I Don’t Care What You Think: Philip Glass on his new memoir and a careless career

Philip Glass is awesome. I’m a relatively recent convert to his churning, repetitive, deeply hypnotic music, but I could listen to it all day. Some people hate Philip Glass. The guy in front of me at the world premiere of Glass’ concerto for two pianos (with the LA Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall) last Friday could not contain his irritation, and made sure we all saw how bored and annoyed he was with Glass’ insistent, bewitching exploration of the same four chords. I get it. But I repeat (and repeat and repeat and repeat): Philip Glass is awesome.

This is the complete conversation I had with Glass for a recent Arts Alive radio story. We talked life, music, critics, praise, authorship and ownership, opera, film scores, commercial vs. non-commercial work, and reinvention. Just be warned: he doesn’t care what you think.

Tim Greiving: What compelled you to write down your life story in a book?

Philip Glass: It really started out in a different way. It was supposed to be a series of conversations, which would not have been very hard to do. I would’ve talked with an interviewer such as yourself—a pretty well-known writer, John Rockwell. Then they would transcribe the conversation, and that was the book. And then it turned out that he wasn’t available, and somebody else wanted me to do it anyway, and before I knew the commitment was changed from the conversation book to writing a book. And I think, probably, if I had known how much work it was going to be, I wouldn’t have done it.

TG: How long did it take, from beginning to end?

PG: From beginning to end, a couple of years. But I didn’t work a couple of years. I spent about four or five months. And I write in long hand, with yellow legal pads. The first draft was, I think, 90,000 words. And then they said I had left out some significant parts. I didn’t do anything for a year, and I went back after the second year, and they had a lot of ideas, and a lot of notes. I got a friend to help me sort through that, because… I’d already written it, you see. And here I was now doing the second draft, which I really hadn’t anticipated. Course, I don’t know anything about writing books, so I didn’t know there would be a second draft. I didn’t actually know that. But then, of course, it turned out there had to be a second draft. And I added another 70,000 words.

TG: Well, you’re clearly a literary person. You talk in the book about how much you read, and I think that comes through in your style of writing, and just the form and everything. It feels like a literary person wrote this book.

PG: My mother was an English teacher. I’m a musician, but before I went to Juilliard I went to a real university, where I learned how to do research. It was the University of Chicago in the ’50s, and I learned how to do research, how to go to the library and look up things. And later on when I began to write operas with subjects like Gandhi or Galileo or anybody, I had some sense of how to do the research. I didn’t always write the libretto. Eventually I hired professional writers to help, people like Christopher Hampton—very good writer—or David Henry Hwang, or Rudy Wurlitzer… I had good writers. But I wasn’t innocent of writing. I mean, I knew what kind of detail would be necessary, and I knew how to get it. But what I didn’t realize was how much work it was. Because, for me, writing music is something I’ve done so long, I don’t think of it as work. Writing was really… I had to sit down and do it. It was kind of a revelation, in a way, of several other things. I didn’t also realize how important writers are. Let’s put it this way: writers are held in very high esteem in our country. Much more than musicians or painters, or even poets. If you’ve written a book, you get invited to do interviews, like talking to you… And perhaps I would’ve talked to you anyway, because you’re interested in music. But there are a lot of interviewers and radio programs that are for authors. Now I had accidentally become an author, and now I was a person who had written a book, and I found that I was taken much more seriously in a certain way. Isn’t that a curious thing? This is a very American thing, I think. Or maybe it’s true in Europe as well.

TG: So did the process of mining your own life and career reveal anything about yourself or your music to you?

