Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History


Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story “Philip Glass, An East Village Voice,” Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

Today we’re publishing the portion of our interview with Glass where we talk about black music, African American history, and how he views his music interacting with both.

I wanted to ask you musically: I’m black (or, like the president, I’m mixed), and I write sometimes about black culture. There are two albums [baesd on your music] which I love. Glass Cuts, which I think your record label put together, and Glassbreaks, which I know is not officially sanctioned. But I really love the way they mix in with hip-hop and DJ-ing, and I wanted to ask you how you view your music in terms of the African American musical tradition?

Steven, that’s an interesting question. Part of my own personal history has been my participation as a listener in other people’s music. I lived in Chicago in the fifties. I went to school there, in Chicago in 1952. I heard Billie Holiday singing at the Cotton Club. I heard Ben Webster, and I was very young. I heard Bud Powell. I couldn’t hear Charlie Parker because they wouldn’t let me in. I was too small. [Laughs]

But when I came to New York, one of the first people that I met was Ornette Coleman. We’ve known each other for years.

So, I think for me, the experiences of creativity, and we have composers, Anthony Davis, from the African American community who were writing operas. And writing what we call “Serious music,” as if other music isn’t serious. [Laughs]

You know what I mean, right? “Art” music. And some people have been friendly, very friendly, some not so friendly. It’s a question of temperament.

I grew up, if you want to talk about this kind of thing, I grew up in Baltimore, which was a totally segregated city. Washrooms, schools, swimming pools, golf course, the whole works. The whole works. Movie houses, restaurants.

Your father owned a record store, right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Was it segregated? Or did people come from both sides?

Oh yeah. In fact, my brother and I, we were kids, we were 15 or 16, we had an R&B record shop in the other part of town, and we used to listen to the music, and I think my father sent us there because it was the summer time and he didn’t know what to do with us. So he put opened up a storefront, and we had a record player and a Coke machine, and a lot of people came and listened to music. I don’t think we sold any records.

But I got to hear a lot of music. So I grew up. The city may have been segregated, but my taste in music wasn’t segregated. I understood that very quickly, and when I was in Chicago at the age of 15, I was out listening to music. So I have real friends in that world, and a real connection to that music.

The funny thing is that I don’t improvise. And people say, can you sit in and play with us? And I say, you know, I just never learned how to do that. I don’t know if it’s because I had some kind of mental block, but I’d always been a writing composer. Pencil and paper composer, and I think I just tried it out. By the time I was asked to do it, I was too far along in a different direction. So I didn’t play jazz. On the other hand, I feel that something like Einstein on the Beach, when I listen to that, I think the energy of that comes right out of the modern jazz world. And it’s a black and white world. It can be Lenny Tristano, too… It doesn’t have to be John Coltrane. Do you know Lenny Tristano’s music?

A little bit, yeah.

He was an amazing player. The energy was formidable.

So there has always been an issue, and I don’t know if it’s ever gone away. I’m very good friends with Wynton Marsalis. We’ve talked about doing something together but we haven’t done it yet.

But we don’t, to be truthful, when I go and look at an orchestra, I look and see, there are a lot of women in the orchestra now. A lot of Asian people. But not many black people in the orchestras. There are a few. But the music world is still is not that different form a long time ago.

I think partly that’s because there is an indigenous music that is connected to [that] community which has been very successful, very powerful, very creative…and so, Anthony writes operas. He does very interesting things, and he’s not the only one. But I think there has not been a lot of incentive to be a part of the concert world, and maybe there has, but not with very many people. So that, integration of the arts – it’s happened in the dance world.


And it’s happened in the art world. But it hasn’t happened in the music world, not really.

There are one or two black conductors, and there are great singers, fantastic singers, who have made great names for [themselves]. Not only Jesse Norman. But in Einstein, this production of Einstein [which will be at BAM in September], I’m looking at the stage; we have, for an American theater company, a pretty integrated cast. We have African American performers. Not just one or two, but you see them in the dance company, you see them on stage with the singers, two of the principal players are African American. So in Einstein, Bob is from Texas, I’m from Baltimore, we’re very aware of that.

When I saw that the other day, I said, “Oh good, we can be a part of the world now.” But we didn’t even have people for the first production- people didn’t even audition for it, you know what I mean? So, this time around, we did have people, and we’re starting to, and it should look like the people on the subway! If you look at it that way, we’re way behind, aren’t we? [Laughs]

Are you laughing?


