in conversation with Thomas Moore
The following interview took place on 10 October 1981, before a performance of the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Pension Building (the National Building Museum) in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Moore: Could you tell us about your new opera, which is —
Philip Glass: Oh, Satyagraha —
TM: — Yes, which premiered in New York recently.
PG: Well, it will be at Brooklyn Academy of Music in November, starting the 6th, and then I think our next date is the 7th, and there are about five performances. It’s an opera which I wrote for the Netherlands Opera, so it uses an orchestra of around fifty, a chorus of forty, and there are about seven soloists. The opera … Satyagraha means truthful, so it was a name Gandhi used to describe his civil disobedience movement. It’s set in the twenty years he spends in South Africa. He went there when he was a man of 21 in 1893, and he left in 1914 when he was about 42. So most of the major creative, I feel, events of his life happened there. A lot of his ideas were formulated there, his ideas of civil disobedience, of non-violence, and all that stuff. So I’ve taken seven scenes, seven moments, really, from his life, and made it into seven scenes. And, what can I say about it?
TM: How did you get interested in doing multimedia works? First Einstein, and then this?
PG: And then dance, working with Lucinda Childs. I’ve been working in theatre, really, since about 1965. I started working with the Mabou Mines about then, and in a way I’ve always worked in the theatre, but it’s never been a main part of my work. And it wasn’t until Einstein that I kind of shifted into high gear with theatre, working with Bob, with Bob Wilson. And since then I find it a very attractive form to work in. It’s just an extension of my work. I like working with theatre. And for a composer, I make my living — or I tend to make my living — through my music; I’m not a music teacher. So I need to find different ways of working. Theatre is one, dance is one, doing concerts is another, records. So all those kinds of things together I can kind of put together something reasonable.
TM: Your music is often compared to Steve Reich’s music, although the materials are somewhat different. You’re using much more in the way of electronics and —
PG: Well, that was more true in the middle and late ’60s. You know, we worked together in different ways at that time. We worked … Steve played with me for a while and I was involved with his music for a while. And that happened until around 1971, at which point we were both getting so busy that we just didn’t have time to work together anymore. And what’s happened is that our music has diverged so much now that I think … I’d say the differences are more interesting than the similarities at this point. Certainly no one would ever mistake my music for Steve’s —
TM: No, I don’t think they would–
PG: Though that may not have so true with pieces that were written in 1967 and ’66.
TM: Why do you feel that your music seems more accessible to the general public than a lot of contemporary —
PG: Did I say that?
TM: Well no, you didn’t say that, but I think a lot of people —
PG: But it’s true, isn’t it?
TM: Well, I often find your records in rock bins, for instance, especially things like North Star.
PG: I think there are good reasons for that. The generation of composers that are just preceded me, people like Stockhausen, Boulez, and, well, Cage for that matter, Feldman … That was a kind of experimental music that was very isolated. It had no real public. And I … I, as a young guy getting out of music school, I didn’t like the prospect of spending my life writing music for about 200 people. I just didn’t think that was … I thought there was maybe more I could try for than that. And I think I’m really part of a whole generational movement in a way. I think a lot of other people since and during this time have gotten interested in writing what we can still call experimental music. It’s not commercial music. And it’s really a concert music, but a concert music for our time. And wanting to find the audience, because we’ve discovered the audience is really there. I mean, those became really clear five years ago with Einstein on the Beach, and in fact I’ve been able to maintain a pretty big audience since then, largely through a lot of hard work and doing good pieces and making a lot of noise. But that’s part of what I do!
TM: Where do you feel your work is heading right now?
PG: Well, I’ve got another opera to do for the Stuttgart Opera in ’83, I’m writing a new work for the Ensemble, I’ve got a contract with CBS to do a record this year. I’m interested still in continued working in theatre, music theatre, and in dance when that should present itself, and working with the Ensemble.
TM: Drawing back on Steve Reich again, he spoke a lot in his writings of music reflecting process, or music that was process. Do you feel you’re doing pretty much the same thing along those lines?
PG: That writing that you’re referring to of Steve’s he wrote quite a while ago.
TM: It was a long time ago.
PG: And I think it’s important to point that out. I don’t know if he would feel that way now. I haven’t asked him about that.
TM: That was a little after Come Out and things like that.
PG: You know, I think that those kinds of comments were true of the work of the ’60s. I think that’s much less true as we get toward the end of the ’70s and I think less true now. And for me, we worked in a similar manner at that time. I don’t think that’s true for me now. I don’t think for him either, but you’d have to talk to him directly about that.
TM: How do you feel it isn’t true for you?