glass oldPG: It turned out to have been very useful. I’ve never kept a journal, so I didn’t have any of my own writing to fall back on. But I discovered that the thread of memory is very strong. Besides which, I had had formed a curious habit for a number of years of using music events as signposts for myself. So if you say a year like 1976, I knew what I wrote that year. I knew what I wrote in 1981, I knew what I wrote in 2001. So by using those as historical memory points, I could go back all the way to when I was a child. It was very interesting, because I think I learned things about myself which years of psychoanalysis did not reveal. Because there you’re dealing with kind of personal, naughty obsessions, which aren’t really that interesting. In fact, the cure for psychoanalysis is that you finally find it very boring to talk about yourself, you know, because the same old problems keep coming up. But I began to think about this in a different way. I began to think, Who’s gonna read the book? Well, that’s an interesting question. Who am I writing the book for? I decided I was writing the book for people who go to concerts. Now, that’s kind of obvious. But that doesn’t include musicologists, or even music experts like yourself, perhaps. I found, for example, that it was pointless for me to write in a technical language. For most of my audience, they don’t understand it. I didn’t want to write a book where, when people go to the interesting musical language parts, they simple skipped those pages. So I became interested in, not so much my own process—though that becomes very much a part of it—I became interested in the people that I met, the people that I knew. And in many ways, if you look at the photographs in the book, they’re not all famous people. They’re just people that were close to me. Over the years I’ve met a lot of famous people, and many of them are not in the book. All the people that gave blurbs for the back of the book—none of them are actually in the book. So that would’ve been like Marty Scorsese, or Paul Simon, or Peter Gelb, or Laurie Anderson. These are people who I’ve known. I wasn’t interested in writing a celebrity-based book, about famous people. So I began writing about people that were important to me, who it turned out, some of them were known, but most of them are not known. Like a man who is a farmer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia… you would never know. Or a cousin of mine who was a wonderful sculptor, but never became very well known. Or this friend who was from Paris and lived in New York, and he began teaching me French. People like that. So in a way that led me to a very personal kind of book, because it was really about the things that were important to me. And maybe not necessarily important to other people. Now, the funny thing is that I thought I was probably writing a book that no one would be interested in reading it or not [laughs]. Turned out to be not true at all. Turned out that people were very interested. One of the things that surprised me in the whole process was how much people like the book. I didn’t really write it so that people would like it. I was just starting to think about… what did I have to tell? What story do I have to tell? What is the story that can mean something to someone else? What is it worth my time to write about? And certainly, like, doing a harmonic analysis of Einstein on the Beach is not particularly interesting to anybody. But I could write about how Bob and I worked on it. And that was interesting.

TG: I thought your life story was so interesting—growing up in Baltimore, and all your experiences—and I thought you did that so well. I also thought how you traced your musical journey, from the tools you got at Juilliard and with Nadia [Boulanger] and sort of finding your voice, up to the very end where it seems like you’ve almost reached this metaphysical relationship with music, where you think in music and things like that… it was really interesting to watch that journey.

PG: I think that’s true. The curious thing is that, I find that my music continues to change. I’m not writing the music I wrote even ten years ago. We’re here in Los Angeles at Disney Hall, backstage somewhere, and I’m talking about a piece of music which doesn’t sound like anything that you probably have heard before. You’ll know it’s me, but you might be surprised at what I’m doing. And maybe not. But what I find is interesting is that the way of thinking can continue to evolve.

TG: You talk about how, early in your career, you were thought of by some as a musical “dunce”—that was your term. And you’re a polarizing figure in a lot of ways, and people have strong feelings about your music. And based on that kind of comment, it’s not just that people dislike your music, it’s almost as if they’re questioning your intelligence, or judging your intellect—not just that, you know, “this music isn’t for me.” It seems like you’ve had to deal with that a lot, or maybe that’s fallen away over the years.

PG: That certainly happened a lot. But from the beginning, I was protected from that kind of criticism, because I actually knew what I knew. I had a very good education in music, with one of the great teachers of any time, by Nadia Boulanger. And had close associations with people like Ravi Shankar, and other very wonderful musicians—like the Labèque sisters, who are playing the pieces tomorrow night. Wonderful musicians. Conductors like Dennis Russell Davies… all kinds of people. My relationships in the actual professional world of music have been very good. So when some of the people think that I’m a jerk, what do I care? And as I said someplace in the book, I have the “I don’t care what you think gene.” I really have it big time. And, you know, it’s the one thing that saves you a lot of time and anxiety. If you really, really, truly don’t care what people think about you, it’s a passage to freedom in itself, all by itself.

