Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice

The world-renowned composer is still a neighborhood staple

The reason all New Yorkers became New Yorkers, Glass says, is: "You came to New York because that's where the energy was. That's where the best work was happening, no matter who you are and what you did. It could be medicine or psychiatry or media or sculpture. You wanted to go where the best work was being done because they would set the standards for you.

"The problem is, when I came to New York, it's much more difficult now. You could work three days a week loading a truck or driving a cab, and you'd have enough money to live off of, but that's not true anymore."

After Glass finished at Juilliard, studied composing on a Fulbright in Paris, and trekked across India (where he first encountered Tibetan Buddhism), his first job in New York, naturally, was loading trucks on Twelfth Avenue.

Steve Pyke
Glass rehearses with the Pacific Northwest Ballet from Anne Bass’s documentary, Dancing Across Borders.
Erin Baiano
Glass rehearses with the Pacific Northwest Ballet from Anne Bass’s documentary, Dancing Across Borders.


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

Later, he founded his own moving company "with my cousin Jene Highstein, the artist and sculptor, and another friend, Bob Fiore. We had a company, and we worked on the weekends. That's what you did. We put an ad in The Village Voice."

That—not in the music or art sections—was Glass's first appearance in this paper.

"You didn't have to have a license to put an ad in," Glass says. "No one had a license anyway. You didn't have to have insurance. No one had insurance.

"Work, it was a seasonal business. You worked the weekends around the first of the month. And then you had the middle of the month to do your sculpture or your painting or your poetry or whatever you do.

"So it was a great job for an artist. We would put ads in the paper, and we'd rent a van from U-Haul or whoever. We just rented a van; we didn't even own one," Glass says, laughing. "We didn't even have to park it! You just brought it back to the place at the end of the day! It was a great job. No overhead! And if you knew the city and were willing to climb five or six flights of stairs, carrying books and beds and lamps . . . you were in great shape. You were physically very strong because it was hard work but easy. Hard work but easy to do. Didn't take any brainpower, and you didn't have to go to work every day.

"So these kinds of jobs were around, and they still are, but you can't work three days a week and make a living anymore. So that's much more difficult in coming to New York." But, he notes, "people still do, and they manage. They get together, find lofts and apartments, but they don't find the privacy and the space."

Glass had a fair amount of space for his art. Through P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss and her not-for-profit Idea Warehouse, "I had a loft on Bleecker and Elizabeth, on the sixth floor, walk-up," he says. "But I paid maybe $150 for it. And it was a big loft. I had concerts there for years! . . . We had theater seats ringing the sides of the wall. We had rugs on the floor. Talk to some of the artists around, and they were there.

"We'd play in the afternoon. We didn't charge anything, we'd take a contribution. If we made $25 each, we'd feel that we'd had a really good day."

There was little press of those early concerts. "Until, I would say, the 1980s, the regular newspapers—The New York Times, for example—they had a rule that they didn't review any art events below 14th Street," Glass says. "Believe it or not, that was a policy of the paper! And, of course, that meant that they didn't have any idea of what was going on! How could they write about things?"

Before the 1980s, a few papers did venture downtown, including the one where Glass found day gigs.

"Tom Johnson, who was the Voice music critic for a long time, he himself was a composer, and he came to see everything."

Glass was still driving a cab until he was 41. Did he have any doubts in his late thirties if he was ever going to "make it"?

"I thought I had made it when I was 30," Glass says. "I was in New York; I had my own ensemble [The Philip Glass Ensemble]. Of course, I had a day job, but I didn't count that as a deficit. I counted that as my insurance as to being able to make a living. I was writing music; I was doing tours; I was playing concerts. I had a small audience, but they were constantly growing.

"In other words, I didn't measure [success] by whether I had a day job or not," or, Glass says later, "by, uh [laughs], a big fat interview in The Village Voice, like we're having right now."

He also considered applying for awards "a waste of time. I wasn't going to get them, and I never did." Dismissively, Glass says "those prizes, they weren't for people like me. Those prizes were for other people, people I guess [who] didn't know how to make it on their own."

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