A Conversation with Philip Glass

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In 1976, Philip Glass was an unknown composer — almost pushing 40, and driving a taxi to make ends meet — when he got his break: a new work performed at New York’s echt-prestigious Metropolitan Opera House. Einstein on the Beach was directed by Robert Wilson, a key figure in the avant-garde; it was four and a half hours long, had no plot anybody could follow, and drove a lot of listeners crazy. But almost overnight, it turned Glass into a household name.

Almost four decades later, Glass is one of the most influential composers working today, with a huge body of symphonies, operas, and chamber music; he redefined the sound of television advertising and movie scores. That work ethic has served him well. This year Glass has been honored with nonstop concerts and lectures to mark his 75th birthday, but he tells Kurt Andersen he still managed to keep the same writing schedule. "I had to work so hard that I didn’t have any time to think about slowing down," Glass says.

Glass credits two teachers he had in the mid-1960s with shaping his signature sound: pianist and composer Nadia Boulanger, and the sitar player Ravi Shankar. "I was with them at the same time," he says. With Boulanger, Glass studied composition and harmony; he absorbed the binary rhythmic structure of Indian music from Shankar. "Instead of ones and zeroes, [in Indian music] they use twos and threes," Glass says. "Einstein came ten years after I completed my studies with them, and I spent ten years developing a language which integrated this binary way of thinking with traditional harmony."

A production of Einstein on the Beach is touring the world this year, and opens this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Today Glass is at work on a new opera about another visionary, this time a quintessential American: Walt Disney. It explores the "immortality of the art and mortality of the artist," but Glass doesn't want to whitewash Disney's life and legacy. "When we elevate our artists and geniuses beyond the human level we lose something. Opera, above all, is poetry."


Bonus Track: Kurt’s extended conversation with Philip Glass


Highlights from the full conversation:

  • 8:30 — Einstein on the Beach: Glass is surprised at how contemporary the work sounds. "If it hadn't been written thirty-five years ago, if someone turned up with that piece today, it would sound absolutely new."
  • 15:30 Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar: In the mid-1960s, Glass studied with two legendary teachers of dramatically different styles, Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar. "I often describe the experience of that year...was like having two angels on my shoulder, one in the right ear one in the left ear. One taught through love and one taught through fear."
  • 17:58 Familiarity Breeds Love: New musical and artistic ideas can be shocking, and Glass reflects that "The shock of a new language...can paralyze you at first; however, I had learned from my father actually, that familiarity can breed love."
  • 21:30 Influence of Rock and Roll: "My introduction to amplified music was through the Fillmore East, which was at that time on East 4th Street on 2nd Avenue," Glass remembers. "I walked in to hear the Jefferson Airplane, and it was literally a wall of speakers that went up to the ceiling, and it was a fantastic sound." Glass goes on to discuss Brian Eno, David Bowie, and improvised vocal sessions of Beatles songs during New York City subway trips with fellow Juilliard composers. "There was a lot to be stimulated by in popular music."
  • 32:46 Walt Disney: Having written about Einstein and Ghandi, Glass is writing an opera based on the final days of Walt Disney, and the conflicts that Disney experienced in dealing with his own legacy. "One of the big themes is the immortality of art and the mortality of the artist."


Video: Highlights from Einstein on the Beach, live from WNYC's Greene Space

Music Playlist

  1. When You Wish Upon a Star

    Artist: Cliff Edwards
    Album: Walt Disney's Pinocchio
    Label: Walt Disney
  2. Morning Passages

    Album: The Hours (Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack)
    Label: Nonesuch/WBR
  3. Knee Play 1

    Album: Einstein on the Beach
    Label: Sony Classical
  4. Knee Play 3

    Album: Einstein on the Beach
    Label: Sony Classical
  5. Pieces for Cello and Piano: In E Flat Minor

    Album: Boulanger, Lili And Nadia: In Memoriam Lili Boulanger
    Label: Marco-Polo
  6. Dhun

    Artist: Ravi Shankar
    Album: The Very Best of Ravi Shankar
    Label: EMI Classics
  7. Opening

    Album: Glassworks
    Label: Sony Classical
  8. Heroes

    Album: Heroes Symphony
    Label: Decca
  9. Tolstoy Farm from Satyagraha

    Album: The Essential Philip Glass
    Label: Sony Classical
  10. Spaceship

    Album: Einstein on the Beach
    Label: Nonesuch