But that’s what it is. It’s an issue. I think people are aware of it. But then again, there is such a struggle…the work of those players have been so powerful and some formative, some people say, “Why bother?” and some people say we want to bother. I like that [and] I said I didn’t want to be in the “new music world of uptown,” only doing one kind of music. I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do.

How do you see the kind of music that you write affecting and setting the stage for DJs and sampling? How do you feel about your work being sampled in other people’s music?

Well I think that’s a very open door, and I am totally up for it. [Note: this is a change from what Glass’s people told dj BC, the man behind the above video, several years ago.]

I’m not one of these people, the kind of guy who says, “Yes I figure this is where” [my music belongs]. A guy I know came up to me recently and said, “Look I’m doing a documentary. Would it be OK if I used your music?” I said, “Look Josh, when people want to use my music, I always say yes.” What do I – why wouldn’t I say yes? If it doesn’t work out, it will disappear. If it does work out, the music has another life. I am extremely, I would say, on the most progressive side of that question. I will let anyone, if they want to make arrangements [to use my music].

Sometimes the arrangements are mind-bending. I heard a steel drum band [which] made an entire record of my piano etudes. Now, let me tell you, that is a stretch. But he sent the record, we have a little record company, and I didn’t listen to it for a long time, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it. After the record was out, I finally listened to it, and I said, “Oh my God, they’re actually playing the piano songs on these steel drums!” [Laughs]

It’s very funny. Anybody plays Bach. You can have an accordion and play Bach. You can have a penny whistle and play Bach. And we love it because it’s Bach. Something different works, and if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be played very much, and if it does, it has a different personae.

Yesterday was the day, of course, we observe Dr. King’s birthday, and I wanted to ask you about how you came linking him and having him be the focus of the third act of Satygraha.

I was looking from the point of view of Gandhi. Very simply, I was talking about Gandhi’s past, his present and his future. In Indian philosophy, that is called “the three times”…The first, second and third act should be about the three times. So the past is 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. There were six or seven letters exchanged. Tolstoy, he referred to Gandhi as “a brother in the first [seval], and he had no idea what Gandhi was doing, but Gandhi knew who he was.


And then [the Indian poet] Tagore, which was contemporary. And then of course the future had to be King. And so the whole third act is about King. And so basically, I took the opera from segregated South Africa to the Civil Rights movement. I did the same thing recently, I did an opera called Appomattox. Do you know about that that one?


And it ends with the murder of three civil rights workers. It ends with their murder. Appomattox is the signing of the surrender [of the Confederacy], in the Appomattox Courthouse. That happens in Act I. Act II is what happens afterwards. It’s an opera, I wanted it to be done in other parts of America, it’s only been done in San Francisco. I’m glad it was done in San Francisco. You need a chorus of 50 black guys in a chorus, because I have black chorus.


Because there are black soldiers in the Union Army, and there were some in the fighting on Confederate side, too.

And when I got David Gockley… and he wanted to do it in Houston, and I wanted it to be done in the South. Houston isn’t really in the South, but it’s close enough. It’s not that far from Louisiana, and I wanted it to go there. Then he moved to San Francisco, and he took the opera with him.

And he saw what I needed, and he said, “What’s this in the score?” And I said, “David,” this is the Civil War! We’ve got to have black people on stage!

“Yeah, but where am I going to find them?”

Well, he found them. We had a whole chorus. The only problem was [laughing] they weren’t as black as I wanted them to be!


You know, because, you know what’s happened in the last 40, 50 years. We’re not black anymore! We’re somewhere in between. Something like that. But it was a black chorus. And they were there, I wrote the piece for them. I got, it’s funny, I’ll talk to you about this because you are interested in the topic, between Satygraha and Appomattox, there was a connection. Personally, I thought it was something I wanted to write about. I wasn’t going to leave it to Anthony Davis [laughing] to write about it by himself, we were going to write about it, too.

Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass at 75:
Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Koyaanisqatsi Director Godfrey Reggio On Dragging Philip Glass Into Film Scoring
Q&A: Glassbreaks Auteur dj BC On Mashing Up Philip Glass With The Beastie Boys, Kanye And The Fugees
Q&A: Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington On Collaborating With Philip Glass
Live: The Premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall
Happy (Happy Happy) 75th Birthday, Philip Glass, From South Park