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The Mystical Heart of Philip Glass

Can Philip Glass really be 80? He and his music possess a quality of youthfulness, of timelessness, that is entirely of our day while going beyond it into more mysterious, universal spheres. So distinctive is his voice, and so influential, that he has plenty of detractors. Minor arpeggios, incantatory melodies, interweaving motifs, a gradual progression of change… But take a closer look. Minimalism? No way.

Glass distanced himself from that term decades ago – now he prefers to say that he composes “music with repetitive structures”. Indeed, you only have to look at his multifarious range of influences to grasp the sheer range that has fed into the mix. Among important formative experiences, he could cites his intensive studies with the pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris; working on Indian music with Ravi Shankar; the downtown art scene of New York in the 1960s; theatre, poetry and literature including Hermann Hesse, Samuel Beckett and Allen Ginsberg; travelling the globe, exploring music of many cultures; a passion for Schubert; and the visceral energy and atmosphere of New York itself. The list could continue.

"Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The ‘out there’ stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music."

Yet there is mysticism, somewhere in the heart of it. Travelling across India by train, he recalls in his autobiography,Words Without Music: “Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The ‘out there’ stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music.”

All of this is reflected to some degree in the pianist Bruce Levingston’s latest album of Glass’s music, entitledDreaming Awake. A pianist celebrated for his devotion to performing contemporary repertoire, Levingston has included a selection of Glass’s piano études – poetic distillations of his composition method in which musical process and substance become one. There are unmistakable nods towards Schubert – the Etude Book 2 No.12 opens with the same figure as Schubert’s F minor Fantasy for piano duet. Alongside these pieces is an extraordinary work,Wichita Vortex Sutra, in which the actor Ethan Hawke joins Levingston to recite part of the poem of that title by Ginsburg, the declamation – which sounds as if torn from the depths of the poet’s and actor’s souls – becoming part of the musical fabric. With poetry its driving force, in words or music, the album proves both seductive and hypnotic.

It was a chance encounter with Ginsburg in a New York bookshop in 1988 that led to the piece’s composition: having agreed to perform in a fundraising event, Glass asked the poet if he would agree to appear with him, performing together a poem with new music that Glass would compose specially. Ginsburg chose the poem at once and Glass wrote the music in a matter of days. The two remained close friends thereafter and worked together extensively, notably on the collection Hydrogen Jukebox, 20 songs for six singers.

If there is a meditative quality to Glass’s music and its effect upon us, that is no coincidence. Born in Baltimore in 1937, he has been a spiritual seeker for most of his life. The many inspirations behind that included the writings of Hermann Hesse, whose works he devoured eagerly as a young man, along with those of Kerouac, Ginsburg and others. “It was a time of awakening,” he writes. He was interested in Hesse’s vision of “a transcendental life…that took you beyond the visible world.”

He took up yoga before it ever became fashionable, seeking out a teacher in New York simply by looking under the letter Y in the White Pages. He contacted the sole entry, Yogi Vithaldas, who became his teacher and under whose impact he quickly turned vegetarian. It later turned out that he had also taught Yehudi Menuhin. Over ten years Glass visited India and Tibet, immersing himself in particular in research on Mahatma Gandhi: work that eventually morphed into his seminal and transformative operaSatyagraha. Since those days, his explorations of spiritual cultures have extended to Buddhism and Mexican Toltec traditions.  

It’s tempting to wonder whether the sounds of chanting and the repetition of mantras infiltrated his developing style at the time. “Did it affect my style? It’s hard to say,” Glass muses. “But besidesSatyagraha, I did a big piece about Ramakrishna, and the Symphony No.5 uses around 34 texts from different traditions. So in some ways it’s gone into the music directly, either because it’s about the person, or because it’s their texts I’ve used. It’s not an influence: it’s an actual usage. The connection is right in the music itself.”

The Passion of Ramakrishnais the “big piece” in question, a grand-scale oratorio: “The interesting thing is that I made the chorus the voice of Ramakrishna and the soloists are his students – so when he speaks, it’s the whole chorus,” says Glass. “The idea is that he spoke in terms of universals – and we put 60 or 120 people together so that it becomes humanity, not just singers any more. I made the voice of Ramakrishnahumanity. So because of the way I processed it I began to understand which of the voices Ramakrishna is. I called itThe Passion of Ramakrishna, like the Bach St Matthew Passion. I talked to the head of the episcopal church in New York at the time and asked him if that was the proper use of the word: ‘passion’ as the moment of transfiguration when he leaves the mortal life and maybe he enters into the world of immortality – something like that, we don’t know what it is. He said it was perfect.” 

Glass’s devotion to matters spiritual, humanitarian and social may spring in part from his background as the youngest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who sent him to a Quaker school. His father, Ben, had a record store in Baltimore and Glass recalls that he and his brother as children were required to break up some of the unsold records in order to return them, damaged, for refunds. But when Ben began to bring home recordings of music by Schoenberg, Bartók and others to see why they were not selling, father and son were both entranced by what they heard.

