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Philip Glass, Interviewed 

The composer talks soundtracks, composition and Gandhi.

Wednesday, Jul 15 2009
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One of the largest-looming and most controversial composers of the last century, Philip Glass pioneered the use of repetitive, hypnotic structures — commonly referred to as Minimalism — in a now-vast body of work that first arrived in the late ’60s with explorations of purely formal concerns in pieces such as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion and Music With Changing Parts, works that were performed with his chugging locomotive of an electric ensemble. The former NYC cabdriver from Baltimore, who’d studied music with William Bergsma, Vincent Pershichetti, Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, eventually collaborated with Ravi Shankar, which profoundly altered his views on composition. This, in part, led to his series of larger-scale operas and symphonies for orchestra, including the masterpiece Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (198O) and Akhnaten (1984). In more recent times, audiences have become familiar with Glass’ scores for a number of high-profile films and documentaries such as The Truman Show, The Hours, Kundun and Cassandra’s Dream.

The Philip Glass Ensemble and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform several of Glass’ varied works at the Hollywood Bowl on July 23. The program features Glass’ well-known score for Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), a wordlessy unfolding explosion of images detailing our dying relationship with Mother Earth. The film will be screened in synchronization with the performance of the music.

Over the phone from Linz, Austria, where he was performing Kepler, a new opera based on the life of the astronomer, Glass discussed the modern composer’s new roles in mating sound and image for theater and film.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF L.A. PHIL - “When we talk about operas, or we talk about film, we’re talking about poetry.” -Philip Glass
  • Courtesy of L.A. Phil
  • “When we talk about operas, or we talk about film, we’re talking about poetry.” -Philip Glass

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LA WEEKLY: By the time Koyaanisqatsi came about, you were already well established in areas combining music and visuals.

PHILIP GLASS: At that point I was 41 years old, and I had been playing with my ensemble for 10 years. Einstein on the Beach was 4 years old, and the opera Satyagraha was composed by then. So I didn’t really consider myself a film composer, and at that time I wasn’t. Godfrey Reggio approached me with the idea of working with this film, and I said, “Well, I don’t write film music.” What a way to start in the film business, huh? But when I saw what he was doing, I was so impressed, and I said, Okay, I can do this.

Godfrey wanted to work in a collaborative form, and we established a rapport in a way of working, which I’ve since been able to do occasionally, as with Errol Morris and other independent filmmakers doing unusual kinds of documentary films, such as Morris’ A Brief History of Time.

I’ve been able to work with other people in which the music enters the creative process at a very early stage; I’ve done that with Martin Scorcese’s Kundun. And I just finished this film with Bernard Rose, called Mr. Nice, which was done completely that way; I was writing from the film script and scenario, and then wrote the pieces for where they’re going to fit in the film; then the film is edited with the music not in final form but in a recognizable form.

That’s far from ideal; it’s very hard to do. I’ve done a lot of other films in the way Hollywood films are usually done, which is, it becomes part of the postproduction process. There were some very good films done that way; The Hours was done that way; even with Woody Allen [Cassandra’s Dream], he had already completed filming, but I was able to make contributions very independently with him.

Since Koyaanisqatsi and its companion pieces Naqoyqatsi and Powaqqatsi did not employ text, how did you view the role of the music for these films?

We did it reel by reel. Godfrey would show me an assemblage of images; the editor hadn’t really cut it, but I knew what the subject would be. For example, it might be a whole section of clouds; I didn’t know exactly how it would be cut, but I knew the subject was clouds and it would be seven or eight minutes long.

Sometimes I was able to go far ahead of the process; I knew Godfrey would be shooting the opening images at the Serra Pelada mine in northern Brazil, and I wrote 10 minutes of music to fit Serra Pelada; then we recorded a demo of that, and then went to Serra Pelada, and the cinematographer was listening to the music when he was filming. I began to understand that the synchronization of music and film can happen in many different ways, not necessarily the way that we normally do it.

The process of synchronization is not necessarily a formula; it’s a process. If you stop using the formula and you go back to the process, very interesting things can happen. As you know, films are types of work that tend to honor the past rather than pursue experimental concepts. That doesn’t mean you can’t make beautiful films; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [1985], which I did with Paul Schrader, was done as kind of a combination — we talked a lot about it, and then I proposed a way of working, then was able to find a way to proceed. With Paul, I was able to find yet another way of working, which actually made it a lot easier to do the The Hours later on, because Mishima, like The Hours, plays with time. I found a way of playing with time with Mishima; I had to change it for The Hours, but as least I had an approach.

In your scores for films where the text or edited structure is front and center, such as The Hours or The Truman Show, how do you see the music’s function in relation to that text and imagery?

With The Hours, you have a story that takes place in three different decades. It’s kind of the same story but told in three different ways, and when I saw the film I realized that one way to do this story would be with three different pieces for three kinds of scenes. But I chose to do the same theme in all three places, and I felt that by doing that I could take a rope and yank the movie together, because there was a centrifugal force to the story, it seems to spin you out of the center. And I wanted to go back into the center.

I thought the story was about how the barriers of time begin to disappear, as the continuity of subject and emotion becomes more outstanding. Using the same theme for all three settings made you consider the emotional point of view of the solid being crossing over.

The mid-’90s saw you undertake a series of re-scorings of films by Jean Cocteau, including La Belle et la Bête, in which you actually replaced the original music with your own new composition.

It wasn’t really about replacing the original music, a beautiful score by Georges Auric, which I admired. What I was interested in was, I knew that people were making movies out of operas, but could I reverse the process? Could I make an opera out of a movie? It was about redefining the relationship between narrative and music.

And very interesting things happened, which I had no idea would happen. In the film Orphée, we look at it from the point of view of Cocteau — we’re looking at it through a camera lens; you’re looking at what he wants you to see. When you take Orphée and turn it into an opera, you’re looking at a stage; then your eye is free to look over the whole thing.

With La Belle, I tried to change that process by fitting the opera text into an existing film. With Les Enfants Terribles, we created a tableaux of dance in which the three sets of couples stack behind each other, each telling the same story, and I’m using the text from the film to tell the story.

These things are all different ways of asking the question: How does music and film and movement go together? If you ask that question without accepting a formula, then you find a different answer.

In any kind of music for film or for stage, isn’t the key challenge in how not to be too literal in one’s interpretation of the images and/or text?

Right now I’m doing an opera about Kepler, and I did an opera about Gandhi, and someone said, “Well, I liked the album, but you know Gandhi wasn’t like that.” And I said, “Yes, for one thing, he couldn’t sing.”

When we talk about opera, or when we talk about film, we’re talking about poetry. Film is not history, film is poetry. Opera is not history, opera is poetry. And the relationship of film and opera is extremely interesting, because in both of those forms all of the elements are collaborationally present — text, image, movement and music. Those are the four elements — the air, fire, water and earth — that film and opera share. When you put them together, you have opera, and now we have film.

The Philip Glass Ensemble and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, July 23.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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