An Interview with Philip Glass by Jim Doherty
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.8/No.31/1989
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Collaboration is a key element in much of composer Philip Glass’ work. Although several of his pieces were conceived as purely musical works (such as ‘The Light’, for symphony orchestra), the vast majority of his music was written to be performed in conjunction with other art forms. The opera EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH for instance was not created to be primarily a musical work. Rather, it was a joining of many components: choreography, lighting, set design and music.
This is of course true of any opera, but not to the extent found in EINSTEIN or many other Glass works. Here, the visual and musical elements can intertwine or contradict each other, they can share equal attention or allow one element to take prominence over the others. One of the finest recent examples of this collaborative “give and take” process is 1000 AIRPLANES ON THE ROOF, a musical/dramatic work created by Philip Glass, playwright David Henry Hwang, and set designer Jerome Sirlin.
In essence, the fundamental plot points are very similar to those of Whitley Streiber’s best-selling book, COMMUNION. The story concerns a character (identified only as “M.”), and his (or her) abductions by extraterrestrial or possibly extra dimensional beings. He is examined and released his memory of the experiences suppressed. However, little by little, flashes of memory come back, and he is forced to face them.
The show utilizes only one actor or actress to convey the story via a protracted monolog. The “sets” consist of large blank flats, onto which the settings are projected. These projections can be as real as the front of an apartment building, or as abstract as a 2001-like journey through dimensions. Accompanying this is a continuous score by Glass. At times, the story is told by the character as the music and images unobtrusively provide background. At other times, the visuals and music surge to the forefront, communicating the strange sights and powerful emotions in a more direct and visceral way than possible with words.
It is this same type of find-tuned collaborative sense that Glass has applied to the area of film scoring, preferring to work as a partner from early on in the filmmaking process and make the music an integral part of the film. This approach, however, runs counter to most of the set ideas about film scoring. Producers or directors used to bringing in a composer late in the game to add music to a completed film aren’t about to suddenly become converts to the Philip Glass method. Therefore, the films he has been asked to score came almost invariably from maverick, experimental or independent filmmakers who were willing and/or able to let Glass work in his own way: as one of the co-creators of the film.
Glass’ earliest film score was for a little-seen documentary film, MARK DI SUVERO, SCULPTOR (1977). His music accompanied shots of the artist’s sculptures, and can be heard on his record, ‘North Star’, It was written for a small ensemble (basically electronic keyboards and winds), and a very small group of mixed voices. Like many of Glass’ earlier works, the pieces in this score seem to be etude-like proving grounds for various elements of his unique style, which often includes repetition, in whole or part, of musical scales, arpeggios, or very short musical phrases, sometimes coupled with subtle and unexpected rhythmic changes. Often, these earlier pieces seem not to develop too far beyond the material heard in their first few bars.
A very unique opportunity came In 1982 when Glass was asked to work on KOYAANISQATSI (the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”), a film which attempted to show how man is upsetting the natural balance of life on Earth. There is no dialog, no narration. The idea is conveyed solely through the photographed images and the music, allowing Glass to fully apply his collaborative ideas to the film medium in a way no standard feature film would have allowed.
Koyaanisqatsi dazzles with its photographyFrom the opening title’s low organ notes and bass voices rather eerily chanting “Koyaanisqatsi”, Glass’ music combines with the images to help define the mood of the film, and draw the viewer into it. A fairly lengthy sequence at the beginning of the film sets the stage for what is to follow. Slow, flowing aerial views of gliding clouds and western-American canyons and prairies create a somewhat relaxing sensation. But the somber tone of the music (which is very slow, and based upon the repetition of slow, scale-like wind figures floating above long-held notes from the lower strings) implies that there is something here which goes beyond beauty – something much greater than us, something to be viewed with awe and treated with reverence. The power and majesty of the land is made even more evident in the next section (titled ‘Cloudscape’ on the soundtrack album) by powerful brass statements. The music takes an ominous turn, however, as the visual grandeur is suddenly disrupted by shots of mining operations and other manmade land-destroying operations (culminating with atomic bomb detonations), as man destroys nature. At other points in the film, a sort of mechanical/natural harmony seems to be re-established, as in the section known as ‘Vessels’, wherein huge factories co-exist with beautiful stretches of beach, and a huge 747 airliner is depicted as a thing of grace and elegance. A small a cappella mixed chorus (The Western Wind Ensemble) accentuates this momentary calm with its ethereal, soaring singing. Soon, however, expressways jam with traffic, shots of hundreds of cars give way to scenes of hundreds of tanks and war planes, and the vocal tranquillity is replaced by a flurry of keyboard hyperactivity.
