Philip Glass's Life as an East Village Voice

The world-renowned composer is still a neighborhood staple

"And later when I met him [in New York], he said: 'You know, I'm doing this for your mother. I want you to go down,' and told me about publishing, told me to go and do it. I didn't have any music published yet, so I didn't have a publisher. And I went down to Centre Street—20 Centre Street—and went down to the basement and registered as a publishing company.

"And let me tell you, it has made a huge difference. I could have ended up like everyone else."

That hasn't inoculated Glass from the fact that all musicians have "lost a lot ground with free downloads and all of what's happening." He's trying to be on "the realistic side with a fait accompli—which is that the music is out there.

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.

"My 10-year-old, who likes to make little videos on his laptop, wanted some music for one and said, 'Dad, can I go on the Internet and get your music?'" Glass says. "And I said, 'Sure you can.' He came back about 20 minutes later and said, 'Dad, I just downloaded your whole catalog.' He's 10 years old. He's 10 years old!

"I said: 'Really? What did that cost you?' He said, 'It's free!' And what can I say? That conversation is never going to happen—about what we're going to do about it already—because it already happened.

"Now, what we have to do, and this is a whole different conversation and an interesting one, is how are the arts going to be able to take care of the creators of the work? How is that going to happen? It's not been completely settled yet. . . . If America is going to maintain its position as a real site of creativity with the arts, we're going to have to figure that out.

"But you can't fight it—it's happened!"

Glass doesn't see a drop in record sales as Armageddon, because "a significant part of my income is from playing," he says. "What that really means is that I'm doing what everybody else does, which is that I'm out playing. And people are back on the road, and bands are back on the road because they're not selling records. And that's not such a bad thing. I think it's kind of good."

The Met's revival of Satyagraha had been in the works for years when it played at Lincoln Center last fall. The opera, with music by Glass and lyrics in Sanskrit by Glass and Constance DeJong, is the story of Gandhi in relation to three historic figures.

As Glass explains, the three acts were "talking about Gandhi's past, his present, and his future. In Indian philosophy, that is called 'the three times.' So the past for him would have been Tolstoy. He was an old man. But he was in correspondence with Tolstoy. They never met; they only knew each other by letters. . . . And then [the Bengali poet Rabindranath] Tagore, which was contemporary. And then, of course, the future had to be [Martin Luther] King. . . . And so basically, I took the opera from segregated South Africa to the civil rights movement."

The word "satyagraha" is Sanskrit for "truth force." According to Glass, Gandhi preferred that word over "passive resistance," a term Glass says Gandhi found weak. By November 2011, there could have been no word (nor work of high art appearing in an uptown venue) more closely in line with a little downtown political movement called Occupy Wall Street.

"Laurie [Anderson] and Lou [Reed] are big, very interested in that movement. And they're both good friends of mine. And they called me up. I had Satyagraha. I had the Occupied opera!" Glass says gleefully. "And here we were, we had a major artwork, which was about free speech and free assembly, and right in the middle of the city was [Occupy]. How could it be better?"

Glass went to his first General Assembly after Anderson said, "'Look, we need to come and meet these people.' And I went to a meeting and said, 'This is really interesting,' and I really got into it right away.

"In the '60s, this is what we used to do. We'd go in the streets. . . . The Occupy movement gets us to say: 'Oh, yeah, this is what we do in America. This is what we can do.'"

Satyagraha and Occupy Wall Street met directly on December 2, the opera's closing night. Glass had announced that he'd meet with the General Assembly that night, and it gathered at Lincoln Center during the third act. Pre-emptively, police moved the protesters out of what is allegedly a public plaza to keep protesters exercising "satyagraha" from mingling with the people who had just seen Satyagraha.

As Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote, the protest "was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding." There weren't many shared fiduciary values between the Hebrew Loan Society, which once backed Glass's record company with an interest-free loan, and Bloomberg LP, which underwrote Satyagraha (and is owned by the man whose police department made Lincoln Center free of free speech).

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