Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice

The world-renowned composer is still a neighborhood staple

Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice
Steve Pyke

"I'm not down in Florida playing golf. I'm still in the East Village. Things haven't changed that much for me."

That's how composer Philip Glass minimizes turning 75, a milestone that will be celebrated at music events throughout the city, beginning with the world premiere of his Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall last night and culminating with a four-day festival at the Park Avenue Armory the last weekend of February.

Halfway through his eighth decade, Glass's list of friends and collaborators in the art world (director Robert Wilson, sculptor Richard Serra, poet Allen Ginsberg, musician Meredith Monk, painter Chuck Close, choreographers Twyla Tharp and Lucinda Childs) reads like a definition of the downtown art scene over the past half-century, as does the list of downtown organizations he has co-founded (Mabou Mines, Music at the Anthology, Tibet House).

The Philip Glass Ensemble: Kurt Munkacsi, Michael Riesman, Iris Hiskey, Richard Peck, Dickie Landry, and Philip Glass. 1970s.
Dunvagen Music Publishers
The Philip Glass Ensemble: Kurt Munkacsi, Michael Riesman, Iris Hiskey, Richard Peck, Dickie Landry, and Philip Glass. 1970s.
Concert at the Grand Palais, Paris. June 2008.
looking4poetry’s photostream
Concert at the Grand Palais, Paris. June 2008.

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ALSO: We are publishing additional material from our interviews with Philip Glass and his collaborators at Sound of the City.

But there's also something "uptown," worldly, and even Hollywood about Glass at the height of his career. He has scored films for directors Woody Allen (Cassandra's Dream) and Martin Scorsese (Kundun), and he has also scored mainstream studio fare, including The Truman Show and Candyman 2.

Yet despite his extensive uptown showcasing lately (his opera Satyagraha was at the Met and a live concert of his Koyaanisqatsi score was at Carnegie Hall within a week of each other last fall), Glass still has deep roots in the East Village. He has lived quite near the Voice offices for the past four decades. Many weekdays find him walking around the neighborhood and cutting a stoic, solitary profile; the prolific composer seems oblivious to furtive glances from nerdy fans as he dreams his mathematical scores.

Regardless of success, neither Glass's life nor his music have ever abandoned their East Village sensibilities. He worked as a cab driver and furniture mover until he was in his early forties, and his identification (politically and artistically) has never left the idea of downtown (even though most of the struggling artists, drug addicts, and alcoholics who inhabited it when he arrived in the late '60s largely have).

And when Occupy Wall Street confronted Satyagraha at Lincoln Center last December, he was happy to come out and give the General Assembly a "mic check."

We talked at length with Glass and some of his friends about his life as a Village voice: on why he's not upset about some aspects of gentrification, on how his film career started (like the film section of the Voice itself) partially because of Villager Jonas Mekas, on composing the "Occupied opera," on how integral business is to the creation of art, and on his first appearance in the Voice. (Hint: It wasn't in the music section.)

Glass first came to New York in the 1950s to study at Juilliard at a time when the city was so safe, he would see people sleeping in Central Park when it was hot. When he returned about a decade later to the East Village, it was to a different scene.

"The Bowery used to be synonymous with people who lived on the street and were alcoholics," Glass says with little nostalgia of many veteran Villagers. "In the '80s, if you wandered over to Avenue B . . . there would be people walking in the middle of the street hawking drugs! Just announcing what they had for sale! It was that open.

"I am not sorry to see that part of the East Village disappearing. It was a very grungy part, you know?" He admits that Tompkins Square Park "is much better than it used to be. The parks department has rebuilt parts of it from time to time. And they've added a children's section," a not-unappreciated feature for the father who has raised several children in the 'hood.

Still, Glass is aware (and sad) that many of the economic realities that allowed him to become an artist, back when the East Village was a neighborhood of Ukrainian immigrants and Yiddish theaters, no longer exist.

"My first record company was started with a $1,000 loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Society on Second Avenue," Glass recalls. "I borrowed $1,000 and made my first record and paid it back $100 a month for 10 months. That was kind of the way things were, with no interest."

Glass sounds like Jimmy McMillan—minus the word "damn"—when he complains that "the rents are too high."

"It was very common when I was a kid—I call myself a kid until I was in my thirties; that would have been until the late '60s and early '70s—it was very common to find a loft in the East Village . . . empty synagogues and that type of thing," Glass says. "You could find a loft for $150, $200 a month.

"Now, that's impossible," Glass says, though it never stops the Big Apple. "One of the things that's made New York so impressive is the constant wave of young people looking for fame, fortune, art, whatever, something.

"At one point, when I still had a day job or a night job, when I was still driving a cab around New York, you could pick up kids at the Port Authority bus station. If you stayed at the Port Authority bus station, you could watch hundreds of kids getting off of buses and pouring into New York! And they were bringing the energy and ambition and determination, which is still happening, except now they can't live in Manhattan anymore."

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