Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice

The world-renowned composer is still a neighborhood staple

By non-musicians, the jokes about Glass's music are so common that he has been the subject of a South Park parody as well as the inevitable fake Twitter, @fakephilipglass. (The jokes are, however, as repetitive and one-note as critics claim Glass's music is.)

Reggio--who hadn't shot a frame when he first chose his unwitting composer--got mutual friends to talk to Glass, who still refused to look at footage when he had it.

"I kept putting him off," Glass says. "And I kept telling [him], 'I don't write film music,' which was true in 1978 and '79."

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.


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

Says Reggio: "So I just bothered the hell out of him. Basically, in as appropriate of a way as I could. Finally, I had him come to a screening at Jonas Mekas's Anthology Film Archives when it was on Wooster Street. . . . I knew the projectionist there, and Jonas was very nice to let me use the facility.

"I think [Glass] came there just to satisfy his friends and get me off his back. . . . I already had footage by this point." Reggio played what would be the first reel of Koyaanisqatsi twice: once with one composer's music, then with Glass's "North Star." "And the difference was palpable and immediate. . . . And when we finished, [Glass] said: 'Well, when do we start? It looks like a great idea.'

"I think it moved him to see what the relationship between his sound and those images could be. I think it was enough to turn the table to get us started. Having said that, I think he felt at the time that this wouldn't see the light of day, and this would be an 'art' project, if I can use that term, and that there would only be the love of the project—that would be the reason to work on the film itself."

Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2000 and spawning the sequels Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), Koyaanisqatsi went on to be one of the most successful feature-length "art" films of all time.

"Most film jobs take place in about six weeks, a month to six weeks," says Glass, who has now scored many films and been nominated for three Oscars. "Working with [Reggio] is a minimum of a one-year commitment. It can also be two years or more. With Godfrey, you really live through the whole process with him. I'd go a week on location with him. I'd watch him shoot. I'd be in the editing room. He wanted full participation, and that's what we did. . . . It was a true collaboration in the way working with Bob Wilson was [or with] Allen Ginsberg on Hydrogen Jukebox."

Despite Glass and Reggio's artistically (and, over time, financially) successful track records, funding each film is incredibly difficult. Their latest collaboration, The holy see—which Reggio describes as being about "humans, apes, and cyborgs"—is paused because of funding. "We have raised a lot of the money," and all the footage has been shot, Reggio says, "but we can't spend it until I raise the rest."

The holy see is their most New York–centric project, as much of the footage of apes was shot at the Bronx Zoo. Following the Brooklyn, easterly migration pattern of many Village art projects, post-production is being done at a studio in Red Hook.

"I'm not really into Business," Glass says, though he has been able to lead the artistic life because of some smart business decisions.

"I spent a lot of years moving furniture and loading trucks and had all kinds of day jobs. And I finally got out of it, but part of the reason I got out of it was because I owned my work," a fact he's proud of.

"I got out of it much quicker than I would have if I didn't," Glass says. "I was in my forties, but it could have been close to a lifetime if I hadn't."

Glass has given a lot of thought to the fact that, when it comes to getting paid for creative work, "the marketplace has changed tremendously, as you know. It's changed for journalists, too. It's changed for everybody, and we're all trying to play catch-up right now.

"To be truthful, for most composers—and most artists for that matter—it's too complicated for them. They don't know how to deal with it. They are in a very passive position of waiting for the industry to decide what to do. And they have less at stake because they've already given up their publishing to begin with. They own 50 percent—50 percent—less of their work than I do."

For his published music, Glass has "always owned it. Isn't it great?" And yet he only got the idea for that by accident, from the composer of "Hound Dog" and "Yakety Yak," of all people. It was Jerry Leiber—of the songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, who wrote music for Elvis Presley and the Coasters—who put Glass on the road to self-ownership.

"He and I went to the same high school in Baltimore," Glass says. "My mother was the librarian there, and he knew my mother. . . . He was a little Jewish guy, and people would pick on him all the time, and he could hang out at the library with my mom. And, he told me, 'It saved me.'

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