Composer Philip Glass - new solutions by creating new problems
There's a true story about Philip Glass that his chroniclers love to tell. Shortly after his opera ''Einstein on the Beach'' was presented in the Metropolitan Opera House, he was back at his workaday job, driving a Manhattan taxicab. In a posh neighborhood he picked up a chic-looking passenger, who noticed his license on display near the meter.Skip to next paragraph
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''Young man,'' she asked in a friendly voice, ''did you know you have the same name as a very famous composer?''
Eight years later, Glass no longer drives a cab or fixes plumbing to subsidize his musical career. Just the opposite. He's a star of the creative world, spinning off a remarkable number of projects - all marked by the pulsing, repetitive style that has become his trademark.
It's still a controversial style, but the composer doesn't mind. ''Polarization is better than bland reviews or none,'' he says. ''And bad reviews rally your supporters!''
Here are a few of Glass's latest enterprises:
* ''Einstein on the Beach'' is due for a full-scale revival this month, again designed and directed by Robert Wilson, with the Philip Glass Ensemble in the orchestra pit. After a Dec. 11 bow at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), in the vaunted ''Next Wave'' series, it will tour the United States under BAM auspices. Its brilliant recorded version has also been reissued by CBS Masterworks (M4 38875).
* His opera ''Akhnaten'' just finished a run at the New York City Opera, where it sold out weeks in advance. The production, which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, will travel next June to the English National Opera in London.
* ''Satyagraha,'' another of his ''portrait opera'' series, will be released by CBS next year in a recording with City Opera musicians and will enter that company's repertoire in 1986.
* Glass recently finished the score for ''Mishima,'' a film by Paul Schrader about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Other irons in the fire include an opera based on a Doris Lessing novel; a score for choreographer David Gordon; a children's opera called ''The Juniper Tree''; and music for Samuel Beckett's tragicomic ''Endgame,'' slated for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
And that list doesn't include another planned collaboration with Wilson, sundry European productions of his operas, or his music for the lighting of the Olympic torch last summer. Or his many nonopera records. Or his busy performing schedule.
With so many projects under way, Glass has been accused of falling back on easy formulas and self-imitation. He admits that's a danger. When asked to write music for a Mabou Mines theater production, for example, he decided to reach especially far toward originality, using an unheard-of combination of double bass and timpani. ''And even then I found myself slipping into familiar territory!'' he says with surprise.
Still, he feels he can dodge the ''sameness'' trap by pushing himself steadily into new areas. And he doesn't think it's wrong to be profilic. He notes that past composers often had prodigious outputs by current standards. And he claims he works hard to produce his many pieces - getting up at 6 every morning and composing until 12 or 1 each afternoon for months on end.
Also, he puts his main energy into his large-scale works, which he calls ''the watershed pieces where I make the inventions I need.'' He dashes off the smaller pieces in between. ''It's relaxing,'' he says.
My latest meeting with Glass took place at his newly bought town house in the East Village section of Manhattan, an unfashionable neighborhood that pleases him with its gritty atmosphere and ragtag street life. ''Akhnaten'' had just bowed at the New York State Theatre, and some negative response had already appeared in the press, but he took it in stride.
Some critics ''think they know what's supposed to happen in an opera,'' he said. ''When it doesn't happen that way, their feelings are hurt.'' Glass is convinced he will outlive his detractors and even claims to feel sorry for them. ''What's worse than being present while a revolution is happening, and not know it?'' he asks with a wry smile.
He feels part of that revolution is the popularity of his work despite hesitation by many critics. ''I've always done an end run,'' he says. ''When I started my own ensemble in 1968, the intention was not to be a victim of the new-music forums and seminars and concerts and publications. You were supposed to pass through that bottleneck, but I simply ignored it. They didn't like what I did, and if I waited for them, I'd still be waiting.''
He also resented the idea of ''asking permission to exist'' from an establishment that seemed ''arrogant and condescending to younger people.'' So as a ''strategy for survival'' he sought a fringe audience on his own. ''There have always been mavericks in American music,'' he says, citing well-known composers from Ives and Ruggles to Harry Partch and John Cage. ''They've always been treated as kind of crackpot figures who existed on the periphery. But now the mavericks are coming toward the center. And that's unnerving to some people. . . . ''