Q&A: Philip Glass on Collaboration, Minimalism, and His Henry Miller Library Benefit Show with Joanna Newsom
Popular, influential, and cult musicians come through San Francisco every day. But it isn't every day when an event comes along that you know will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and serve a good cause.
On Monday, Philip Glass' Days and Nights Festival and local promoter (((folkYEAH!))) present a benefit for Big Sur's Henry Miller Memorial Library, an evening at the Warfield featuring Glass and Joanna Newsom, with violinist Tim Fain. Though the Henry Miller Library has received permission to host an abbreviated 2012 (June to October) performance season, featuring Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis, the Woodsist Festival, and the Flaming Lips, its long-term survival is in jeopardy. Federally-mandated health and safety requirements require upgrades that will cost more than the Library currently has in its savings. Monday's performance is a benefit for the massive upgrade project.
We spoke with Glass over the phone from his home in New York City about how the benefit came together, his relationship with the Library, and what audiences can expect on Monday. It was somewhat intimidating to think of salient questions to ask one of the most prolific and influential composers of the 20th Century, and difficult to find one that he hasn't been asked in his 75 years. But Glass made it easier with his thoughtful responses.
First, some background: Born in 1937, Glass went to the University of Chicago at age 15, studied philosophy and mathematics, graduated from Juilliard with Steve Reich, studied in Paris with prominent French composer Nadia Boulanger, and -- while pursuing his career in music -- worked for a moving company, as a plumber, and an even as a cab driver for the better part of the 1970s.
The word prolific almost fails to describe Glass' body of work, which includes more than 20 operas, 10 symphonies; numerous concertos for solo piano, violin, cello, harpsichord, timpani, and saxophone; works for orchestra, quartet, and chorus; 13 compositions for the Philip Glass Ensemble; music for over 15 theatre productions; and number of film soundtracks -- including The Truman Show and Koyaanisqatsi. (He was also nominated for Academy Awards for his musical work on Martin Scorcese's Kundun, Stephen Daldry's The Hours, and Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal.)
Glass' collaborators include artists like Richard Serra, writers such as Allen Ginsberg, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, and a laundry list of other musicians that includes such luminaries as Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Cohen, Brian Eno, and now, Joanna Newsom.
How did you come to participate in this concert with Joanna Newsom?
We have a mutual friend, Magnus Toren, the executive director of the Henry Miller Library. Magnus has for years been doing special events at the library. He's had Marianne Faithful there, he's had me there, he's had Laurie Anderson there, he's had all kinds of people at this little place down in Big Sur, so he has a very good connection with people in the music world. He was for some time suggesting that I meet Joanna Newsom, and for a year or so we never did meet, but then this concert came up and he said, Look let's do it now, and we could do it for the Henry Miller Library and also for the Days and Nights festival, which is a festival I started in Carmel in Big Sur.
She is in New York some of the time and Northern California some of the time, and once we decided to meet, it wasn't very hard to do. I'd been playing with Tim Fain, a wonderful violinist, and he is a great fan of Joanna Newsom's, and when he heard that she was going to be doing this, he said, "Can I play too?" and I said, "You bet you can!" The idea of violin and piano and harp is a classical setup. It's a beautiful combination, you can hear everything, there is great clarity, and every instrument has its own voice. We had never gotten together until that first rehearsal here at my house in New York, and we spent about three hours the first day and another three hours the next day and we came up with some very nice music.
When was it that you first got together?
Oh, this started happening maybe about a month ago, very recent. We had been talking about it all through the fall. Those kinds of short schedules are common, people don't really know their schedules until it gets much closer. So we began rehearsing then, and we've had a number of rehearsals together. Our musical thinking was very much in alignment. She would pick out things to play with the piano and find that place on the harp. It's been a very enjoyable encounter, and at this concert you'll all get to hear it.
What has the process of your collaboration been like?
Well, we sit around together and we say, "Who wants to start?" We don't have leaders, we have collaborators, so she'd say, "I have a new song, let me play it for you," and she'd be playing and I'd begin playing something to go with it, and she wrote out part of the structure which is unusual. Meanwhile Tim was already writing a part for it, and that would be one piece. Then I took a piece that Tim and I play together and she said found something very nice to go with it, something that we hadn't heard before. So basically we were bringing to the music new pieces, but also pieces that we hadn't imagined in a trio setting, so there will be solos, duets, and trios. It will be very much of a back and forth between the larger ensemble and the smaller groups.
You've had quite a prolific career. Throughout your years in the music business, have you encountered anyone like Newsom?
I love people of that level. She's on a very high level of accomplishment and ability. Wu Man is a wonderful pipa player who lives in San Diego. I could have put Wu Man in that setup and we would have had four people and it would have been fantastic. Then there's Foday Suso, a kora player from Africa. Basically these kinds of collaborations are really visions of global music, people coming from very different traditions, where the overlapping of traditions is so strong that it just seems to be a natural fulfillment of an idea.
In what ways does Joanna Newsom stand out amongst other musicians?
