Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Chat with Glass

In anticipation of the world premiere of Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera tomorrow, I had the great pleasure to talking to Philip Glass a few weeks ago. For a great iconic figure of the late 20th century, Mr. Glass is remarkably down to earth and easy to talk to. Our chat was a little scattered, but I can attest that it was a very enjoyable experience chatting with him, in advance of the premiere of his new opera.

Here's the Q&A:

- Mr. Glass, thank you very much for taking my call.

Philip Glass: Yes, you're welcome. I’m sorry I was late when you called earlier.

- That’s quite all right. So you are getting ready to come out here in the Bay Area and camp out for the whole month, then?

PG: I’ll be in and out. I’ll be in for final week of rehearsals and the final week of performances.

- Reading the production materials for Appomattox, it feels that your treatment of this opera will be a lot more traditional, compared to, say Einstein on the Beach, or Satyagraha. I mean, the narrative seems to be more linear, leading to a well defined climax. So are you getting "soft" on us, and going to show us your first 19th century-style grand opera?

PG: Oh boy! [laughs] I didn’t think you would ask that question!

- I’ll withdraw the question if you’d prefer!

PG: No, but really, it is going to be a very confrontational piece. I think that you’ll find some elements of it will be quite difficult for some people. I don’t want to talk a lot about it, because I think people should come and see the piece. As I got involved in it, the piece began growing up into the present. The idea was – what was happening to the country at the time of the surrender? We have to remember that the Civil War was a momentous, huge event in the history of our country. The issues that were raised by the Civil War, by the people that participated at that time, are issues that are very much alive today. Issues that were never resolved. On the good side, we are still engaged in resolving these issues. That is one of the great things about our country, that we haven’t shied away from the issues. We embraced the difficulties as we tried to find solutions. We had some measures of success and some not.

- Of course, the country is currently at war. Why this opera now in particular?

PG: That is an interesting question. Myself, I started out by being interested in the two men, Grant and Lee. The popular idea is that Lee was a great man and Grant was less so, which is absolutely not true. One of the great autobiographies of all time was written by Grant. He was a man of tremendous moral character and vision. And so was Lee. Here were two men, leading the armies of the north and the south, the likes of which do not exist in the world today. There are no people in public life today, leading countries or states or cities on the level of Lee ad Grant. So I got interested on the character of these men. For example, at the end of the war, some of Lee’s generals wanted him to start a guerilla war, saying they could run into the hills and hold out for another ten years there. And Lee said, “ no, the war is over.” He told them to go home now and start a new life. The same way, Grant went back north and people told him, “let’s bring that guy Lee here and try him for treason,” and he also said “no, the war is over.” So those men were able to start and stop a war, something that no one in our present days seems to know how to do. We have our countries run by politicians, not by statesmen. This is a study of character, of people who have the moral stamina and vision to lead a country. That’s one thing. The second thing are the issues of the Civil War. These are the issues that are very much at the heart of social change in our country today: states rights, racism. Whatever you want to call it, the things that were discussed in the 1860s were happening again in the 1960s, and never stopped being relevant, because they were never resolved.

- I know that you don’t want to give too much of the opera away, but can you give us a bit of a preview of the music.

PG: Would be happy to. I did something a little unusual this time. There was a lot of music going on during the Civil War, that had colloquial roots. There was a song by the Arkansas First Brigade, which was a black division that fought for the north. There was a ballad by Jamie Lee Johnson, who was a civil right activist in the 1960s. There is a song from the Old Testament, that was sung during Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, when he was welcomed by the Negro population. I wanted to include in the musical language, the feeling and the musical culture of that time, and of the present time. Of course, this still was written for voices skilled in operatic singing, but there are other kinds of music in the opera as well. This was for me one of the most interesting things, to try to bring together different music that would normally be heard at the same time.

- All of these themes carry much weight and gravity. Will there be moments of lightness and humor as well? Judging from your later work, it might seem as if you have lost some of the carefree comic vein present in, for instance, Einstein on the Beach.

