By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
One of the largest-looming and most controversialcomposers 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.
LA WEEKLY: By the timeKoyaanisqatsi 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.
SinceKoyaanisqatsi and its companion piecesNaqoyqatsi andPowaqqatsi 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 , 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.
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