In the film’s climax (‘The Grid’), both the music and the images begin at a rather relaxed level (French horns gently rock back and forth beneath a muted trumpet ostinato, as the sunset is reflected on the sides of glass skyscrapers), but this beauty Is soon forgotten and replaced by the frantic pace of night life and life in general. As thousands of cars on expressways turn into seamless fast-motion blurs, and endless streams of time-lapsed people shoot up and down escalators (looking not unlike the shots of streams of sausages flowing forth from a meat-packing machine), the music begins an 18-mlnute build-up, layering on brass and choral interjections and dizzying keyboard and wind lines. As the Images begin to fly past the viewer faster and faster, they blend with the frenzied music into an intoxicating, inescapable vortex that envelops the viewer and pulls him along at its incredible pace.
The film ends with a slow-motion blastoff and subsequent explosion of a faulty space capsule, as the chorus ominously sings Hopi Indian prophecies about “The Day of Purification” and man’s mistreatment of nature, leaving the viewer to reflect upon what he has seen.
Glass also scored Godfrey Reggio’s 1988 follow film-up, POWAQQATSI (Life in Transformation), contributing one of his most accessible and varied works, grabbing the listener from the very first cue. Beginning with a shrill police whistle, ‘Serra Palada’ launches into a sea of rhythms played by a veritable multitude of crazed percussionists. In what sounds like a South American street festival dance, tom-toms and odd percussion instruments pound out complicated patterns, and are soon joined by a series of fast staccato stabs from the brass, and the joyous exultations of an exuberant children’s chorus.
A recurring theme is ‘Anthem’ (it appears as the cues ‘Anthem’ Parts 1, 2, and 3, and as the final piece, ‘Powaqqatsi’ on the soundtrack album). Each new version is only slightly different from its predecessor, exploring subtle variations of the basic underlying rhythmic structure of the piece (a sort of slow-motion, CHARIOTS OF FIRE-ish ostinato). Layered over this, hushed brass intones stately chords, while the main theme is voiced by a variety of instruments: muted trumpets, flutes, or, in the case of ‘Powaqqatsi’, and the wonderfully overpowering ‘Anthem Part 3’, the children’s chorus.
Another highlight, ‘The Unutterable’, is based on the repetition of a scale-like figure over a steady 6/8 rhythmic backdrop. The instrumentation constantly changes – the chords of the “background” structure (which later become the main focus of the piece), are at first played by bassoons and muted horns, later by strings; a lonely muted trumpet plays the ascending/descending “melody” line later picked up by the trombones. The piece slowly builds in intensity, reaching a sonorous climax through the introduction of timpani and keyboards (synthesizer and possibly organ), and concludes with an elegant denouement as a flute plays a nostalgic melody over the gently pulsating strings.
The settings of the film (Egypt, Nepal, etc.) are reflected in the scoring of many of the cues, for instance the Middle-Eastern sound of the strings in the prayer-Like ‘Mosque and Temple’, or the exotic percussion in ‘New Cities in Ancient Lands, Africa’, and it is interesting to hear the way Glass has incorporated these sounds Into the framework of his music, expanding the possibilities of both. In fact, the whole score shows an expansion of style for Philip Glass, resulting in music which may even please previous Glass-haters.
The life and works of Japanese writer and playwright Yukio Mishima were the basis of Paul Schrader’s 1985 film, MISHIMA – A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS. The movie intermingled three separate narrative lines: Mishima’s past, his present (1970), and scenes from his plays. To help delineate the three separate elements, the scenes of the past were photographed in black and white, the modern scenes in color, and the play extracts in exaggerated color schemes. Glass’ music also helped the transitions in time and space; by creating a distinct musical sound for each of the narrative lines, Glass helped the viewer change gears emotionally and quickly get back into the correct frame of mind for the scene. As the film progresses, Mishima’s art begin to influence and become one with his real life, and the visual and musical styles of the different segments also begins to merge, reinforcing this idea.
In 1987, Glass contributed music to the Vietnam War drama, HAMBURGER HILL. The opening titles are intercut with tracking shots of the thousands of names on Washington DC’s memorial to the dead of the Vietnam War. Glass’ music for this sequence is a moving evocation of the mixed emotions that surround the whole subject of that war. The insistent, undulating rhythmic bass and militaristic snare drums are reminders of combat and the sense of duty that put the names on the memorial, but the overall mood of the piece, brought about through subdued brass chords and the harmonic texture is one of grief and loss.
A more urgent and intense version of this music occurs during the climactic charge up Hamburger Hill in the final minutes of the film, and musically creates a link between all those names on the memorial and the physical reality of all those people who suffered through the hell of the actual event. However, as the rest of the movie has relied only on ‘60s rock songs for its musical “score”, the re-introduction of Glass’ original music at this late stage of the game seems quite jarring and a bit out of place. (Taken out of context, the scene and its music work very well together, but it uneasily calls attention to itself in the framework of an otherwise rock-scored film). The music returns for the ‘End Title’s, with a trumpet crying plaintively over the pulsating background of brass chords and strings, providing a moving elegy to close the film.
