Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice

The world-renowned composer is still a neighborhood staple

One myth of Glass's taxi years has him driving passengers to the Met in 1976 to the U.S. premiere of Einstein on the Beach, his first epic opera, performed over five hours without an intermission. (Einstein was a collaboration with Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs. All three are remounting a new production, which will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September.)

That's sheer fantasy, Glass scoffs at this tall tale.

"We were loading in the night before until 11 o'clock," Glass says. "We didn't begin rehearsing and getting ready [until late]. . . . Maybe we slept a few hours before the performance. But we were there working. No one was out back in the cab!"

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," Glass admits, "I think a week, two weeks later I was! I was back to my day work, which lasted . . . maybe until 1979." This reprieve was due to a combination of a Rockefeller Grant and a commission from the Netherlands Opera to write Satyagraha.

"The commission, it was not a handsome sum of money, but it was more than I had ever seen altogether," Glass recalls. "For that time, it was a lot of money.

"But on the other hand, I did renew my cab license when it expired because I wasn't sure. I didn't know how long my independence would last. It turned out that it lasted a long time."

But the years of day jobs "didn't bother me that much. I never had any feeling of anger or bitterness about it. Everybody was working. Most artists, that's what they did. . . . The visual artists were usually able to be in galleries, were generally able to start their careers earlier because, well, they had work to sell. We didn't have any work to sell. We could play performances, but people were paying for music in that way.

"Welcome to arts funding in the United States. We don't have it. . . . We give money to musicians, not artists."

The destiny of Glass's future (as both musician and filmmaker) was helped greatly by the legendary downtown film figure Jonas Mekas, who started film coverage at the Voice in 1958.

"Jonas Mekas, he ran the Cinematheque at 80 Wooster Street first, before it moved over to Second Avenue" and became Anthology Film Archives, Glass recalls.

"I met him at a party at a composer named Jim Tenney's one afternoon," Glass says. "It was probably when I first came back in 1967, and I found out he had a cinematheque, and I asked him if I could have a concert there. And he had never met me. Didn't know me at all, and he smiled at me, and he said, 'Yes, when would you like to do it?'" he says with a laugh.

"I had my first concert there, so that was very important to me," Glass says. Later, "we started a music group called Music at the Anthology, which is for young composers.

"That little organization, MATA, is . . . one of the mainstream new music places in the city now. It has a real budget and a festival in the city every year. And it began through Jonas. I went to Jonas and asked if we could do it there, and he said yes. He always said yes. He was that kind of guy."

Mekas also helped put Glass together with Godfrey Reggio, then an unknown filmmaker and former monk who had never made a feature. Reggio was living in Santa Fe and plotting a non-narrative, speechless film.

"I first met [Glass] through his 'Village voice,' as it were—his music," Reggio says. "I was a neophyte. . . . I was coming out of a religious community—a Catholic monk working with street gangs—and what did I know?"

Reggio was making a movie called Koyaanisqatsi, a concept film so abstract that he didn't want it to have a name at all, but rather just a symbol, predating "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" by a couple of decades. (He compromised with the Hopi word "koyaanisqatsi," which means "life out of balance.") Eventually, Koyaanisqatsi would be revered by many cinephiles, architects, and stoners in equal measure (though perhaps for very different reasons). But at first, it was just an idea percolating with an unknown director.

"I was looking for music that itself had a voice that could perceive—in tandem with the image but not in place of the image," Reggio says. "It could be, in Philip's [later] terms, a 'lawn chair' in which the viewer would see the film."

The first problem for Reggio was "that no one in my crew approved of my decision to use Philip Glass. I'll have to use some derogatory language here, but they said: 'He's the master of the broken needle. Why would you choose someone like this when you could choose Beethoven or Mozart? Vivaldi? And have the greatest music of the world?' Well, I didn't buy that at all."

Reggio (who is not musically trained) brushed off the most common criticism of Glass, made by musicians and listeners alike.

"There are some musicians that totally disregard the music of Philip Glass, thinking it's very simple. And simpleminded," says violinist David Harrington, the founder of the Kronos Quartet (for whom Glass composed his String Quartet No. 5 and the 1999 soundtrack for the 1931 film Dracula). "Well, I have this to report to the people who have said that kind of thing in public and in private: They should try to do it sometime. Philip's music requires the utmost clarity of interpretation and sounds and intonation and rhythm of any music I can think of. He creates momentum and mood and a kind of texture through the use of repetition."

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