Q&A: Philip Glass On Friendship, The Film Biz And Collaborating With Woody Allen And Martin Scorsese


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.

Earlier this week, we published our interview with Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio, who dragged Glass kicking and screaming into film scoring. Today, we’re publishing Glass’s side of the story of their initial meeting, along with his thoughts on working with Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Woody Allen, Robert Wilson, Allen Ginsburg, Kronos Quartet, and Lucinda Childs. We also asked Glass about the claim that he writes music so that his friends can chill together, and find out why he appreciates when working relationships aren’t “just one-night stands.”

I wanted to ask you about a collaborator of yours I am very fascinated by—have been much of my life, it feels like—and I had the chance to speak with him at some length the other day: Godfrey Reggio.

Oh yes. Very, very important for me.

Did you meet at Anthology?

Oh yes, we did. We met at, not Anthology, [at] Cinematheque on Wooster Street. It was Jonas’s [Meekas’s] place. He just changed the name. It was his place. He just moved it to Second Avenue. He was still on Wooster Street then. And he lent us the place for the afternoon, and Godfrey showed me the first reel of Koyaanisqatsi, that would have been maybe 1979… ’78 or ’79. Satygraha was just happening, and I wrote it immediately after Satygraha. And the funny thing is that this year, the revival of Satygraha was at the Met, and we played Koyaaniqatsi with the New York Philharmonic almost a week later… the two pieces that came into the world about the same time [and] reoccurred in New York at the same time.

[Reggio] said that you did not want to meet with him for a long time, but he got your friends to convince you—

[Laughs] I kept putting him off, and he kept saying he had a film, he had thought about music a lot and he wanted me to write the music. And I kept telling [him], “I don’t write film music,” which was true in 1978 and 79. I hadn’t written any film music. I didn’t really write film music until then, Koyaanisqatsi was the first one. I’ve done quite a bit since then…

Of the filmmakers I’ve worked with, Errol Morris was another one I had a very personal connection with. Godfrey and Errol Morris, and some other ones that I liked very much. Paul Schrader, Scorsese was very interesting to work with, and I loved working with Woody Allen. Neil Burger who did The Illusionist was great to work with. There have been a lot of good people to work with. There’s an enormous number of talented people in the film world. It’s not that you see a lot of great films, but there are really talented people working in the business. [Laughs]

But it is a business, and sometimes things don’t turn out so well, but they do and they can. You can still make a good movie. A good director can still do a good movie, something worth putting your time into. That’s my view of it.

What’s the difference for you—I talked to Godfrey for a long time about your process and how involved you are—

Well, his process is very different from other films. Working with him is a minimum of a one-year working commitment. It can also be two years or more. Most films jobs take place in about six weeks, a month to six weeks. 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 very much, it was a true collaboration in the way working with Bob Wilson was. When I worked with Allen Ginsberg on Hydrogen Jukebox and we did performances together, it was like that; but with Allen, it was working with poetry.

Those things turn into personal relationships and friendships, and it’s very important to be working with someone like Lucinda Childs, a dancer or a choreographer—Susan Marshall, Twyla Tharp, these are dancers whose work I got involved with. I tended to get involved with people artistically, and then they became a part of my world, in a way. That was certainly true with Godfrey. All of the people you’ve mentioned, these weren’t just one-night stands, where you have a few conversations and it’s over. Some people, that’s the only way you can meet them. Marty, when we were working on Kundun, I saw him all the time, but I didn’t see him much after that. When I was working with Woody Allen, I saw him a lot while making his film, Cassandra’s Dream. That was right after Matchpoint.

Did you go on location with either of them?

No, I didn’t. The only people I’ve ever gone on location with [indecipherable]. I’ve often been in awe of going on location with Hollywood movies. I’ve learned from Godfrey how much I can learn by being with him while he shot a film. I learned a lot about how I wanted to write the music. So working with him was very important. Traveling with him was very important. And I did do that with Paul Schrader making Mishima, I was with him when he was in Tokyo. I was there doing a concert, but I got to be there while they were shooting. Eiko Ishioka was the designer, and later used her as a designer of some operas of mine,. So these things have a way of coming together that relationships get formed in one work, and go on to another one.

