Philip Glass: 25 Years after ‘Einstein On The Beach’

3. Reflecting on Earlier Music

FRANK J. OTERI: You still actively play your earlier music…

PHILIP GLASS: The active repertoire of the Ensemble dates from ’69. When we say active, I mean we don’t just play it once in a while. We did Music in Twelve Parts this summer which is from winter ’74; we played a complete version of it. Music in Similar Motion of ’69 we’ve often played. Then there are these pieces from Einstein that we play all the time. That’s ’76. Pieces from Koyaanisqatsi in the ’80s and Powaqqatsi, that’s the ’80s…We play that all the time.

FRANK J. OTERI: So when you go back to these older pieces, do you feel like you’re re-examining the past?

PHILIP GLASS: Well, we never stopped playing them. It’s not like I opened a closet and the score of Similar Motion hit me over the head and I said, “Oh, look what I found!” I mean, we’ve been playing it all along. And I’ve had the great fortune or maybe the right idea of having an ensemble that’s been playing continuously for thirty years. Over thirty years, we’ve played 1,500 concerts. That averages about 50 a year, and we didn’t play that many the first few years. We’re playing five concerts this week. We’re playing five concerts next week. We’re playing five concerts the week after that. We do a lot of concerts. And in the course of a year we will do what we call retrospective concerts that will come up in the course of the year, every year. So, I haven’t had to rediscover the work, the work’s become a part of the repertoire. I’ve always said that the Ensemble was really the library. Of course, the players are wonderful and they’ve been with me for a while. People like Jon Gibson, and Richard and Michael, fantastic musicians! What I put into the library is what the repertoire is. The fact is we’ve been together longer than most string quartets and we play better than most string quartets for that reason. It’s real chamber music on a very high level of performance. What do I feel like when I play, let’s say, Music in Similar Motion, 1969? It’s a terrifically energetic piece. We love to play it. The energy of the piece is infectious. We all pick up on it and I feel like there’s a young guy who was thirty years old, who’s talking to me, you know, when we’re playing and that happened to be me. But where is he now? I have no idea. He’s nowhere in sight as far as I can tell, but when I play the piece, the wonderful thing about music is that we play a piece from ’76, from ’84, and whatever kind of emotional, psychological or spiritual entity that made that work, simply comes back. It’s like turning a thumbprint into a whole person. It just comes right back and there it is. And sometimes it’s shocking. It’s very exciting to do especially since, when I listen to those pieces, I can’t imagine being able to write them today. I have no interest in writing them today and I wouldn’t even know how to do it. I couldn’t sit down and write Einstein again. I mean, I know technically how to do it, but I could never sit down to do it again. And that would be true of Music in Twelve Parts and for most all of the early pieces. That generally tends to be what I do. The new work, for example, the music I’ve done for these film shorts, it’s all new work. That’s what I can do now. I can play the old pieces. I can’t compose the old pieces, but I can play them. And so it’s a wonderful passageway into my own history and it’s a surprising one. I suppose that the other players in the Ensemble must feel that to some degree.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what’s interesting, you know, you’ve frequently said this, the music you’re writing now is so different from the music you’ve written in the past and certainly the music that established your career is very different from the music that you were writing in the years before when you were at Juilliard and when you studied with Boulanger, but are there elements that you feel run through all this work that make it all music by Philip Glass?

PHILIP GLASS: I’m sure there are, but that’s the hardest thing to tell. It’s like looking in the mirror and saying what makes you look the way you look. In fact, we spent a lot of our time, composers and artists, trying to figure out what are those qualities that are distinctively you. In my case, I do it for maybe a somewhat different reason. I’ve always said that the hardest thing for a composer is not to find the voice. I tell this to students all the time. I was just in Austin, Texas, and I was meeting some honors students in the Museum of Art and I said, “I know you’re all worried about finding your voice.” I said, “That’s the easy part. And you’ll do that when you’re thirty…inevitably you’ll do it. The hard thing is getting rid of it and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get rid of everything you thought you needed.” And this is the issue. The whole issue of the taboos that we create for ourselves. The things that we will not do, that we don’t allow ourselves to do. I mean, you can say, you can define a person’s style negatively in terms of all the things they aren’t able to do.

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