Philip Glass: Complex Minimalist The composer discusses his new 10-CD collection, the appeal of his "needle-stuck-in-the-groove music," growing up in Baltimore and his love for science.


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Philip Glass: Complex Minimalist

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The music of Philip Glass elicits an array of opinions. Some love it. Some hate it. Some just don't get it. That was especially true of Philip Glass's early music, like this piece, "Music with Changing Parts," from 1970.

(Soundbite of song "Music with Changing Parts")

MONTAGNE: On his website, Philip Glass' music from this period is elegantly described as immersing a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops. When he sat down to talk about a newly released retrospective of his work, Philip Glass was a bit more plainspoken.

Mr. PHILIP GLASS (Composer): This is what people used to call theneedle-stuck-in-the-groove music.

MONTAGNE: Was that descriptive or a compliment thing or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLASS: Oh, I think it was meant pejoratively, but the point is, is that the kind of attention that we pay to music is a little bit different with this music. Because things, events happen in the music but rather more slowly than you're used to. So it was like taking a microscope and looking at something very close up, and you'll see things that you never would have seen before. That kind of happens to music when you slow down the rate of change. The music isn't slow, but the rate of change is slow.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: If someone said Philip Glass's music puts me in a trance, you wouldn't take that as an insult.

Mr. GLASS: No, no. But I would also point out that the players are not in a trance or they wouldn't be able to play it. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline and concentration to do this kind of music. In those days, the days of the early '70s, I was playing all over the place. I remember I did a tour of New York City parks at one point - with the parks department, I got a license from them - and we would set up and whoever was around would be the audience. And I didn't explain what it was, I would just play the music. And we heard all kinds of things. We heard people saying, you guys can't play, or to some - I remember we were playing up in the Bronx someplace. And there was a bunch of young people there, and one guy said, what do call this music, mister? And I said, I don't know. What do you call it? He said, I call it Buddha rock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLASS: And it was a hilarious to hear some young guy in the Bronx, this is what he heard.

MONTAGNE: I just wonder, when critics don't like your music they can be pretty...

Mr. GLASS: Oh, they get very mean. Now, here's the thing, Renee, that you have to remember. Though we were vilified and I particularly, you know, as the composer, by a certain portion of the press. At the same time, we got huge amounts of attention. Without that kind of reaction, I doubt that we would have had the kind of public that we ended up with. People got curious about us, you know. I mean, if it was so bad, how bad - you know, what was it, you know?

MONTAGNE: So you would want to thank the headline writer in the early '70s who wrote - I'm just reading one of the - music of Philip Glass called, sonic torture.

Mr. GLASS: Yes, that's right. That was one of her favorite ones.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The world that you grew up in did involve a father who owned a store that sold - who sold records.

Mr. GLASS: Yeah, Ben Glass had a little record store - not - this was long before the days of - when you had these megastores. But it was one of the two stores in Baltimore that you could buy classical music. And my father, who was self-taught entirely, knew a lot about music. And I was in the store working - my brother and I, my brother Marty and I were in the store on the weekends from the age of 12. Of course, in those days, that wasn't child labor because we weren't paid so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLASS: It was a family business, and we were there when Elvis Presley first came out, and we were handing his records over the counter. It was an amazing period. The music was changing - it began to change very rapidly about that time. Rock and roll was beginning to show its face.

MONTAGNE: Rock and roll makes sense to me in a record store in the 1950's, but didn't your father stock the store with other, more esoteric...

Mr. GLASS: Oh, yes, he had everything, including what we call concert music or classical music. And what he did, he was a very interesting guy. When a record didn't sell, he couldn't sell a record, he would take it home to - he would listen to it to find out what was wrong with it. And what happened, he would listen to these things until he learned to like them. And he became an expert on contemporary music at that time, just through listening to records. And he passed that on to me, and he passed that on to as many customers as he could. He would press these records on his customers and say, take this home and listen to this. He was a wonderful guy.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, when you were growing up, were you fascinated - because I know you studied math - were you fascinated with Einstein?

Mr. GLASS: I was fascinated with science and Einstein - this was the first time that a scientist became a real rock star, and that was Einstein. I mean, now we have Steven Hawking and there have been many others - and Carl Sagan - there have been some very interesting people since then. What I liked about it, Renee, was that I saw the scientist as a kind of a poet, that Einstein would talk about how he - when he said how did you get the theory of relativity, and he would say, well I imagined myself on a beam of light traveling through the universe at the speed of light, and I tried to describe what I would see. And the theory of relativity is a description of what he thought he would see. So he was like a dreamer, a poet.

MONTAGNE: Einstein would later become the subject of your first opera.

Mr. GLASS: Yes.

MONTAGNE: "Einstein On The Beach." If we were to pick up in "Einstein On The Beach," where would have us pick up to get a feel for it?

Mr. GLASS: Well, start with the - right after - a little bit of the beginning. I wouldn't play a lot of the beginning because it's a little repetitive...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLASS: You don't have a lot of - I don't want to, I mean, well, you know, let's put it this way. When you're home, you have unlimited time to listen to "Einstein." When I'm on your radio program, people do not have unlimited time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GLASS: With as - obviously, you hear numbers. The structure of the music I was writing then was very much about the simple manipulation of numbers.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: "Einstein On The Beach" is included in a new box set of Philip Glass's work. It also includes symphonies, music for string quartets, avant-garde theatre productions and his film scores, like this piece from "The Truman Show."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The collection of 10 CDs, called "Glass Box," underlines just how prolific Philip Glass has been for four decades.

Mr. GLASS: I think it's a very good introduction to what I do and - no, more than introduction. I mean, 10 CDs that's, what are we talking about, 600 minutes of music, I think that's enough for - that ought to keep you busy.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Philip Glass, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GLASS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Raising the Sail")

MONTAGNE: This is Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

SHAPIRO: And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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