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Philip Glass at 80: Reflections and predictions for classical music’s future


Philip, thank you so much for being here.
It’s great to see you again. Can we start by clearing something up?
Because when critics talk about your music they invariably reach for this term ‘minimalist’
and I know it’s a term that frustrates you. Is that more because it’s a reductive thing
to have to label music anyway or is it that the term is wrong? It’s really a waste of time.
It’s something that happened thirty years ago and we can talk about it but it’d be better
if we talked about what we were actually doing. It doesn’t prepare you very well
for you’re going to hear and see and it’s kind of like when we talk about minimalism, we say what does it have to do with what we’re doing? You were part of that
avant-garde New York downtown scene. You famously scraped a living as a plumber and
a cab driver before you made it. Oh that’s just the best part of it! There’s much worse than that! Well, tell us – what was worse than being a plumber and a cab driver? Moving furniture wasn’t so great.
But that’s a very common story I suppose that many of the artists who
live in London will do that. I was lucky. I was able to quit my day job when I was 41,
some people go on for longer than that. It’s a very common story.
For artists in our progressive societies are treated like bakers actually.
I’m just tell you the way it is. Do you feel like it’s got worse
since you were scraping that living? It’s gotten worse in that there are more people trying to eat off the same table. What’s happened
on the other hand is that people are finding new ways of working. The human spirit is that kind of thing that it won’t be denied
what it wants to do. Young people are finding new ways of working and putting on plays. The ones I’ve seen in Brooklyn,
not so much in New York, there may be thirty people in the audience. How important was it to you,
whether subconsciously or consciously, when you began writing music
to write music that people did want to listen to? I had an audience, it just happen to be
a rather small one at first. Now it’s enormous.
You’re the most imitated composer in the universe. My first concert I think I only had six people there.
One was my mother. I happened to be at the right time in the right place and I was working in a way that people like but I never had no audience. My first audiences that were thirty or forty they would come to The Loft,
we would put concerts on every Sunday and they would lie down on the floor and
I reckon they mostly were asleep I didn’t worry about it too much and from that I went to Town Hall
in New York and my first big audience was 1400. I rented the hall myself and somehow
we sold the tickets and after that it began. So there was always people that liked it. I actually thought I was a successful composer
when I had 30 people. I didn’t measure it by the audience I measured it by the reception that I had. So how does it feel now to be, arguably, the most successful, most famous contemporary composer today? I totally ignore it to the best of my ability
to tell you the truth. The worst part of it
are the plane rides. If I could get rid of that,
the rest would be terrific. We endlessly hear that classical music has no future and that the audiences are just
getting older and dwindling. Clearly that’s not the case. I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, I think there’s an urgency and a need and I think a lot of people are coming and supporting it. Can you put your finger on
why your music has such an appeal not just to the generations who grew up with it
but refreshing those generations all the time? Let’s get back to my father’s record
store. I knew all the music in that store. I was trained in Central European art music
and I had an education in a conservatory. I went and studied in Paris.
I did all that. But I listened to music,
to all kinds of music. My dad never told me that
there was some music that was good and some that wasn’t good,
we just had different kinds of music. And I knew it all. What was it that drew you to the theatre? It’s the thing that still draws me to it today. It’s in the theatre that the elements
of opera, for example, movement, image and music, the four elements that
all come together in the opera house. When I do piano concerts by myself,
it’s just the music. And if you go to a dance performances
you’ll just see dance, perhaps. In theatre you begin to add the other parts. In the opera house you actually have singing. It’s the ultimate platform for collaboration,
collaborative work. Do you feel that as composer
that you have a license in this environment? No, I have a responsibility.
That’s not the same thing. But it’s actually more difficult
because if we’re going to take a perfectly good story and put it on stage
then there’s got to be a reason for it. And I can say that we bring
the talents of singers who can be actors, musicians who can be artists. The crafts and arts in the opera all come together. It’s a tremendous activity.

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