TG: So you haven’t felt like you’ve been in a defensive posture during your life—at any point in your life—with your music?

glass yougnPG: In a certain way I did, because when I came back to the States, instead of sending my music out to be auditioned by conductors and other people, I just said, “You know what? I’m not gonna do that. I’ll just start my own group, and I’ll play it myself.” So in a way you could say that can be interpreted as defensive. I mean, I was not interested in rejection by people who I didn’t respect. There was an important music prize… (By the way, my first music prize I got when I was 75. That didn’t bother me at all. I kind of liked it, actually!) But early on I was asked by one of these institutions to submit some work for a prize. I wrote them back and said, “I’d like a list of all your previous winners, the names of the judges, and the amount of money that you involve.” They never even replied. I knew they wouldn’t. I knew that once I wanted to know who the judges were they wouldn’t talk to me. But I thought, Why do I want to be judged by a completely autonomous jury? So you can say, “Is that a defensive position, or is it an aggressive one?” I’m not really sure. But I decided to sidestep completely the normal ways that composers are acknowledged or authenticated by other people. I simply ignored it. I put together a group, I began playing in lofts in downtown New York and in museums. I began doing tours I arranged myself. Eventually I had people that helped me do that part of the work. So, you can say, “Is that defensive?” Maybe. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of a bunch of nitwits. Is that defensive? I don’t know.

TG: So if criticism doesn’t faze you, ’cause you don’t care what they think, does praise feed you?

PG: Yeah, it’s the other side of the same coin. When friends of mine will say, “People will be playing this music and remembering it for years”… it’s not that I doubt that, but I never even think about it. I should say I truly don’t care. I’m involved in a living encounter with audiences and with new music that I’m working with. I haven’t really thought very much about what goes on after that. On the other hand, I have a copyright on all my music, because that has economic value. I have family, and I have relatives, and I have children. So I’m careful about that, and I’ve been very good about that. In the same way, I never accept any publishing offers at all. I started my own publishing company. I actually own all my work. I own it—a hundred percent. (Except for a few film scores, which, as you know, Hollywood doesn’t work that way.) But mostly I own a hundred percent of what I do, and most composers only own 50 percent. There was one company that said they wanted to publish me, and I said, “What is the advance gonna be?” They said, “Oh, there’s no advance.” I said, “Well, why would I do that?” And they pulled out a bunch of music by Copland and Bernstein and Shostakovich, and said, “Well, don’t you want to be with these guys?” I said, “Is that the offer?” They said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Tell you what. I’m leaving now. If you have anything to offer, you can write me a letter. If I don’t reply, the answer is no.” And I never got another letter. And as a result I now own the publishing. I’m getting ready to publish an 11-disc—no one in the business in their right mind would do it, but I’m not in my right mind—I’m gonna do the ten symphonies in 11 CDs. We’re gonna make a box. And, you know, we’ll probably break even. We won’t make a lot of money on it. But I can do it, is the point. Same thing with the publications. I published the book of etudes myself, and I got a self publisher. They own a small percentage of the work, and they can be very good to work with. But if anyone wants to use the grand rights or the operas or anything like that, they have to come to my company. I’ve encouraged almost all my friends, and the young people, to try to own their work. I really think that ownership and authorship belong together, that the author should own the work. And if they give it up, there should be good financial rewards for it. And there often are not.

TG: You brought up film scores in that context, and I was actually surprised how relatively little attention you gave in the book to your film music work.

PG: Well, I’ve probably written 30 scores or so, of which I’d say maybe 12 of them came out really well. But here’s the point, Tim. As a composer, we have very little control over the results of those kind of collaborations—if you would like to call it that. The industry hardly even acknowledges that as a collaboration. I’m talking about the industry here in Hollywood. It’s changing now, because a lot of independent movies are made outside of the studios, and then the studios buy them, so it’s possible when you work in these independent kinds of associations, the composer has much more control over what happens. If you work within the industry itself, you have none. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t do good work. I think The Hours was a very good movie, and I really liked working on it. I liked the producer, I liked everything about it. And that was a Hollywood movie, par excellence. So it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It’s just, the chances of your doing what you want to do are slim. But that’s the rough and tumble of commercial work—which I have not cut myself off from. I’ve done commercial work. And I’m not even embarrassed about it. You know, I don’t have a teaching job. I don’t have a paycheck every week. If there’s commercial that I think I can do well, and if I can do it in a reasonable length of time, I’ll do it.

TG: Pretty early in the book, you talk about how important theatre work is to your identity as a composer, and how it always kind of forced you to come up with something new, because there wasn’t a template, there wasn’t a symphonic form to follow.