PG: Well, I guess there has been humor in some of my operas. There’s nothing funny either about my last opera, Waiting for the Barbarians. It’s true, if that is the criticism, I guess I will have to accept it. However, I am not the only composer who has fallen into that kind of writing, there are certain themes that just don’t welcome humor. In terms of topics and subject matter, there are plenty of operas that are quiet serious. Another opera of mine, Orphée, which was just done at Glimmerglass, has some very funny things in it. It was composed maybe 13 years ago. But in Appomattox… there’s really not a lot it. This was a tremendously important event in our life as a country.

Not funny: Appomattox set model for world premiere production at SF Opera

- You just turned 70 this year. Do you think in terms of your legacy?

PG: I have been too busy trying to make a living. I haven’t thought about that. I’m surprised myself that operas that I’ve written 10 or 15 years ago are being performed today. Satyagraha is coming to the MET and I wrote it 1979. It will be at the MET in the Spring.

- Yes, I’m planning to come to NY and see it.

PG: I saw the production already [at the English National Opera] in London, it was a beautiful production. I think next year there will be half a dozen of my operas, maybe more, being done at different places. To tell you the truth, I never thought of myself as someone who would write operas that would become part of the repertoire of the operatic world. That never occurred to me, I was interested in addressing musical and thematic issues that I found absorbing of my attention.

- You have been know for your interest in Eastern philosophy. Does your musical and creative journey reflect or parallel your spiritual journey.

PG: That’s an interesting question. Music is always by composers, and composers have always asserted their musical life with a spiritual life of some kind. Whether it was Bach, Haydn, Verdi… you name it, this is not less true of contemporary composers. In that regard, I would say that Western composers are not in any way second to the music of non-Western cultures. There is always a strong feeling of spiritual identity and spiritual growth in music. I didn’t need to go to India to find that out; I could find that out right at home.

- And how do you see your music evolving over the years?

PG: That’s a difficult question because I am still in the middle of it, so it is hard for me to tell. However when I go back and listen to “Music in 12 parts” I wrote 1970s, or Einstein on the Beach in 1976; I must say, I’m not unhappy about them. I look back at the young guy who wrote that, and I say “ gee, what an energetic guy that was.” I am proud that early work.

- As you well should be! But your earlier work sounded much edgier, while there is a certain lyrical lushness in your mature work. What do you think brought about this transformation?

PG: I think that happens to everybody. If you start at point A you go to point B. If you start writing dissonant music you end up writing consonant music, and if you start with consonant, you end up writing different music. I think it happens to everybody, the idea that composers don’t change is absurd. We always talk about artists being autobiographical, but autobiographies don’t stop. Our lives don’t stop. I think we are wired that way.

- What is your opinion of the music being created by the current generation?

PG: I am very interested in it. There is a new generation of people, whether they are working with technology, or non-western music, or pop music, or bringing together all these experimental traditions into the theater, this young generation is absolutely on fire. I think we are going to see these young people in their 20s or 30s are going to do some beautiful and amazing pieces. I think they already started to.

- Let me ask you a question of personal interest. I was wondering how did you become familiar with Itaipú?

PG: I went down there. For about ten years I went down to Brazil, partly because it’s so cold here in the winter and I wanted to go somewhere else warm. I went down there to write music, and I traveled throughout the country. I went a lot of places, to Belém, and down to Foz do Iguaçu. I didn’t do it all at once, but every time I’d go somewhere different, so one year I went to Itaipu, the dam that was being built there. It wasn’t finished yet, there was no water but I saw the huge edifice that was being built. And I thought of the power of the water and the power of the river. And the power of the human mind, and the imagination to take natural forces and harness it in that scale, and I was inspired by that.

- And what attracted you to go to Brazil in the first place?

PG: I think it was the music, the culture, the friends I had from Brazil. And I also went down to play there, at a free jazz festival, I think in 1991 or 92. I was in Rio, and said, “my god, I love this place. I’m coming back here!” And I went back the next year. Now I have a son who is living there in Brazil. I have strong connection to the place, it’s a country you can fall in love with.

- Well, thank you for your time. I look forward to thank you in person when you are here in San Francisco.

PG: My pleasure. I hope you’ll enjoy the opera.

© 2007 C. Chang