PG: Well, for one thing we’re talking about theatre music. There, theatrical times are different from concert times, to put it simply. Taking a figure like Gandhi and setting him on a stage requires thinking about what theatre is about and what the whole experience is about and what we’re trying to communicate in that way, so you get into certain less abstract considerations. So for one thing, now that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been able to use a lot of the tools that I’ve developed. A lot of the work I’ve done with the Ensemble, a lot of the ideas of rhythmic structure that I’ve developed, and harmonic structure over the years, there’s in the operas now, it’s part of what I do. They become the language of what I’m doing. In the theatre pieces it’s no longer really the focus of the language — it just becomes really what is conveyed by the language.
TM: Do you feel your language is still changing?
PG: Oh yeah. It changes — I’ve just done a new work, a long film score for a film I don’t know the title of yet. It’s a kind of a portrait of America, about 90 minutes long. It’s just images and music. It was done by a guy named Godfrey Reggio. I set some Hopi Indian prophecies for chorus and organ and big orchestra … stuff in it. And it sounds very different than Satyagraha. Well, you know, if you listened to Satyagraha compared to Einstein they’re just worlds apart.
TM: I haven’t heard Satyagraha yet.
PG: Well, you might be in for a surprise. And this again seems to be an enlargening of vocabulary and an enlargening of ideas. I don’t think I’m capable of making radical changes, but over a period of four or five years you can perceive very big changes, and they seem rather small at the time.
TM: Is there any particular reason that you picked sort of a tonal language to work in?
PG: Well, first of all, as I mentioned before, it appeared at the time in the mid-’60s as a very strong reaction to the atonal music I had been taught. I mean, I was a regular kind of academic music student. I was at Juilliard. I was Peabody — I was at Peabody first, then I was at Juilliard. And I learned all that stuff, you know, I had to study all the contemporary music of the time, and changing that language very radically was just a sign or a signal that I was going to try to do something very different. Then again, I find that that’s what I feel closest to. I found no real inner response in me in a non-tonal language. And finally, ultimately, you write music for yourself. I mean, I need a public, I need people to play, I need everything else. I’m not working in isolation. But finally the man that writes the music is alone. And I have to respond to those criteria which are almost like inner needs or inner responses.
TM: Are you still writing for your ensemble much? I mean pieces specifically for the Ensemble, not multimedia.
PG: I’m writing for the Ensemble right now. That’s my next big piece, and then after that I’ll do another opera. And I’m kind of dividing my time — I’m trying to do it half and half, but the operas do take a lot of time. But I have the advantage of playing with the ensemble all the time, so that we’re always here, always together.
TM: How long have the operas been in the making?
PG: It takes about a year to write an opera for me, but not a really a year of writing. I’m touring at the same time, and I’m playing, sometimes doing smaller projects at the same time. I’m starting on Akhnaten — that’s the name of the new opera — it’s based on the 18th dynasty Egyptian pharaoh. We’ve been working with the libretto for about six months, and now I’ll start the music in a month or so.
TM: How are you picking topics for your operas?
PG: Well, Akhnaten fits in with Gandhi and Einstein, so that forms a trilogy in a way.
TM: I see.
PG: And I picked people who were these kind of larger than life characters, who kind of changed the world they lived in by almost the force of their personality and their inventiveness. People that I think not only do I admire but I think they’re admirable people, and people that — I don’t know that I want — I don’t mean really for people to learn from it necessarily, but I like the idea that Gandhi is appearing now in an opera hall in all these different places, and people kind of think about it again. And Akhnaten is kind of a dark, kind of mysterious character. We don’t know a lot about him — a lot of information on him was lost. But he obviously was a kind of iconoclast of him time. I guess I’m attracted to people like that. Like Einstein also, who radically changed our way of thinking about the world we live in.
TM: I haven’t seen these staged at any point. I’ve heard the recording of Einstein and so forth. Is there much dialog in the operas?
PG: No, I don’t write that way at all. There’s almost no content in terms of language at all. In Satyagraha I used the Bhagavad-Gita as a text, and I did it in Sanskrit. I don’t like using language to convey meaning. I’d rather use images and music.
TM: I see.
PG: So the language becomes a secondary or tertiary kind of carrier of content, or carrier of the ideas of the opera.
TM: Was there any particular reason for the use of a lot of solfège in —
PG: At the time it was a handy — you mean with —
TM: With Einstein, yeah.
PG: With Einstein. It sounded nice, it was abstract. It also sounded different to different people — people always thought it was something else. And also we used numbers in that too, which sounded very appropriate to us. It seemed a handy thing to do, and it worked out well.
TM: Who’s in your ensemble now? Can you —