I'm a very curious musician myself and I find that she is, too. I'm always interested in meeting new people. When Magnus began talking about her, I began listening to her, and I began hearing her. You know how that happens -- suddenly I was hearing her on the radio all the time, I didn't even have to look for her, she was there, so I kind of knew her by ear. The same thing happened very recently when I began doing some work with Stephin Merritt from Magnetic Fields. Tim [Fain] is an absolutely top-of-the-line classical violinist. He plays all the concertos, he plays my concertos, but he can also sit in with a soul band or jazz band, and likes to play with people in global traditions. I see that with Joanna because she had no problem working with us at all.
And it's not a question of age. We're all different ages. It's about how you align yourself in the world of music and where your loyalties are, and basically I don't have any. I have a lot of alignments and very few loyalties, which means I can play with whoever I want to. I give myself permission to do that. Many people do that and some people don't. Some people will not get away from what they know, it could be funk or reggae or classical and they won't leave it, and other people are completely ready to. Percussionists often do that. Their instruments allow them to do that very easily. So you'll find percussionists who can do indigenous music very well from the country they're from, whether it's Africa or Mexico, and they can also mix in with all kinds of other music.
But is this kind of a way of working, where we're blending together, and yet it's not a kind of Esperanto, where everything is becoming the same. It's that you come to the meeting with who you are, and that becomes the gift that you bring to the collaboration. Finding the commonalities of those traditions, that's the sweet part that you're looking for, and it can happen. I've seen Paul Simon do that with Graceland years ago. I was around when he was doing that in Washington and it was great. He would be picking music from South Africa and blending it with his music.
In an interview, you said to Nico Muhly: "John Cage gave me permission to do whatever I wanted to do. And then I gave you permission to do whatever you wanted to do. That's what one generation can do for the next." In what ways do you think your music has opened the doors for artists like Joanna Newsom?
I don't know, really. You'd have to ask her. But I find that younger musicians are happy to play with me. They know the early work, they've grown up with it, it's not new to them in the sense that it suddenly came into the world. I brought it into the world, and now it's there. One of the great pleasures for me is working with people, sometimes younger than me and sometimes the same age as me. It's not about gender or age or ethnicity. It has to do with certain commonalities about music, which, even though you may retain the local flavor of what you do, it will still be able to blend with other things. The trick is to bring what you know to the collaboration, and Joanna does that fantastically well.
The "minimalist" label is often attached to your music.
It's not going to work. If you tell people it's a minimalist concert, they'll think you're crazy. I played a concert last night downtown in New York at Battery Park and there were pieces I played from '69 and '72 that were hardcore minimalist and I introduced them that way, but none of that music will appear in this concert. I've been writing and playing music for more than 40 years, so it's like saying, Yeah, you can wear a dress that you wore 30 years ago and it can be interesting, but you may not be wearing that sometimes. So the trouble with the label is that the label is not fluid enough. The label got stuck in the 1970s, and it gets people into trouble. It doesn't get me into trouble, because the music is the music, but it gets the writers into trouble when they tell the audience that they're going to hear something and they don't hear it. There's not going to be one line of music repeating over and over again, it's not going to happen, and it hasn't happened for years.
On the other hand, last night I played two pieces from the '60s and '70s in the context of other music that happened, music from The Truman Show, music from after Sept. 11, pieces from the last 10 years. And at a concert it's very much fun to do that, and the audience gets into it, they like that. No one expects you to be the same for 30 or 40 years. Paul Simon is writing new music right now. So is Paul McCartney. So is Lou Reed. They're not writing the songs they did when Lou was in Velvet Underground. But very often people will play those hits because everyone wants to hear it.
Joanna's still a little young for that, but she won't be after a while. She'll have a body of work that spans 30 or 40 years eventually, we hope so, and I won't live to see it, but you will perhaps. I asked her about some older piece and she said, "I haven't played that piece in a while and I have to get it back in my fingers." You have to be able to do the old pieces. Debbie Harry can do that. She can still sing "Heart of Glass" beautifully almost in the same pitch as she sang it in when she was in Blondie, but she'll sing new songs too. That's the gift of age, to be able to have suppleness in change.
To better prepare this San Francisco audience, can you talk about what you will be playing at the Warfield?
I'll be playing pieces from 1991 and 1976, there'll be a bit of a spread, but because I'm playing with Joanna we're fiddling on pieces that would work in a language of music that we're both working in right now.
Can you talk about your connection with the Henry Miller Library?
I have a long history with it. I drove a motorcycle down from New York and got all the way to the Henry Miller Library in 1965. A long time ago! The library wasn't there then, but I went to the area because of its history. And what Magnus [Toren, executive director] has done with the library, it's become a wonderful bookstore, and he has a performance place next to it in the redwood grove that's beautiful.
There's a spirit to the Henry Miller Library that is pre-hippie, pre-beatnik. You know, Henry Miller was writing in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s. He is one of our grandparents, he's part of our lineage, the same way that Allen Ginsberg and William Boroughs are part of our lineage. These are the writers who tried to describe the world they really lived in and often were ignored in their lifetime and became very famous afterwards. But it's made the Henry Miller Library a destination place for people interested in American writing and history. Just to be within a few hundred yards of where he lived and worked for some people is a big deal. It's very inspiring, besides being an absolutely gorgeous place.