somebody, right? So I guess it’s me.

PhilipGlass1_PhotoCredit_Raymond MeierOn musical communities

The New York new music/experimental music scene was really different than it is today.  It was very sparse, there were very few of us. It was easy to find a place to live, they were cheap and they were plentiful. It’s much more difficult today for the young people. I really think that we were maybe the last couple of generations where it was really kind of easy to find a place to live, to get a part time job, and to make ends meet. There was not much trouble, really. There was less violence in the city, the rents were cheaper: the whole thing was different. On the other hand, what the younger generation has is a very complex, interwoven system of communication with each other. And there are a lot of very positive things about the contemporary music and theater and dance scene, which wasn’t existing when I was beginning, because there weren’t enough of us to do it.

On cycles of artistic growth

One of the most interesting things to see is the political/social cycle, which I was very aware of in the late ’50s, when we had the McCarthy period with the Communist witch-hunts, and the terrible, terrible intrusion of government into private life. It was a very, very difficult time; and at the time, artistically, that’s when people like Alan Ginsberg showed up, and Ornette Coleman. It was a tremendously creative time. And the same thing is happening right now. …The young generation is doing wonderful work. It’s great! I really love going out and seeing what’s going on. We’re in that period; it’s very similar to what happened 60 years ago. You have to live long enough to see a 60-year cycle: you have to be 80.

PhilipGlass_PhotoCredit_JamesEwingOn why he works in film, theater, opera and dance

Well, it was the very first thing I did. When I was 20 years old and I was at Juilliard, I asked myself a very simple question. Oddly enough, nobody else asked themselves that question. I asked myself, “Who wants this music?” I got the answer right away: dance companies, theater companies, young filmmakers. I found I had collaborators, just because I asked myself that question. When I talk to young people and they say, ‘What should I do?’ I say, ‘Find someone in your generation who you like, and you’ll have them for a lifetime.’ What I wanted to find out was, where does my music fit into the world that I live in?

On the role of the artist in the 21st century

There’s another side of this, which is the economic impact that the arts has on the world around it. We make a tremendous contribution: the music workers, the dance workers, the film workers, the theater workers. The products that come out of these communities are a tremendous income to the city of New York, and to the city of Rome, and to the city of Paris, and to the city of Moscow, and to Mexico City. The arts have a huge role in the economic life of the countries and the cities that it takes root in. I became aware of that much later; at the beginning, I had no idea how the money worked at all. Fifty or 60 years of making or trying to make a living, you do learn about that. That you do not learn in school. There’s no coursework in survival. You get a degree and that’s it: no one prepares you for the realities. What I discovered was that the arts are a driving force economically and socially and intellectually, and I just happened to be crazy about music and that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to be smart or anything, it’s just what I wanted to do and then I found out that I was in a very, very interesting place with very interesting people to work with.

On what first-time listeners can expect from a festival of his music

First of all, I never think about that at all. When I was a kid, people used to throw things at me, and then they stopped throwing things at me. There was a lot of screaming and muttering. The headline of one of my early reviews was “Glass Invents New Sonic Torture.” That was the headline of my review! So what can I do? I looked it and I laughed. And we all laughed, my ensemble. We took it very lightly. I didn’t worry too much about what other people thought; I was perched on the shoulders of the art world in SoHo, so I had plenty of support from painters and dancers and filmmakers, who were about my age and living in the same part of town that I was. I didn’t ask people, “Did you like the music”? If they had wanted to leave, they wouldn’t come back! Mainly, they did come back. The surprising thing was how quickly I threw off the smaller places where I played and then began playing in bigger places. I had my group together in ’68. By ’76, it was at the Metropolitan Opera House! That’s nine years later—how could that happen?