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‘A Freshness I’m Pleased With’ – Glass Discusses His Eleventh Symphony and His Place

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, January 30, 2017

On January 26th, Carnegie Hall announced the appointment of American contemporary composer Philip Glass to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair for the 2017-2018 season. And this week Glass celebrates his eightieth birthday with the world première of his Eleventh Symphony at the hall. Mr. Glass spoke with me about the Eleventh, about its première, and about his long, fruitful and happy relationship with Dennis Russell Davies and the Bruckner Orchester Linz.

ZEALnyc: Are there things that you particularly want people to know about the new symphony?

PG: I think it should be interesting that this relationship with the orchestra has gone on for a long time. Dennis Davies has been the conductor there for fifteen years, and I’ve done a number of symphonies with them. I’ve developed a relationship with an orchestra that any composer would envy, and that I don’t have in America with anybody—and very few people do. We just don’t have that here.

That can happen in Europe, and it’s something that we don’t talk much about, but having a regular relationship with an orchestra means that you get to know the players, When you’re writing for them you’re writing for specific people in the orchestra.

It means also that you have a chance to develop an audience, and that happened very much for me at Linz, to the point where when they opened the new opera-house, I was commissioned to write the opening piece. By the way they have some very good composers there. But I had a big enough audience-base at that point, and they were interested in what I was doing. So I wrote a new opera with an Austrian writer, Peter Handke.

You know what people always do with opera-houses: the first piece is almost always Die Meistersinger, and you can understand why. They spend all this money on the opera-house, and they don’t want to take a chance on some piece they don’t know. Well, Rainer Mennicken, who was the head of it, had a different idea: he thought he should have a new piece for the new opera-house, and they stipulated that they wanted everybody in the house to have a role—the ballet-company was there, the children’s choir was there, everybody who worked there was in the opera, and they played it a number of times.

Now, this tour by the orchestra is being brought about through the governor of Upper Austria, who’s very proud of the work that they’ve done — getting behind the building of the new opera-house and supporting the orchestra. So they have an eight-city tour in America, with an American conductor and an American composer. I’m not trying embarrass anyone, but…. [Laughs.]

ZEALnyc: No, it’s a huge distinction, and most composers can only dream of working in an environment like that.

PG: It is! And it’s a benefit to me beyond what you can imagine, because when you have a relationship with an ensemble, things work out in a very interesting way. For example, when we were rehearsing this piece—I went over for the rehearsals, which I have to do, of course. I presented ideas in terms of the performance which they hadn’t even seen, even though I’ve been with them for fifteen years. Things I’d done with my ensemble which I didn’t think I could try with an orchestra. And we actually took ten minutes off to work through how the music would be played, and they were completely enthusiastic about playing something new. You know, how great is that?

ZEALnyc: No “been there, done that”?

PG: None. As far as Linz is concerned, they’ve heard all the symphonies. In New York, we did have the Ninth, but I don’t think the Eighth has ever been played here, and the Tenth has not been played here. The Sixth has, and maybe the Fifth. It’s very spotty. I don’t want to call anyone out, but there are some local orchestras that have never played a symphony of mine.

But what I meant was, I could write a piece that was for the players, and would be interesting for them because they’ve played all the other pieces. So here’s a new one, and they participate in the discovery of the music in the same way that I do. Well, it’s not exactly the same, of course, but they have an anticipation for it. This is not something that they dread doing, and you have to force them to do—they want to do it. I walk in there, and you know how orchestras applaud by tapping their bows and things. When you get that applause it’s very warm, and when I went to the first rehearsals, that’s how they greeted me.

ZEALnyc: So what’s the new piece like?

PG: I’m working in a kind of a “late-period” style now, if you might call it that. It’s related to recent operas—Appomattox and The Trial of Kafka, which are both very political pieces. I’ve done a good bit of that kind of work, going back to Satyagraha, with Gandhi, so that’s always been something I’ve been interested in. It helps to connect the work to the contemporary world.

But symphonies don’t usually have a program, and Symphony No. 11 has no actual program—it doesn’t tell a story of any kind—but it’s working within the language that I’m working in right now. This has to do not so much with chords that have names, but more with how pieces develop melodically, and how the horizontal movement of the music generates the harmonic world that the piece lives in.

It’s a little bit different than the other way around, but it’s just the way I’ve learned to work, so that pieces don’t belong to chords; they belong to lines of music, and that’s very true of this piece. It does use a contrabass clarinet, and some of the instruments you may not find in some of the Romantic orchestras, but you can find in modern pieces. A lot of people don’t have contrabass clarinets—you just don’t find them—but people are making them, and it adds to the color of the orchestra. It doesn’t have two piccolos, but it has seven percussionists.

ZEALnyc: Wow!

