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

4. Breaking Musical Taboos

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things I found interesting starting with your second symphony was the introduction of augmented triads and your use of bitonality. It was such a departure…

PHILIP GLASS: Exactly…

FRANK J. OTERI: That was a taboo.

PHILIP GLASS: Yeah…

FRANK J. OTERI: And you broke it.

PHILIP GLASS: Yeah, well, I’ve always felt that taboos are interesting things because if we figure out what they are, the chances it’s been covering up a kind of musical activity that no one’s been able to do for a long time and then once you say “Oh, we’re not supposed to do this. Oh, oh, I think I’ll do it,” and then what happens is you end up writing music that no one’s been writing. But it’s very hard to see that. It’s very hard to see what that is. You say, “Well, I’ll just look at the music and figure it out,” but it’s those very things that we don’t see.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what are some of the things that you’re trying to get rid of?

PHILIP GLASS: Well, for one thing, the big taboo was the tonality, but once I opened the door into exploring a new tonality, there came to be a lot of other ways to do it that I never thought about, for example, polytonality, which you suggested. It’s not simply a question of hearing two different keys at the same time, but rather hearing the same ambiguous key in two different ways, which you can’t hear at the same time. You can hear it in one key or you can hear it in the other. You don’t hear both keys at the same time, but it’s still polytonality. So the big shift when I began to think about tonality had to do with the perception of tonality. The big changes were in what we perceive, it’s not what we’re writing. So then we get into the biggest taboo, the audience…

FRANK J. OTERI: Because they have certain expectations when they’re going to hear a piece…

PHILIP GLASS: It’s not that. No, I don’t mean that at all. I mean that we’re told that we’re not supposed to pay attention to the audience. It’s as if they aren’t there, that we somehow write for ourselves, which means that the whole mechanism of perception is voided. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears it or not. This is a very big taboo, writing for the audience and I was talking to someone in Germany and they said, “Mr. Glass, you’re not actually a very serious composer at all, are you?” and I said, “Probably not.” I said, “No, I don’t think I am.” He said, “Well, what do you do?” And I said, “Well, I’m writing music for an audience at the highest artistic level that I’m capable of.” Well, the first part of the sentence, they don’t get it. They don’t get that. No one is supposed to say they write for an audience. That’s a big taboo, but let’s look behind that for a moment. Once we accept the fact that someone is listening to the music, then we can talk about the psychology of perception, but if we don’t include the audience we can’t talk about it. Isn’t that obviously the case? So, the whole relationship with the listener becomes a very interesting one in that way. When I began working with tonality, I was working first of all with the language of music, but I was also working with the mechanism of perception. Adding that into the enterprise of the new music that I was writing, I really began to change things a lot.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you’ve certainly always been aware of music outside of Western classical music, world music has been important to you since your studies with Alla Rakha, and you’ve collaborated with rock musicians over the years. I still remember the band Polyrock

PHILIP GLASS: Taboo, taboo, taboo.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve always had these connections. You’re not in an ivory tower, you’ve never been.

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