“It’s all the same! Pathetically the same!”
Philip Glass was not criticizing someone else’s music, but discussing his own. He was sitting at a piano in the St. Ann’s Warehouse performance space in Dumbo, wearing a rumpled suit, his glasses in his hand, leaning around the piano to face his interviewer, radio host Ira Glass. It was “Glass on Glass,” a fundraising event in which the award-winning creator of “This American Life” interviewed his cousin, probably the most famous living classical composer.
Famous, and perhaps notorious. There’s a joke among musicians, “How many members of the Philip Glass Ensemble does it take to change a lght bulb?” The answer, repeated quickly and endlessly, is “onetwothreefouronetwothreefour….” His work is built of infinitely repeating loops of short phrases, varying slightly and often building relentlessly. Some find it calming and beautiful, while others liken it to tuned industrial equipment.
As Philip explained his compositional technique, sitting at the piano and playing pieces of his compositions, and discussing in great detail what he was doing, Ira wavered between fascination and puzzlement. After talking about one piece for a while, Philip played a different one and explained what he was doing in it. Ira said, “That sounds similar to what you were just saying.”
It was. The piece was again based on a few closely related chords that together form a “cadence,” a natural-sounding resolution that often ends classical pieces. But they were repeated in a loop, so the final chord resolves into the first, becoming a beginning rather than an ending. Over this repeated set of chords, he played different melodic figures, all closely related to the chords, but varying in length and meter. As these small loops begin to change, with beats added or deleted, they began to interlock in fascinating ways, with the emphasis moving to different places, creating flowing figures that change as you focus on different parts of the music. It’s like watching a waterfall; on the one hand it never changes but on the other hand it’s never the same.
And like a waterfall, it can be lulling, but it can also be pounding and relentless. Glass’s music does, indeed, all sound the same. And he knows it better than anyone. He is fascinated by how form relates to content or can in fact become content. He has explored these ideas in different ways for years; his magnum opus, 1976’s Einstein On the Beach, brought him to the world’s attention but for him it was the culmination of ideas he’d been exploring since the 1960s.
So Ira asked the obvious question, the one many people ask about Glass’s music. If he creates it by establishing small, simple elements, and then varying them with almost algorithmic precision, how does he put emotion and feeling into his work? Where is the beauty in mathematical repetition of notes.
“It’s not hard to put emotion in,” he answered. “It’s impossible to take it out. It comes from the listener. The feeling comes anyway. It’s part of being human. I don’t have to worry about it.” Indeed, he said, he’s even tried — unsuccessfully — to take emotion out of music altogether.
“Why?” asked Ira, shocked. “Why would you do that?”
“Because if I could take it out,” Philip responded, “I could figure out what it was.” Spoken like a scientist. If you can’t identify something, take away everything you can identify and study the remainder. It sounds cold, perhaps, but only to someone who doesn’t understand science. This is how some of the world’s most magnificent mysteries have been explored.
Glass is not the first composer to use techniques verging on the mathematical to create music. A man named Bach a few hundred years ago explored classical forms like the prelude and the fugue, wringing every possible change out of them, varying something here, something there, in what almost amounts to experimental analysis. Yet it is quite beautiful, and of the several years Glass spent studying the preludes and fugues with Nadia Boulanger, he says, “She basically reprogrammed our brains.”
Glass isn’t opposed to emotion, but he sees it as a function not of composition but of performance, of playing music in front of people. Asked what he would change about the teaching of music composition, he said he would require young composers to perform their work. “For the final, I’d give them a bucket and send them into the subway and grade them on how much money they brought back.”
“What would that show?” Ira asked.
“What would it show for me to look at their harmonic techniques?” said Philip, not for the first time answering a question with a question. “It would show me whether their music connected with people.”
“Playing music in front of people is the quintessential point of what we’re doing,” he said. “When I’m playing in front of people I begin to understand what I’m playing. The audience makes the moment of creativity appear.”
This is a refreshingly direct and traditional approach to music for someone usually considered as a master of the avant-garde. In fact, Glass said, he is not ideological at all, but rather “ahistorical.” He began composing at a time when his favored techniques — simple melodies, traditional cadences, tonal rather than atonal music — had been anathema for decades. He reached back to forms and structures that had been ignored for years, like an engineering student deciding to study the steam engine rather than the microchip. “There’s nothing really new here,” he said of his music.
Explaining one of his pieces, he started counting the notes to show Ira how the meter changed. His pieces depend heavily on rapidly changing meter, with bars of seven beats followed by bars of eight beats, or a loop of four notes suddenly turning into a loop of five or three notes, sometimes as four-note loops continue.
As he played, he explained and counted. “Here are the fours,” he’d say, as his right hand produced a stream of notes that suddenly changed, the way the sound of running water changes if you put your hand into it. “Now we’re in threes.” Responding to Ira’s puzzled look, he said, “Count! Here are the fours: one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Now threes. One-two-three, one-two three.”
He asked Ira to play an excerpt from Einstein, and the audience started laughing as they listened to what the operatic chorus was singing: “one-two-three-four one-two-three-four one-two-three-four,” over and over, very fast.
“If you can count to eight, you can write Einstein On the Beach, he said. In order to learn how to sing the complex meters, Glass had the chorus just count, over and over, a well-established way to learn new rhythms. Liking the sound of the numbers, he never changed them or wrote actual lyrics, and that’s what’s in the opera.
“It’s auto-didactic music,” he said. “First you learn to sing it, and then the audience learns to listen to it.” And seemingly, they have learned. Glass’s music has acheived considerable commercial success and he has created the soundtracks for many big-budget films.
“Van Gogh’s brother was an art dealer, and he never sold a painting,” Glass said. “An art dealer! And he didn’t sell a single painting in his lifetime!” But now, Van Gogh paintings sell for astronomical prices and his artwork is featured on everything from t-shirts to children’s books. Art, Glass says, changes the world. It changes us.
“What happened?” he asked near the end of the evening. “What happened that in seven generations, we went from no one understanding what Van Gogh was doing to now, when kids can see it?”
The evening closed with two beautiful performances. Ira Glass read one of his stories from This American Life, about an American soldier whose unit suffered repeated suprise attacks in Sadr City, and who came home hating Iraqis. He joined a Muslim student group as therapy, to try to fix himself, and get over this hatred. As Ira read the story and played quotes of the soldier talking about this striking (and in the end, successful) effort, Philip improvised a score, playing as Ira talked.
In conclusion, the two performed Allen Ginsberg’s stunning poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” He had originally performed it with Ginsberg at an anti-war rally, and later with Patti Smith. Ira said that in rehearsal, Philip had asked him not to try to sound like Allen Ginsberg, and he didn’t. He sounded like Ira Glass, reading Ginsberg’s haunting words:
I’m an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
but not afraid
to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
because not only my lonesomeness
it’s Ours, all over America