Before the premiere of his eleventh symphony, Glass discusses his resistance to retrospection, his renewed political focus, and the code connecting classical and contemporary in his music.
INDY: Your eleventh symphony is coming to UNC on Wednesday, the day after its premiere in New York and your eightieth birthday. Did working on it cross over with compiling the box set of your first ten symphonies that came out last year?
PHILIP GLASS: No, that was earlier. I didn't start the eleventh symphony until eight or nine months ago, and the box, you know, those things take a little time to put together. When you consider that I began writing symphonies when I was fifty-three, I haven't written many. [Laughs] I almost escaped without any symphonies at all, and then these commissions started coming in. I was writing almost one a year for a while. It's been great; I've enjoyed it a lot. I didn't think I was going to be a symphonist at all, but there you are—what do we know?
I wonder if immersing yourself in your symphonies that way gave you any perspective on what you had accomplished.
Well, when I'm writing I'm not really thinking about that. When I think about the way I've been working, there are operas, there are symphonies, there are concertos, there are films—whole categories, and each has a lineage of its own, its own history, though they also have connections with each other. To tell you the truth, I've never sat down and listened to all ten symphonies. Maybe you have; that's why we did it—what was it like? [Laughs]
I can conjure them up in my memory, but that's not the same as going through the experience of listening to them. If, someday, I ever retire, which is unlikely, I will maybe go through and listen to everything I've done—but I doubt I'll actually do that. I haven't really had the chance to reflect on it in that way, and maybe I don't want to. I like the idea of living in the near-present rather than going into the deep past. So when I think of symphony eleven, I think of eight, nine, and ten; I don't think of anything before that. In that sense, it does share some ideas that came up in the latter symphonies. But there are big differences between eight, nine, and ten, and you'll see in eleven, again, there's a big change. That's just the way I work, I guess.
You're busy working on the next thing while we immerse in the last one.
What I do, I go out and play a lot, and that's usually the piano music. Because of that, the piano music is always very fresh in my mind. I can play pieces from the eighties or nineties anytime. Because I'm out playing those pieces, I'm constantly thinking about them in a certain way. I don't do that with the symphonies, concertos, or operas. You make me feel like I've been deficient! [Laughs] But in a funny way, I'm free of it. By doing it this way, I'm not locked into my own history, and I think that has allowed me to make changes more rapidly.
Your music has assumed such a strong artistic and commercial life of its own. Do you maintain a separate personal connection with it, especially something as intimate as the piano pieces? Can you still sit down, play them, and see yourself reflected in them as you change over time?
Well, I do. That's the only place I can do it, because they're available to me just by sitting at the piano. Reading through music is not so much fun as playing it. When I was a very young guy I used to go to my university classes and if the professor was boring, I'd have the Beethoven quartets with me, and I'd read them during the class. But it wasn't the same as hearing them. So it's the piano music where the intimate relationship really comes out—and the ensemble music, which is a whole other category. I've been writing music for ensemble for forty years; there's a huge body of work. That, we also play. Now we're doing what we call highlights concerts—they're really retrospective concerts, though I think retrospective is kind of a funny way to think about it, so I just think of highlights.
When it comes to the operas, I've recently been thinking about them because of the political situation in our country today. I began to ask myself which operas I've done are dedicated to the idea of social justice and politics, and it turns out there are maybe six or eight of them. I hadn't realized there were that many—quite a bit of work that has to do with the way composers have the opportunity to be part of the political conversation.
I did this opera Appomattox in Washington, D.C., just a year ago. That was interesting, because it ends up to be about voting rights. I did it for that reason, because the Voting Rights Act that Lyndon Johnson put through was being gutted and taken apart. We did it at the Kennedy Center and two of the Supreme Court justices were there, and I was able to talk to them afterward.
And these charged political times have caused you to take special note of political themes in your operas?
Oh yes. Waiting for the Barbarians is very much about torture, very much about Guantanamo. And of course, there's Satyagraha, which is about social change through nonviolence. So there were a lot of these things I was drawn to, and right now, what we're talking about doing—because I'm also the publisher of my music—is going to opera houses and trying to get them to perform the political operas as much as we can. In other words, the time when they resonate so much with the world we're living in is the time they should be done.
