Philip Glass and the making of a legacy

At 76, the iconic composer still dives into the unknown

Hailed as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass needs no introduction. The Baltimore-born pianist is cited as a chief architect of New York's early minimalism era via such groundbreaking work as Music in 12 Parts (1971-1974). But his signature motif of repeating musical structures has flourished throughout an indefinable body of symphonic and operatic works and film scores, including 1979's Einstein on the Beach, 1982's Koyaanisqatsi, and 1988's The Thin Blue Line. This year's Visitors score and a remix/deconstruction collection titled Rework_, the latter of which features Beck, Dan Deacon, and more, find Glass still pushing boundaries. From Sept. 25-27, Glass is participating in an Emory University residency which will include a composition and creativity discussion and a screening of Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, featuring Glass's first composition for electric guitar. On Sept. 27, he joins violinist Tim Fain for an evening of chamber music to perform recent compositions. Before coming to Atlanta, Glass took time to talk about his career, the perils of music journalism, and jumping into the unknown.

There's a rich cast of minimalist luminaries surrounding your early work: Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley. Do you consider them kindred spirits?

We were certainly contemporaries. We all came to New York around the same time — from different parts of the country — Terry and LaMonte in the mid '60s, I came back from Europe in '67. We were there to learn and find our way. To a degree we inspired each other, and it was reassuring to know that we weren't completely alone in the world, because we were alone at that time, against a very hostile musical environment. That's what drew us together. We all grew in different ways, and the differences now are more interesting than the similarities.

We were following in the wake of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and all of this crazy, wonderful music coming out of Europe. But we didn't want to do that, and we didn't. At the time, Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez were saying that they were the future of music, and that people like myself, Steve, and LaMonte were idiots! They can think what they want, but the fact is that their music isn't played much these days. And the kind of music you're talking about is played quite a lot. It's a big misstep to talk about your own music as being the future of music. Frankly, we don't know what that is. ...

You have to put this into a historical context. Minimalism had a life at that time, but there's no minimalism to speak of today. There's music that's influenced by procedures and things that I've done, but if you want to talk about music before 1980 you can get away with talking about minimalism. If you're introducing my music to a reading public now and describe it as minimalism, then I perform a piece like "La Belle et la Bête," readers would ask, "What does that have to do with minimalism?" It's a waste of their time and your journalistic abilities.

You've always placed pop and experimental music on a level playing field.

Because I perceived it that way. It wasn't a strategy. People ask, "Why did you write a symphony using themes from David Bowie?" Because he writes such beautiful melodies. "Why the Kronos Quartet?" Because they're tremendous musicians. I was inspired by them, and I don't mind saying that. Point being there's a lot of beautiful music in the world. Let's listen to it.

As a result of this approach, you've been called "the most powerful composer of our time."

I react to the good reviews the way I react to the bad reviews: I kind of ignore them. People wrote very bad things about me for years and it didn't bother me. When they write good things it doesn't bother me, either. Writing about music is a perilous activity. These are dedicated people who go out six-seven nights a week. They're paid by the article, they're exhausted from their work, and they're trying to make sense of a historical period, which is a moving target. They love music but they're in the unfortunate position of having to make a judgment based on a cursory exposure to something. If they say, "I didn't like something, I had to leave," in the context of the real world, what does that mean? Why give that any credence? The daily grind of putting out a review is unfair to the critics and it's unfair to the musicians. I don't know why we think that the techniques of journalism can be extended to include contemporary aesthetics. That's a rather far out idea — we act as if covering a robbery at a bank on the corner is like covering the opening of a symphony. But it's not like that. The symphony will be around for a long time. The robbery will be over in a few days.

What drew you to Tim Fain?

He's a fantastic player with a tremendous appetite for music. He plays with Joanna Newsom, and with string quartets of the highest caliber. When I'm on the road with him I feel like I'm traveling with a modern day Paganini: He's handsome, he's smart, and he plays like a demon. Some of the music we're playing together goes back to '91 but most of it is fairly current — 21st century.

I'm more interested in the new pieces. I'm surprised at how well some of the older pieces sound, because I don't think about them much. Then when I hear them I think, "Oh, that does sound pretty good!" Partly because the performances are better now. There's a younger, stronger company performing Einstein on the Beach now than what we had 30 years ago.

When you unveiled Einstein on the Beach, there was probably a sense of being on a diving board and jumping into the unknown. For the current players, it's part of their canon.

Absolutely, and I'm still out on that board. I jumped into the unknown a few times this year with a string quartet and a piece that I wrote for four pianos. I had no idea where that was going! I'm currently writing a piece for the African singer Angélique Kidjo in the Swahili language. It's fantastic for me to be writing in a new language. I can appreciate that it's taken some time for some of the older works to take off. It's funny, if you live long enough, you see how the wheels of history grind out things, like which pieces people care about 30 years later.

Does improvisation have a place in your work?

I've never been an improviser, but I've admired it a lot — especially as a younger person. I befriended Ornette Coleman, and I used to go hear John Coltrane all the time. I loved that music, but I never played it. It was my escape, so to speak. Today, I love listening to the classical music of India, but I don't play it. Sometimes for me to enjoy music, I have to get very far away from myself, and that's where I go.