Philip Glass: 25 Years after ‘Einstein On The Beach’
FRANK J. OTERI: With your busy schedule and your travels and constantly giving concerts, do you find time to listen to other people’s music?
PHILIP GLASS: Well, you know, it’s problematic in the sense that I get handed tapes and CDs all the time. Fortunately and also unfortunately, it’s very easy to make CDs these days, so I get a lot of the stuff…That’s harder to do than getting involved with a new music series like the Music at the Anthology I started with two other composers, which is mostly about the music of young composers. It was a way to be involved with new music, with what music might be emerging. I’ve been supportive of Bang On A Can and anyone that I could be. I’ve tried to be in touch with composers in that way. It’s a little bit more active than just listening to the CDs that come in. It’s very hard to do it that way. So I have some contact with that. I’m not in a music school or at a record company where things would be coming and I had to do it all the time, but I make an effort to do it that way. When I was in Australia last year, I did a three-day workshop with composers and what it meant is that they came in and played their music and we talked about it. I did that in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the year before that. I’m not a teacher and I always say, “Well, I don’t know anything about teaching,” and we sit down with composers and we go around the room and they say what they do and we come to me and say what I do and they say what they’re hoping to do in a few years and I’ll say, “Well, I’m hoping to…” And we talk about the music and we get rid of the hierarchy right away and then we begin listening to each other’s music and I’ve done that every year somewhere or other. So, that’s one way to do it, but I’m not an expert at this at all, but I’m curious about it. It’s hard now. The difficulty is that the real challenge is thirty years ago it was very easy to see who the enemies of new music were, they were the very people who thought they were writing new music…The people that were trying to stop new music from happening were the enemies. And my generation simply, in a very short period of time, completely deflated that whole hierarchy of serious new music, except in a few countries like Germany and Austria. You know, now, as a young composer, you don’t have such a simple side to join in a certain way.
FRANK J. OTERI: One of the remarkable things for me about Einstein has always been the guts you had to go through with it. As a young composer, it was a real inspiration for me to know that you were brave enough to rent out with Metropolitan Opera House even though you were driving a cab before and after it ran.
PHILIP GLASS: We did not rent the Met. We were invited to present Einstein by Jane Herman, who was in charge of special events at the Met.
PHILIP GLASS: It’s simply not true. Jane Herman is alive and well. She lives in New York; you can call her up and ask her. She is very proud of the fact. She and another producer were sent by the Met to Europe to see Bob and I and to look at the work. Their job was to pull in special events on Sundays when the Met was closed and they invited us to come there. That’s what happened.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you didn’t accrue this huge debt?
PHILIP GLASS: We did.
FRANK J. OTERI: You did?
PHILIP GLASS: But not from the Met. We accrued it from touring in Europe. We had been in Europe for three months and we had a brilliant booking agent named Nonon Karlweiss, who wanted us to play in all these places like the Fenice and the Opéra Comique in Paris, and the opera house in, all these important opera houses, but what she didn’t tell us was that in order to do it, she undersold the show by about five or ten thousand dollars a night. It was the only way she could get it in, and she revealed this to Bob and I after the tour was over and she said, “Well, we have a little debt, it should be about eighty or ninety thousand dollars,” and we said, “Nonon, how could you do this to us?” And, she was a very interesting woman, she wore a wig and smoked a plastic cigarette, she was ageless. I think she was eighty at the time. She was very old and she said, “It was very important for people to see the work. It was the only way to do it.”
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
PHILIP GLASS: And she handed us the debt.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow! So you didn’t know you were getting into this.
PHILIP GLASS: No! We had no idea. We thought, we were selling out. What we didn’t realize is that, which any opera person would tell you, is that opera’s sell out all the time and lose money. Well, when we saw full houses, we thought we were making money. We were completely naïve. Look, the Met when it sells out is losing money.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
PHILIP GLASS: So how could we make any money? We just didn’t know. So by the end of a three-month tour, and you have to remember this was a long time ago, we had a $90,000 debt, which would be something like $300,000 today.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s so funny though because as a young composer, hearing this story, I thought, “Wow. This is such a brave story of this composer who’s taken this risk…”
PHILIP GLASS: Well, what I did do, I rented Carnegie Hall in ’79, but that wasn’t such a big deal. And I sold it out and I paid for it. So that story of the Met actually happened at Carnegie in ’79.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, what would be your advice to somebody now trying to make a big splash that way?
