Philip Glass Cuts in New Directions
The composer's eye is fixed on unconquered opera houses and `a new kind of music theater'
NEW YORK — THE emperor who chided Mozart for composing "too many notes" would have been equally flummoxed by Philip Glass, the most celebrated pioneer of so-called minimalist music.
Mr. Glass's latest opera, "The Voyage," has been attracting enthusiastic crowds to the Metropolitan Opera House despite its nontraditional elements, such as a minimalist penchant for repetitive melodies and chugging rhythms.
"Subscription audiences are coming now," the composer told me in a recent interview at his Manhattan home, "and they like it. It cuts right across different age groups. People are ready for something new, and this has not been a hard sell."
Ushering this opera through its first performances is only part of Glass's current activity list, moreover.
The annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has two Glass extravaganzas this month: an earlier concert that featured his new "Low Symphony," based on the 1977 album "Low" by David Bowie and Brian Eno, and revival performances of "Einstein on the Beach," created in 1976 with Robert Wilson as director and designer.
On tap elsewhere are performances of "The Mysteries and What's So Funny," with director David Gordon and artist Red Grooms as collaborators, and incidental music for a production of Georg Buchner's classic play "Woyzeck."
It's a busy schedule. But being in demand doesn't mean Glass has "made it" in a permanent or definitive way.
Asked if his Met debut has "legitimized" him and his style, he acknowledges that it's an important stride in the right direction. "But all these signs are hard won," he quickly adds, "and no rung on the ladder is conclusive." His eye remains fixed on opera houses not yet conquered, and his thoughts remain preoccupied with new steps toward his basic objective: to introduce "a new kind of music theater" capable of revitalizing both art and entertainment.
Glass defines this new kind of opera as "a spectacle where music and movement and dance and image come together. It's not very interested in narrative ... and it's more than the sum of its parts."
Although he sometimes uses a trendy term like "Post-Modernism" to describe what he has in mind, Glass is more likely to stress the down-to-earth virtues of "entertainment" when arguing for his cause. He's fond of quoting a reminder that his mentor, the late composer Virgil Thompson, used to give him during their many conversations: "Don't forget, Philip, opera is a public affair."
Glass couldn't agree more. For great composers like Verdi and Puccini and Donizetti, he says, "operas were art and entertainment put together."
Over the years, however, this populist approach has regrettably faded. "The inclusion of entertainment has been allowed in the art world," Glass asserts - the quirky career of Andy Warhol is a case in point - but has been frowned on within the "academic circles" that exert strong influence on contemporary music. This has impoverished composers and audiences alike.
"What do we have against entertainment?" asks Glass with a rueful smile. "Is it the old American puritanism? The world of the flesh and the world of entertainment go together, and we have residual misgivings about the world of the flesh. As a people, we're not comfortable with that - you see it coming up in our right-wing politics all the time - and this gets into the American soul. We're suspicious of entertainment ... and this is one of our problems as a culture."
This situation has various effects on Glass's professional life. "I get heavy put-downs from the academic world," he reports. "I get accused of `selling out to commercialism,' and other code-words like that. They arise from the fact that people might like my work - which is, apparently, an alarming prospect!"
This sort of attitude among "serious musicians" is a major reason why Glass and some others of his generation - he mentions Anthony Davis and John Adams in this context - have chosen to "get off the bus" of high-art academic music. This does not imply, however, that Glass's work is lacking in thoughtfulness or complexity.
He feels the distinction between "work that's about packaging and work that's about content" is useful for separating the chaff from the wheat in today's music, and he prides himself on tackling social issues in many of his works.
"The thing I'm really interested in is social issues," he says earnestly, "not political issues. I feel political issues are short-term solutions, and what I'm concerned with is long-term problems."
He sees his celebrated opera "Satyagraha," about Mahatma Gandhi's experience with South African racial oppression, as not just a biographical "portrait opera" but also a study of "social change through nonviolence."
Other instances of social involvement in his work include the environmentally aware film "Koyanisqaatsi," made with director Godfrey Reggio, and the culturally iconoclastic song cycle "Hydrogen Jukebox," made with poet Allen Ginsberg.
How does "The Voyage" fit into this picture? Although it deals with Christopher Columbus's travel to the Americas, it skirts the heated debates associated with this subject - on racism, imperialism, subjugation, and the like - by embedding its treatment of Columbus in a wide-ranging phantasmagoria that focuses on the idea of discovery in many forms over many centuries. Despite its rather abstract and nonspecific form, however, Glass feels it addresses a number of important and relevant matters.
"Like a lot of my operas," the composer says, "it's about how we change, how change and innovation come about. That means it's fundamentally about how creativity works. The creative process expresses itself in a lot of ways, but the way we change as a culture - as a history of humanity - is extremely important to this. The piece is about discovery, and therefore the willingness of people to leave the familiar world and try the unfamiliar, with the hope that somehow they'll broaden.... The issues of racis m, colonialism, and all those things fall within the larger issue of how change comes about....
"It's amazing to me that Columbus could leave Genoa, and other people can leave wherever they're from, going from what they know to what they don't know. How do we manage to do this? I think it's remarkable....But what's important, as Columbus puts it in the last aria, is that the sum of human knowledge is in a small way added to. Discovery and creativity are the things that matter."