But with Godfrey, he was the first filmmaker I ever worked with, and he set up a working method which no one else ever followed, which was that you worked with him from the first frame of the film. Actually, he’d shot the first reel [of Koyaanisqatsi] before I’d met him, but after that I was writing music while he was filming. And sometimes I’d write the music before he’d filmed and he’d film with the music. So we were able to play with the system, the sequence; the work order, the sequence of working was very flexible with Godfrey, and I learned about writing music for film with him. But almost no one else will work that way. Errol Morris will to a certain degree, but no one else will work that way.

Errol Morris has his signature technique of interviewing people. Were you ever with him while he was conducting interviews?

Oh no, I didn’t. He’s interviewed me, he does has his own technique. He has, what’s it called? [We looked it up after the interview; it’s called “Interrotron.”] The interview with the special camera… He has a camera that you can look at you through the camera lens, which you don’t usually do, and he does it.

He’s quite an original guy. He’s up in Boston, I’ve gone up there a number of times. He was working with Stephen Hawking on A Brief History of Time and I went up to Boston and met Hawking there. Working with Errol does require a lot of participation, he likes that and he’s able to do that. Not that many film people are able to give that type of deep collaboration [but] it does happen. I think it happened with Marty. And when it does, I think the film benefits without any question.

I spoke with David Harrington about working with you, and he said that one of the reasons you write music is just to have time to play music with your friends.

That’s right, and I wrote music for them so that I could play with them. Dracula was written for them. At first I wrote it for a string quartet, and then when I got done I said, “Why didn’t I write a piano part so that I could go on tour with them?” So I wrote a piano part. That’s the nice part of being a composer. Then later on, Michael [Riesman] did an arrangement for the [Philip Glass] Ensemble and we also played it. I’m out on tour with them with Dracula later this year, we’re together every year, for a long time. And I did arrangement for a Bob Dylan song for a record they made. And I’m writing a new string quartet for them this summer, for the summer coming up. So that’s one regular group I write for.

The other group I regularly write for is Dennis Russell Davies, he’s the conductor, he works in Europe mostly, and he’ll be conducting Symphony No. 9, which will be at Carnegie Hall with the American Composers Orchestra. He founded that orchestra with [Francis Thorn] maybe about 30 years ago. And he was the conductor for years, then was in Europe a lot anyway, and settled down there. And they have a conductor, so he comes back and does work with them. He’s commissioned eight of the nine symphonies I’ve written. And some of the operas. I’m very closely associated with him, and he’ll be the conductor at Carnegie hall on January 31st.

I did go to the premiere, I believe it was the world premiere, of Symphony No. 8 [at BAM in 2005].

Yeah, that was him with the Bruckner Orchestra [Linz]. That is a very good orchestra. I guess, I’m sure you were impressed with it because they played so well.

It was wonderful. It was the first time I had seen a symphony of one of yours, live, and was a beautiful thing to see all of those strings moving in time…

Yeah, they can play it, and I can write it. It’s a good combination, and he really knows how. He has a real insight into my music. He went to Julliard. A little bit after me, but his conducting teacher, I used to audit his class, we had some of the same teachers. That helped a little bit. And of course the other conductor, Michael [Riesman], he’s conducting the Einstein revival, which will be at BAM in September.

I’ve been going to rehearsals, and Bob Wilson has been there the entire time, relighting the show. And it’s a young company. The piece was written 30 some years ago. No one is around [who originally performed in it. They] aren’t performing anymore. Some are still performing, but not like that. It’s a piece for young people, and we have a young company. They’re gorgeous, actually. They’re beautiful. Lucinda Childs is back as the choreographer. And she has a new company, young dancers who have learned the dances from her.

And Bob Wilson is directing this production again?

Yes, and lighting, as he originally did. And he did the design. I did the music.

How did the two of you originally meet?

He had done The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin—in Brooklyn, in 1973 or ‘4, and I was there. It was an all night show, seven to seven, seven at night until seven in the morning, and we met afterwards. He knew my work and I knew his work, and, oh by 1975 we were working on a piece together, and it turned out to be Einstein.

Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass at 75:
Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History
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