These are things the performing arts in North Carolina have been struggling with.
I certainly know about that; it's part of the national discussion. I know the place where I'm going is a little like Austin was to the rest of Texas in the old days. Now we have this situation in North Carolina, if I'm not mistaken, where Chapel Hill is this center of progressive thinking in a state which is otherwise not that progressive. What happened with the governor was shocking to the whole country. We didn't realize that seems to have been a bit of a habit in North Carolina—when the new government came in, the old government tried to defang them as much as possible. It's funny how we as a country are more interested in party than in country, or the Constitution which everyone claims to be so in love with. Most of us haven't read it, and the president acting in the White House seems to be ignorant of it.
It's reassuring to hear cultural leaders talking about these things publicly.
The interesting thing is that we get to do it because no one pays attention to us. [Laughs] The establishment is not threatened by the artists because the artists aren't taken seriously; that's not such a good thing. But it does mean that, these days, we don't get involved in the kind of censorship that happened when McCarthy was around. I remember what that was like, people losing their jobs because they were accused of being communists. But the arts in America are only taken seriously in terms of how they affect the GNP, which is huge, and the amount we export to other parts of the world.
When we heard the NEA was being shut down, it's a shame of course, it's terrible—don't forget it was Nixon who started that, by the way, so it's very complicated. But the fact is that the arts are going to survive because it never depended on the NEA. It's not like Amsterdam or London or Berlin or Rome, where there is substantial financial support for the arts. It's a shame to take it away, because it's an embarrassment for the country, but in fact the artists and most of the institutions will keep working because most of them are privately supported anyway. But that doesn't mean it's OK to shut it down. These things are so complicated, I don't know. We started out talking about music and we ended up talking about politics.
It seems it all trends toward Trump lately.
I did an opera in 2014 about The Trial by Kafka, which was written in 1914. It's completely about the corruption of bureaucracy, and it's shockingly modern. How did this guy in 1914, thirty years before Orwell or any of that stuff, before doublespeak and "alternative facts" ... you have to laugh about that, it's like it's out of a comic book.
I've been reading Plato, and when he writes about oligarchy, he could easily be writing about Trump.
Plato was totally against democracy; he said, if you do that, you're going to have a bunch of idiots running the country! [Laughs] And here we are. I remember reading Plato when I was in the university fifty years ago ... no, sixty years ago ... sixty-five years ago! I was amazed in that time, the mid-1950s, that someone could have had as clear a vision of the social contract as Plato did.
I've often wondered about the technological side of your music's cultural influence as well as the artistic side. The repetitive structures you focus on have a historical lineage in music, but they also feel like a prophecy of the digital age of looping, replication, proliferation. We recognize something of our world's psychic structure in them. Did you have a sense of that?
Oh, absolutely. I came under the influence of Ravi Shankar; I was working with him for a long time and was very close to him until he died. I was aware that I had borrowed from Indian music basically a binary structure. We didn't even know what the word "binary" meant when I was doing this. But I was working in binary language, and that became the basis of the rhythmic structure of the music, and is to this day. I use twos and threes, which is the same as ones and zeros, odds and evens. One of the reasons I think the music has had so much currency with the younger audience is that you can hear it. It's written the way the computers are programmed. I'm not a computer, and don't program it that way, but the basic materials, the nuts and bolts, are binary, and what you do with it is what you do with it.
But that was a classical tradition of concert music that had been going on for hundreds of years. When I was a kid at Juilliard, in the music department there were no books about Indian music, no books about African music, no sense of global music at all. Of course that's very different today. I got involved with Ravi Shankar and, later, African music, music from Australia, music from all over. Now I'm working with some Indian musicians from Mexico. It's much more common now, and people understand it much better. In 1966 and '67, if you walked around the East Village in New York, you could hear people playing the sitar, the music coming out of the apartments. It was wild, actually, the effect of his presence in popular music. I don't know if it's ever been accurately accounted for. I had already known him for several years by the time the Beatles discovered him; I was a little ahead of them, but that's the only way—they were ahead of me in many other ways. [Laughs]