Philip Glass’s Life as an East Village Voice


“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).

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.”

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.

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.”

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!”

“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.”

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.”

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.’

“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.

“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).

After taking a curtain call, Glass left the opera house to address the protesters and recited lines from the third act, which were relayed via “human microphone”: “When righteousness/Withers away/And evil rules the land/We come into being/Age after age/And take visible shape/And move/A man among men/For the protection of good/Thrusting back evil/And setting virtue/On her seat again.”

Reflecting later, Glass says: “We’re supposed to have free speech and free assembly, but we’re supposed to get a permit. Why do we need a permit if it’s free? So it’s kind of backwards. We’ve got to get permits, and yet, this is a public space.”

At 75, Glass doesn’t seem especially elderly in any way. He still sports a head of hair that would make him a plausible candidate for the Oval Office (or that would send Larry David into a fit of envy). He has eight- and 10-year-old children he walks to the Little Red Schoolhouse and the Third Street Music School (on 11th Street) when he’s in town. He spends eight hours most days writing music. At the annual Tibet House concert on February 13, which he has curated for the past 21 years, Glass has assembled an eclectic lineup, including beatboxer Rahzel, Tibetan singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay, and British singer James Blake.

“Things haven’t changed that much for me,” Glass says. “I’m playing. I’m doing what I want to do. Musicians are capable of that. You see people still playing for years and years. Sonny Rollins is still playing. Dave Brubeck is playing.

“That seems to be my trajectory. I hope that I can, because I love what I do. I don’t want to stop.

“I don’t have retirement in mind in any way at all. So the numbers, the numbers catch up with you, but they’re just numbers. The essential mood of my life and the way I work has not changed,” the septuagenarian says before running off to a rehearsal.

Every day this month, we are publishing additional material from our interviews with Philip Glass and his collaborators at