Philip Glass: 25 Years after ‘Einstein On The Beach’

Philip Glass: 25 Years after ‘Einstein On The Beach’

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to tackle that hobgoblin word “minimalist,” certainly that was the term that was used in the ’70s and has stuck to some extent for better or worse, and it’s sort of an odd way to describe your work because so much of your work is maximalist in its ambitions. You write large-scale works about major historical figures and cataclysmic forces in history…So what does that word mean to you now and is it an historical period?

PHILIP GLASS: Well, of course it is. By ’75, it was over. Everybody knows that. There were a few people who continued in that style more or less, some more than others, but in fact, the distinguishing features of that music were perfected in the late sixties and early seventies, and clearly no one really does it anymore. However, to be honest, they say, “What should we call it?” and I say, “Why are you people so lazy? Why do you just keep repeating…This is not my problem, this is your problem!” The difficulty is, for example, I’m out doing something like La Belle et la Bête, and I read in the paper that there’s a minimalist opera…and I said, “Well, you know, what purpose is it serving? Are you helping, are you preparing the listeners for what they’re going to hear?” And clearly they’re not. So the difficulty is that it doesn’t prepare anybody for anything. It’s basically what the editor of the newspaper wants. They want, and you can see, the men and women who write these things, they have like 400 words or 500 words and if they can find a word, even if it doesn’t mean anything, at least it sounds like it means something and instead of explaining what it is or talking about theater music or talking about collaborative work or talking about world music or developments in experimental music, which all takes time and patience to do, they just slap a word on it and they’re done.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I thought it was so peculiar that when John Cage died and got a page one obituary in the New York Times, the headline called him a minimalist composer.

PHILIP GLASS: Well, I think they were confused weren’t they?

FRANK J. OTERI: It was the strangest thing!

PHILIP GLASS: It was strange. These things aren’t so important, frankly. The point, in fact, is that it is very difficult to deal in the historic present. Very few people can do it. The history of criticism is a history of failure. That’s what it is. No one at the time understood; whether it was Stravinsky or Beethoven or Mozart, no one knew what it was.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you talked about the limited word space, the limited word count of articles, the limited attention spans audiences now have as a result of the entertainment industry. In a way, everybody is hoping to find Cliffs Notes for life, and so we have this word minimalism. I think to most people, it just means repetition.

PHILIP GLASS: Yeah, I don’t pay attention to it. If anyone bothers me and asks me what kind of music I write, I say theater music, which has the virtue of being truthful.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you also write symphonies.

PHILIP GLASS: But I write more operas than symphonies. I’ve written fifteen operas and only six symphonies. I’ve written 20 dance scores; it goes on and on. So there is much more theater work. I would say 80 percent of the work is for theater. So when I say “music theater,” that comes much closer to what I’m actually doing. And you know, I don’t really care what they write. It doesn’t matter. I don’t read it anyway. I think it’s unfortunate if it is misleading. The value of journalism should be the dissemination of information and understanding and when it does the opposite it’s rather a bit of a failure. But on the other hand, looking at it from a different point of view, it’s difficult to listen to a piece of music that’s new and to get a grip on what it’s about. Very few people have been able to do that and, as I said, the history of music criticism is mostly a history of failure and we all know that! It’s not even a big secret and how can it be otherwise? You take people who have to go out every night of the week, let’s say four, five nights, to review concerts and this goes on for years and years. To say that they’re tired is not even getting close to describing the amount of burnout that goes on in that profession. You’ve seen it yourself. I’m sure that the kind of bitterness and anger that you read in a lot of the writing comes from the difficulties of the job, because it’s just awfully hard. Because it’s demanding and it’s unrewarding and it doesn’t pay well and no reads it anyways and no one cares and it’s all thrown in the garbage a week later. There are people who can talk about the culture in a general way and who speak in terms of criticism and review work in terms of a larger cultural landscape, who know literature and who know film … There are people like that, but we’re not talking about the average writer.

FRANK J. OTERI: And of course when you add to that what goes into a premiere of a new piece of music, it’s predicated on so many things. With an orchestra, for example, most pieces get two rehearsals.

PHILIP GLASS: Yeah, it doesn’t even sound that good.

FRANK J. OTERI: It doesn’t sound like what you wrote. You go to performances of your works and I’m sure you don’t recognize them most of the time.

PHILIP GLASS: Well, in most cases with my pieces, we’re playing works that we’ve played hundreds of times. They sound terrific. That’s what the value of the Ensemble has been. For example, when we do Einstein again, we’ll play the pants off of it! I mean, we can really play it; we can play all this music. And there is now a growing generation of conductors who know how to conduct this music and do play it. For me, Dennis Davies was a very important one, and Christopher Keene helped, he’s gone now. But there are younger people, Dante Anzolini, who was an assistant for Dennis, has been playing a lot of works of mine and Carl St. Clair from the West Coast is doing work. So I’m finding that there are conductors now in their forties or fifties, maybe fifteen or twenty years younger than me, who grew up with the music and so the idiom is not foreign. And besides, the players in the orchestras are no longer as angry about it as they clearly were in the ’60s. I can tell you a lot of funny stories of things that happened with major orchestras, whether it was the Philadelphia or the Cleveland and even the Los Angeles Philharmonic, behavior that was incredibly rude, which doesn’t happen anymore.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what changed?

PHILIP GLASS: A lot of people died and new people grew up. That’s what really happens. Old people, the people who hate you, get older and go away and the people who are younger and like you grow up. You never convince anybody of anything different, they just die. That’s what happened. Those people aren’t there anymore. The people that used to throw things at me probably, the people who screamed at concerts, they don’t bother to go out or they’re not there!

FRANK J. OTERI: You’re the first person who’s ever said this to me. [laughs]

PHILIP GLASS: But it’s obviously true. I mean, think about it. Could it be anything else but that?

FRANK J. OTERI: It makes a lot of sense.

PHILIP GLASS: It’s the only thing that makes sense! It’s simply demographics. People get older and they go away. The younger people get older and they grew up listening to me. The people who grew up listening to me now are running record companies! You know, you have people like Hurwitz, and not just him, there are A & R people at a lot of the major labels who grew up loving this music, who loved Einstein… So what happened to the people that were there before? They’re gone! Just gone. Such a simple way of looking but that’s what it is. The great wave. The tide comes in; the tide goes out. That’s all it is.

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