PHILIP GLASS: First of all, modeling other people’s work doesn’t work. The model for me was to develop an independent outfit of some kind. I have my own publishing company. We’re sitting in a studio that has been built by myself and my colleagues, people who work for me. So, you can say it’s my studio. We have a publishing company, a studio, we have a record company, plus the record companies we have deals with. I’ve never had help from anyone in the foundation world or the music world. I never had a Guggenheim. I never had a MacArthur. I never had anything. Oh, that’s not quite true. In 1969, I got three thousand dollars from the New York State Council on the Arts. It wasn’t even a whole grant; they gave me half a grant.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
PHILIP GLASS: That’s all I got.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
PHILIP GLASS: Then fifteen years later in 1981, ’84 rather, twenty years maybe? No, fifteen years later, I got some money for copying from the Rockefeller Foundation to copy Akhnaten. I got no other money ever from anybody. So, my feeling was that it was a waste of time. The reason I didn’t get the money is that at a certain point I realized I was spending time, I had a very wonderful group of people called Arts Services, Mimi Johnson ran it with some other people, and they would spend time making applications to foundations. So one year, I think it was around 1971, ’72, and Mimi said to me, “You know, Philip, it’s time to make the applications.” She said, “Why don’t we just skip it?” And I said, “You know, we have better things to do, let’s forget about it.” And we never applied after that and we never got anything either. So, first of all, my way of doing it was to make a living my own way. I had a very simple scheme with the Ensemble, which anyone can do. I realized that if I had twenty concerts a week, I had twenty paychecks a week, I paid unemployment, and the Ensemble members could get unemployment checks for the other 26 weeks. Everybody who worked for me had a paycheck every week, but I had to get the twenty weeks. I had to get up to twenty weeks. And, by ’75 or ’76, I went up to 20 weeks. I had 20 concerts a year. Once I had 20 concerts a year, I didn’t have to worry about grants.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. But of course now you get commissions to do these fabulous operas and symphonies.
PHILIP GLASS: Yeah, but that doesn’t support the Ensemble. The Ensemble still supports itself from playing.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s fantastic.
PHILIP GLASS: Well, what I did is, I looked at what was there and I said, “These people aren’t going to give me any money. I don’t want to ask people for permission to play my music, ‘cuz they’re not going to let me do it anyway. I don’t want to be in that position. I’m just not interested in it. I wasn’t interested in applying for grants then…They had these panels of composers who clearly just weren’t interested and I said, “Forget it, I’m not going to do that.” So I began thinking about how you survive. So I started my own publishing company. I started my own ensemble. We began working very hard at performing and, I mean, it took a long time. Is this the way to do it? I don’t know. I don’t know. You have to have a lot of energy because you’ll be working. I worked. I had day jobs until I was 41.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
PHILIP GLASS: Some people think that’s very encouraging; some people think that’s very discouraging. I’m always interested in their reaction…Some people said, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” because it means that they have that time. They think, “Well, it took Philip to be 41 ’til he made a living and I’m 35, so I’m not doing that bad…yet.” And other people, when they get discouraged, say, “I didn’t think it was going to take that long!” I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell people to do. I think the main thing that I tell my son who is a composer…who is a songwriter… I tell anybody, the main thing is to love the work that you do because you may get no other reward. And if you don’t need any other reward except the satisfaction of the music, then you’re always winning. And that was true for me when I was 30. I was out playing music and I thought I was successful when I was 30! I had an audience. I had an ensemble. I was going from city to city playing music. I couldn’t make a living, but that was not the issue for me. People always say, “Well, when were you successful?” and I say, “Well, I always thought I was!” They said, “No, no, when did you make money?” “Oh! Much later.”
FRANK J. OTERI: In the wake of the terrible things that just happened and are still playing out in the world right now, what are your feelings vis à vis creating a musical response?
PHILIP GLASS: I’m doing this concert tonight as a benefit concert for the Children’s Health Unit that is involved with helping children who are victims of this attack. You know, if you go back to operas such as Satyagraha, which is about social change through non-violence, I’ve been involved with social issues for a long time. What I’m seeing is not very encouraging. I was talking to my son yesterday, this morning about it and I said, “Well, you might be seeing this for the rest of your life.” This kind of violence against civilians, violence against people, murderers hiding behind ideological and religious ideas…Basically, they’re murderers. There’s no other way…Any divine being worth a salt doesn’t order people to go out and kill other people. That just doesn’t happen. We’re talking about people who are interested in killing people. So, this is what we have. What do I think about it? In terms of the work, I go on doing what I’m doing. We’re happy to be out playing now; people want to hear music now. Music making and music listening and art-making and art encounters are very healing experiences because they’re basically about positive things or about the positive elements of our life. It’s about our perceptions and our experiences. It’s about what makes you aware of the immediacy and simplicity and interconnectedness of our life is what you see in art. So that it’s a wonderful time to have the vocation of the artist because probably that vocation will be more appreciated than ever. I think that in a way, I think that’s what I’m saying. We were playing in South America the day after. We were in Brazil, and people came to me after the concert and said, “We want to thank you for playing. We really couldn’t stand to watch it anymore. And just coming out and hearing music was the best thing we could do.” So we have this, music has, and art in general, it has a way, it automatically connects people to people. ‘Cuz that’s what it is. That’s what it is. The kind of violence we’re seeing is the opposite of that. It’s not connecting with people. It’s destroying relationships; it’s not about building relationships. So, we’re talking about something which is innately, inwardly, continually, and eternally positive. The actions of musicians are positive things. They have no negativities to them as far as I know. In a world where there’s so much negativity, it becomes a special vocation, I think, and a special time. And it’s a very difficult time. Traveling now is a huge nightmare. I have to be at the airport two hours early. It’s become much worse than it used to be even two weeks ago. I’m leaving at 9:30 for the airport for a twelve o’clock flight.