For years Glass explored new music of all types, soaking up works across the spectrum from Pierre Boulez to John Cage to rock music. Instead of following traditional academic routes into the music world, he took an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, then enrolled in the adult education section of the Juilliard School in New York. There followed two years in Paris on a scholarship, studying with Boulanger, before he returned to New York with the rigorous technical grounding that enabled him to develop his own musical voice.

He juggled creative work with earning a living variously in steelworks, haulage, plumbing and cab-driving. By the time anyone approached him about a teaching position, he relates, he was 72 and not remotely interested. But then, Glass has never fitted the academic bill. Perhaps his routes did not match the approved fashions of the time. Yet his enduring effect on the world around us – musical and more – has gone far beyond that of many esteemed music professors. Young composers have beaten a path to his door for advice in any case; some have worked for him – among them Nico Muhly – assisting with the matters of administration and publishing of his works, all of which he controls.  

“I came back because no one in Europe would play the music. I called some friends I went to school with, and we put a group together. Right away, when I was writing music, I felt had to control the publication of it, because to give it away was not a good idea from my point of view.”

Glass relates in his book that his mother on her deathbed instructed him to keep hold of his copyright – and he still does. Some of his works may be legally played only by his Philip Glass Ensemble. “We started the group when I came back from Europe,” he explains. “I came back because no one in Europe would play the music. I called some friends I went to school with, and we put a group together. Right away, when I was writing music, I felt had to control the publication of it, because to give it away was not a good idea from my point of view.”

Because people didn’t understand it? “No, because I wouldn’t get the income,” Glass responds. “I was making my living playing – it was a practical matter. So if you want to hearEinstein on the Beachplayed, my group has to play it. No one else can play it. They don’t have the music and it’s actually illegal to handle it. I also became a publisher very quickly because I knew I wouldn’t be a teacher. This was only way I was going to make a living from writing – and it was far from clear that I would. I was 41 before that happened.”  

The work that changed everything was his operaSatyagraha: “That took me into making a living. But it started off slowly and even the year before I had no idea that later on I would not be working at a day job. In fact, I’d been living off of music for six months before it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a day job all that time. I remember it very clearly: my cab license came up for renewal – and I renewed it. I had no confidence that I would be able to make a living. But I didn’t use it and three years later when it came up for renewal again I didn’t renew it. That tells you where I was at.” 

Whether opera, theatre, dance, film or music to match the visual art or writing of his friends and colleagues, Glass has always excelled in collaborative music-making. Performing with his own ensemble seems an organic part of that openness and practicality. “We have to remember something: one of the great pleasures of being a musician is playing music,” he adds, with a smile, “and that’s not restricted to performers only – composers can play music too. My generation played our music and we were influenced by people from John Coltrane to Ravi Shankar – these were composers who played music. That’s one way to go. Not everyone did that, but a lot of young people do now. The money won’t be in the records any more, but it can be in the way music is used, whether it’s in a film or a fashion show.”

Despite his prolific output and worldwide fame, Glass never rests on any laurels – hence the intersection of spiritual practice, physical condition and absolute pragmatism. “I would say that because of yoga I’ve gotten a long, healthy, active life,” he says. “That’s without even going into the other benefits to do with being more able to control stress, tension, anxiety and all the maledictions of contemporary existence.

“I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 20. It’s a practical way of living. Younger people are much more inclined to see it as a necessary part of life and the people who don’t, who simply ignore it and do nothing at all, by the time they’re in their seventies they are falling apart. You can’t consider working into your nineties if you haven’t done it – well, some can, but it brings tremendous benefits not just to your physical health, but your mental health. My work is very difficult in that we’re often working on four hours of sleep because the travel doesn’t allow for anything else. It’s not a good way to do it. But I’ve also learned how to rest. There are a lot of things you can learn: there are ways of putting your body to sleep and resting for even 20 minutes.”

"Sometimes you can hear things, but you don’t know how to write them down. That’s when you know you’re really working: when you don’t know how to do it. That’s the best time. And that can still happen.”

The surprise is that he is clearly considering working into his nineties – but I’d be surprised if he didn’t. The joy of creating music has never left him. “I write very fast,” he remarks, “but to invent a language you need time. You need time to work out what you’re hearing. Sometimes you can hear things, but you don’t know how to write them down. That’s when you know you’re really working: when you don’t know how to do it. That’s the best time. And that can still happen.”

Now anything can happen, and probably will. Events to mark his big birthday are currently taking place all over the world. His operasThe Perfect American, about Walt Disney, andThe Trial, based on Kafka’s novel, are having their US premieres; he is writing a piano concerto entitledA Far Cryto be premiered in September by the pianist Simone Dinnerstein; next season he will hold the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer Chair at Carnegie Hall. London has already brought him a Total Immersion weekend at the Barbican; other European events include the Swiss premiere ofSatyagrahaand Austrian premiere of the Symphony No.11, and the Violin Concerto Nos.1 and 2 are both touring widely. These are just a few selections.

Glass is a composer whose music has encapsulated the spirit of today as few others could. The mystery is only what he will turn his hand to next. As he has sometimes said, “When society becomes unhinged, the arts get really good.” And now? “Today the arts are gettingreallygood!” he declares.

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.