PG: It’s not only that. There’s always a family of collaborators in an opera. There’ll be a director, a designer, a costume designer, composer, writer… all these people involved. So it’s a family of collaborators. I tend to change—not tend to, I do change that family every time I work. I won’t work with the same people again… Well, over 35 years I’ve done five or six operas with Bob Wilson. But that’s one every seven or eight years. I don’t do a series with anybody. Because once I became too familiar with people, then the freshness of the encounter is lost. What’s interesting about it is to work with people you don’t know. They’re bound to do something that’s unexpected, and that you have no preparation for. Well, being unprepared is the beginning of invention and imagination. I wouldn’t say creativity—I don’t know exactly what that is. But invention and imagination. When someone presents you with something you have never thought about, or have no idea how to accomplish it, all the training and all your experiences become not helpful. So then you’re left in that wonderful place where you don’t know what to do. That’s the best place to be.

TG: You just mentioned how you’re writing music now that is different than what you were writing ten years ago. How important is reinvention and originality, and not repeating yourself… or is that not what’s driving you to write different music now?

glass pianoPG: It’s a little more complicated than that, Tim. I’ve talked to a lot of students—though I don’t teach formally, but if I’m at a school doing a concert I’ll talk to students, and they’re usually young people, 18, 19, in their early 20s—and I say, “I know that you’re all interested in finding a voice, and I know that this is something that causes a lot of anxiety for you about when you will find your voice.” And what I usually say is, “Actually, you will find a voice by the time you’re 30, almost for sure. But the problem isn’t finding a voice. The problem is getting rid of it.” You can find a voice alright, but continuing to find a new voice, over and over again, is very difficult. Not sounding like yourself becomes… And yet at the same time, for example, the way you walk is natural, the way you talk is natural, the way you comb your hair… if you have hair [laughs]. (Tim doesn’t have any hair… or not much, as I can see.) But a lot of these things we’re unconscious of, and that’s what we’re identified with. When it comes to a style of writing, or strategies of composing or writing, then we can address it more consciously. What makes it so difficult is how much of what we do is unconscious repetitions of who we are. Breaking through that into a different kind of encounter—that’s what collaborations are good for. When you meet someone who you don’t know, and you say, “Let’s do a ballet together.” They say, “Will you do a ballet?” I say, “Absolutely.” At that moment, the possibility of a new result, or a new strategy even, presents itself. Without that, we might evolve slowly, but far too slowly for my tastes. Now, if you look at my body of work… I’ve been writing music for, what?, oh my gosh, 60 years or something? In any five-year period it’s not gonna sound very different. But then in every ten year period you’ll hear differences.

TG: Is that a challenge you’ve set for yourself—to not sound like yourself? Or is it just a natural, organic evolution?

PG: I think it’s a natural impatience I have with easy solutions. I’m suspicious of them. And yet there’s a constant battle between habit and invention. Constantly. When I find myself in a strategy of habit, I almost can’t continue. And then I try to find another way to work. I don’t mean to say that I’m completely successful at it. I don’t think I am. However, that has led me into new ways of working.

TG: And it sounds like your relationship with music has changed, maybe even very recently, where it went from being this sort of conscious, mechanical exercise to something more intuitive…

PG: Well, you know, the funny thing is, I think it always was intuitive. Though, actually, in the early years, from 70–76, I was solving musical problems that had to do with structure and melody and harmony. And that was true up until my early 40s, I was still working out those problems. While I was doing that, I was still involved with kind of my own history. But once that was resolved, I felt I didn’t have to do it any longer. Now this is interesting, because we’re talking about “how do we make music new?” How do we use the language of music in a way… It’s been extensively challenged and reinvented for hundreds of years. So who am I to come up with a new idea? And in terms of the actual linguistic factor of how harmony and counterpoint contrive with melody to create the kind of tension that we find in music—just in western music, doesn’t happen in non-western music… I was thinking about “how do we hear at all?” How dense can the fabric of music be, to be still understandable and, let’s say, enjoyable? So I’m pushing that door in a little bit. Maybe Scriabin was doing something like that. I remember I used to listen to Scriabin. I didn’t really like the music, but I thought he was a wonderful composer. And I went, “Why did he write like that? Why did he do that?” Now, I don’t think anything like Scriabin—thank god. I think I’d be horrified if I did. But now I think I understand what he was trying to do. Maybe he was trying to hear music in a different way.

My thanks to Philip Glass and the folks at Dunvagen.