Icons: Philip Glass + Music Genetics

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EAST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN: Enmeshed in the creative focus nurturing New York City’s downtown, you sense someone deep in thought. A mind is in motion.

Truly prolific: Philip Glass is moving fast. (Photo Credit: Steve Pyke )

Feel it now, in hypnotic waves? You’re drawing closer to the workbench of Philip Glass. His symphonies, operas, film scores, concertos, solo works, sonatas, and any other arrangement you can name have altered our musical system — an output that began taking serious shape even before he became an NYC resident in 1967.

Glass has always allowed the city’s unique energy to inform and inspire his artistry. The 1968 debut performance of his experiential Music in the Shape of a Square, for instance, saw his score tacked onto the walls of the Anthology Film Archives, compelling the performers to move around the dynamic East Village space as they played. He amplified his cosmic explorations by founding the still-running Philip Glass Ensemble here in 1971, evolving constantly as a composer who could uncover rhythms where others had not yet thought to look.

Moving at a tempo Keith Haring would appreciate, Glass has steadily made NYC the birthplace of a massive amount of landmark music. His sonic DNA is currently on the move via two operas in the hopper – the latest in his portfolio of almost 30 operas to date. The first, Spuren der Verirrten, translated to “The Lost” in English, is based on a play written by the avant-garde Austrian playwright Peter Handke. Once that’s complete, he’ll turn to the Teatro Real/English National Opera-commissioned The Perfect American, based on an intriguing fictionalized biography of Walt Disney’s later years by Peter Stephan Jungk. A 2012 remounting of his landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach is also on the schedule.

And now one of this great American creator’s most complex compositions – his son Zack Glass – has just launched the album Southern Skies, an enormously satisfying collage of globally-sourced pop. It’s all part of how Philip Glass keeps progressing at pulsar pace.

You’re currently writing an opera, The Lost, based on a play by the avant garde Austrian novelist/playwright Peter Handke. Why were you attracted to this project?
This is for the opening of a new opera house in Linz, Austria — they asked me to be the composer for the premier. I had to find an Austrian writer, and that’s the one I liked. Fortunately, he was alive! So I contacted him.

I had just had a big opera out there, which he saw, and he had a play called Footprints of the Lost, and he seemed very pleased with it. It’s being adapted to the stage, and I’m working on it now. The writer is Rainer Mennicken, Dennis Russell Davies is conducting, and David Pountney will be the director.

What’s the story?
It’s a fairly abstract story. The characters don’t have names, they only have letters. There’s lots of them, crossing from stage right to stage left. It’s a panorama of the human condition, you might say, but in a very Beckett point of view, with social and political commentary. The human condition is on display, sometimes in a very funny and humorous way, and sometimes a very sad way. I like it because it leaves a lot of room for the composer to flex his musical muscles.

How do you see yourself flexing your muscles here?
I’ve done a lot of operas by now. I have a very good grasp of orchestration. Balancing instruments and voices is something I’ve leaned a lot about over the last 40 years.

It’s a very choristic piece, with dance, and actors. It’s the opening night of this opera house, so it’s appropriate that The Lost includes dance, theater and opera, and all of these elements are a part of it. I have so much experience in all of these modalities of theater, and I feel comfortable in all of them.

After The Lost, you’ll be writing the opera for Peter Stephan Jungk’s The Perfect American. What is it about writing the musical story of Walt Disney’s life, albeit a fictionalized account, that’s appealing to you?

Up next: An opera based on the "The Pefect American" by Peter Stephan Jungk.

It’s about his death actually — the last four months of his life. What interested me about Disney was he was a visionary, clearly, and he had a vision that was embraced globally. He had an imagination which is very appealing to a lot of people.

At the same time he was a complicated person, not a particularly nice man, from Missouri. He was a person from that particular part of the country, with all of the positives and negatives that come with the territory.

I’ve been very interested lately in characters that are attractive and not attractive at the same time: the heroes with the feet of clay. What makes them interesting and so human is that basically they have wonderful creative minds, but they’re also ordinary people. In that way, The Perfect American pays tribute to his total humanity, and not just a cardboard character being promoted by his publicist. If you portray anything less than that, you deprive him of some depth of character which he definitely has.

So its very challenging, isn’t it? Without Disney there would have been no Disney Fantasies — all the things that he did. But he was filled with his own suspicions, difficulties, and prejudices like everybody else.

Of course the Disney company feels they have the right to promote his image the way they like it. But I think I pay a bigger tribute to him then they do, because I show him as human, and not someone you can’t quite believe is real.

And what’s the sound and orchestration of this opera going to be?
I’m working on the libretto for The Perfect American with Rudy Wurlitzer. The book is published in English – it’s really worth reading.

But I’ve put it out of mind, because I’m doing the other opera. I don’t want to talk about it because I’m really thinking about The Lost right now.

Do you think you’ll ever be asked to score a Disney film?
Not after this! Although, you have to remember the (Martin Scorcese-directed 1997) movie Kundun, about the Dalai Lama, was a Disney movie, so I have worked with Disney once before. [Glass was also the composer for the 2006, Disney-produced Roving Mars.]

I’m not doing anything terrible. However the fact is Disney would prefer to have control over every aspect of what’s said about him. But of course they can’t. He’s a public personality. He belongs to the world. That’s not going to work.

I feel like an opera is the ultimate musical creation. What’s the challenge for you in writing opera?
I agree with you. All of the elements — movement, text, image and music — are there like Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The only other place you see them all functioning like that is in film. Like the opera was a popular art form in previous centuries, film became very popular in the 20th Century.

Speaking of complicated public figures in your operas, Einstein on the Beach is being remounted in 2012. How will this classic work evolve in its latest guise?
This is the original score, and Robert Wilson will direct it again. The difference is that technology has advanced in terms of lighting, but not in sound. The sound component is basically the same, and the music is identical. I’ve gone to the auditions, I’m helping to choose people, and will attend rehearsals.

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  • Marat

    First ofall, I am happy to notice that Handke is still alive. By the way Jungk, too! But wasn’t Disney born in Chicago, Illinois? That’s cool, an opera about a popular person who was also ordinary in his life. And the points about his (false) New Jersey territory don’t make much sense to me. I don’t see the relation in his statements to the book, which, there’s Glass right, is worth reading. It’s good thatafter 40 Years Philip feels comfortable in composing operas, so maybe  Lost or The Perfect American will be better and give birth to mor inventive music like his last few operas.. There’s an old sying in music “Let the music do the talking”.

  • David


    Hi, thanks for the comment. Yes, you’re correct, Disney is from Chicago. But as you say, that probably wouldn’t affect the way Glass’ music for “The Perfect American” comes out! Let’s let his music do the talking, I agree.