PG: Yeah, I know that’s a lot. I’ll have to cut it down a little bit when it leaves Linz—can you believe it? I have seven players, plus a timpanist, so there’s eight people there, and some of them are women, and some of them are men, and they’re all back there playing. It’s a big lineup. So it’s an interesting piece: I spent two or three days with them going over a lot of it, and it has a freshness which I’m pleased with.

ZEALnyc: Well, that begins to answer the question that’s on everybody’s mind—as you look at eighty years, do you start thinking of yourself in larger terms, in terms of the whole canon?

PG: Well, I started to think recently, because we published the first ten symphonies in a box of CDs—now, I can’t say that I’ve sat down and listened to all ten of them, but some people have, and if you want to you can. You can listen to them backwards and forwards, ten to one or one to ten. I know some people who are very interested in this music will do that.

But I look at the music and look at the scores, I remember what I’ve done. But I’ve also begun to think about a large body of work in one medium, like the symphony orchestra, or operas, or piano pieces, or ballets, or concertos. I’ve worked in all those mediums, and at this point in my life there are significant numbers of them, so that the pieces relate not only to the time-period I’m writing in, but also to the lineage of music that they are part of.

ZEALnyc: Where would you place them in relation to, say, Beethoven, Shostakovich,…?

PG: [Laughs.] Well, you mention two of the best symphony-composers that ever lived, so what am I supposed to say?

ZEALnyc: You’re already two up on Beethoven.

PG: I know, but only because he died fairly young! In fact, after I finished Nine, Dennis Davies was teasing me, and he said “Well, now what are you gonna do?”, and I said, “Well, I’m gonna to do Ten immediately,” and I wrote it within eight weeks, so we could get over that. I wasn’t looking to have an Unfinished Symphony on my hands. And I said, “OK, now you can wait to see if I get up to Fifteen—I think that’s where Shostakovich finished.” His late symphonies are wonderful.

ZEALnyc: Oh, yes!

PG: It’s funny: I feel like a little bit of a dinosaur even writing symphonies. I have a few friends who write symphonies, but there are not that many of us.

ZEALnyc: I was going to ask you if there isn’t some kind of life-scale cognitive dissonance there, because you start out, and you’re on the cutting edge of everything, and here you are now, this Grand Young Man, working in all the definitive canonic genres. I mean, is that a turnaround, or is it just a natural progression?

PG: Well, I asked Dennis the same question some years ago: I said, “Dennis, why are you commissioning all these symphonies?”, because he commissioned ten of the eleven. I wrote my first one when I think I was fifty-three, so I could easily have escaped the whole exercise at that point. He said, “I’m not going to let you be one of those opera-composers who never wrote a symphony.” I said, “Well, you certainly have succeeded.”

I’m impressed that he stuck with it, and he got me involved with orchestral players and with the repertoire. As a young man I knew a lot about it. Not only did I go to music schools but my father owned a record-store. So I knew all about it. But I have entered into a relationship, into a living tradition, which I never contemplated doing.

But here I am, and now Number Twelve is being talked about already. I won’t say anything about it, because it’s too soon, but I think there will be a Twelve.

ZEALnyc: Our time’s almost up, but I wonder what you’re listening to right now. What’s caught your ear?

PG: [Long pause.] You know, it’s funny, because I’m listening to a lot of things, but it’s not concert music.

I’m very interested in global music. I’m going down to Mexico in April to work with some Mexican-Indian people who live in the barrios and they don’t even speak Spanish. I’ve worked in the fringes of the global-music world, and when I’m not listening to contemporary music—and there are some wonderful young composers in their thirties now, women composers, so things are happening right along –  there’s a lot of good new music around. But then I’m also listening to things from Africa.

On the [Carnegie] program are three songs that I wrote for Angélique Kidjo. She’s from Benin and she’s singing in the Yorùbá language, and they’re fantastic. The first translations she gave to me were in French, which I understood, but she wanted to do it in her own language. I had to phonetically study the language to figure out how the accents worked. We had a great time together, and in the end, she said, “Well, I can make it kind of fit, but I have to change a few things.” I said, “Well, change them!”, and she said, “Well, what can I do?” “Just pretend you’re Billie Holiday, and you can do whatever you want.” She stays very close to what I wrote, but I wanted her to bring her personality into the music, and she does: she’s a wonderful performer, and I’m so pleased that we’re getting to do it in Carnegie Hall.

ZEALnyc: It’ll be exciting to see. I’ve seen a little excerpt from it, and she looks very excited, but she also looks very respectful.

PG: She’s a very disciplined performer. She takes care of her voice, as any good singer must, and she respects the music profoundly.But she also has something to say. She can do all that and still be herself.

ZEALnyc: Thank you so much, and happy birthday!

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