Last night, I experienced a conversation at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center of the Fine Arts between its director Deborah Sommers and renowned composer Philip Glass. This was a highlight of the ongoing festival commemorating the composer's 75th birthday that’s taken Glass on something of a world tour.
My introduction to Glass’ distinctive music occurred in the dark of the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street when the visual and aural event of Koyaanisqatsi played there. That particular cinema’s floor slanted down, and seats at the bottom of the divot sat at an angle that reminded me of an Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronauts. People would say you needed some kind of substance to fully enjoy the movie, but for me, the music was enough.
The Pruitt-Igoe sequence is one that’s stuck with me for its depiction of, well, basically, systemic failure.
Glass’ style drives some people nuts, while others grok it entirely. I enjoy the idea of the music, and some elements are in my bloodstream. The soundtrack from The Hours has accompanied me during many hours of writing.
Glass doesn’t seem to look back too much. His music is out there and getting performed, and he’s on to the next thing. He built a reputation out of exotic collaborations such as with Ravi Shankar and Gambian griot (cultural keeper) and kora musician Foday Musa Suso, as well as an illustrious assortment of visual artists, choreographers, performers and filmmakers.
He spoke of a recording session with Suso as they tried to tune up their instruments. Glass played an “A,” and Suso made his instrument produce a note that was somewhat similar. “What note is that?” Glass asked. “The first one,” Suso responded. This went on for a couple more until Glass realized that in his music, Suso had no names for his notes. After that epiphany, Glass wryly said, “Yes, I had to take a little break from the session after that to wrap my head around what I’d just learned.”
“It’s always better when I’m not sure what I’m doing,” Glass said of his work. The prolific composer said that beginning a piece is never difficult. He’s been inspired by something as mundane as the cat walking across his piano keyboard, he says. When a piece seems too long or isn’t cooperating, it isn’t uncommon for him to lop off a hunk of the first section and have it start there. “Endings are the tough part,” he says. He admitted that his way of making a living — drawing black dots on paper — is kind of crazy, adding that his housekeeper comes in, looks at him at his piano every morning and shakes her head.
Glass said — and I’m still thinking about his today — that he doesn’t recognize a “Glass” sound, though there are parodies around that suggest others have defined him. But such is the price of being ... one of a kind.
In response to a question, Glass remarked that he didn’t consider his art to be self-expression. That wasn’t his interest. “I want the music to express itself,” he said.
At the end, one questioner didn’t recognize a few of the names Glass was mentioning as past collaborators. He shrugged, waved his hand dismissively and said, “Oh, it’s all history. It doesn’t matter. But if you were fortunate to live through it, it was tasty.”
Tonight, we’ll hear him collaborate with Grammy-nominated violinist Tim Fain. The concert should be delicious.