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ 1988 film THE THIN BLUE LINE centers on the investigation of the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer. Through interviews and re-enactments, the film strongly suggests that the man convicted of the murder, Randall Adams, is innocent and was unjustly tried, while the probably killer, David Harris, was released. A feeling of helplessness pervades the film; a feeling that Randall Adams is prejudged and doomed. The music is a big contributor to this overall mood. Almost the only ray of hope in the score is in the Main Title. Written for a group of heraldic statements, an impassioned plea for someone to listen. After a minute, these triumphant chords abruptly end and the viewer is immediately deposited into the film’s world of despair through the next music cue, a slow, see-sawing motif over which trombone, flute and electric keyboard add the vaguest trace of a sad melody.
Throughout the rest of the film, the music often comments on (or against) the action and influences the viewers response. For instance, at several points, as details of the murder are repeatedly depicted and discussed, the music does not mirror the analytical tone of the words or the shock of the images. Rather, the subdued elegiac nature of the music causes the viewer to keep remembering the sorrow and tragedy of the slaying.
In general, the score does its job extremely well, even though it is not very complex musically. It relies (in an almost Herrmannesque way) on its harmonic textures, tiny fragments of melody and choice instrumentation to convey its emotions.
Glass’ position as a composer who only occasionally works on films has given him the ability to pick and choose only the film projects to which he feels he can truly contribute something. So far, each of those contributions has shown Philip Glass’ innate sensitivity and understanding of how music can best serve a given film.
Those Interested in further background on Glass and his music are referred to his own book, ‘Music by Philip Glass’ (Harper & Row), and the videotape, A COMPOSER’S NOTES: PHILIP GLASS, THE MAKING OF AKHNATEN, a fascinating look at the development of his opera AKHNATEN, from conception to production.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP GLASS
Philip GlassThis phone interview took place on October 6, 1988. At that time, Mr. Glass was in the middle of an extremely busy schedule, supervising stagings of his works, including the touring production of his music-theater collaborative work, 1000 AIRPLANES ON THE ROOF. He was in one city one day, and in some other country the next. In light of all this, I would like to extend my thanks to him for sharing a few minutes of his obviously scarce free moments – Jim Doherty
I primarily wanted to talk about your film music, but first I would like to tell you that I saw 1000 AIRPLANES ON THE ROOF last night. Very, very interesting. I was really overwhelmed by the give and take between all of the components, the visuals and the music…
I think we’re mostly pleased about that.
Some of your music, especially the opening and closing, were just chilling.
Well, thank you. I understand it was pretty well received there.
Any considerations of releasing any of your other stage works on video?
Not much. I’m not so happy about that. I’d rather work directly in film. There is a plan to do a film of FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (a chamber opera based on Poe’s story), it looks like we could possibly do that in the next year.
I was just thinking that it’s hard for some people to see some of the works. They’re not performed outside of the major cities.
Well, this piece, 1000 AIRPLANES, is going to 35 cities. And the films do get around. The two -QATSI films are travelling around a lot. THE THIN BLUE LINE is around. MISHIMA pretty much isn’t as for the moment. It doesn’t seem to have been a film that caught on in any significant way, so I don’t think that will. But I’m not so interested in doing videos of the stage works; I’d rather just work directly in film.
I’d like to ask you about the early film, MARK DI SUVERO, SCULPTOR. Not too many people would know about that film outside of your album, ‘North Star’. Could you just give a little bit of background on the film and your music?
I knew the people making the film, Barbara Rose and François de Menil. Of course, I’d known Mark for a long, long time, for 30 years, actually, if not longer, and when they were talking about the project, they came to me to do it and I was very pleased to do it. I called Mark and told him I was going to do that; that they were doing a portrait of him. The music has actually to do with a montage of the sculptures. The names of the pieces on the record have to do with the sculptures. I took photographs of them and looked at them, and I wrote the music to go with them. A strange way to do it, perhaps, but it made sense to me. I knew his sculptures; I knew what the looked like, and they’re full of movement and full of life, and I tried to capture some kind of intuitive emotion that they conveyed to me.
I’d like to move on to KOYAANISQATSI. Exactly how did you and the makers of that film decide upon the basic feel of the segments?
Basically, Godfrey (Reggio, the director) left it to me to come up with the exact sound of the piece, but as you know, what music conveys so aptly in film… it more or less tells you what to feel about what you’re looking at. It creates very much the emotional attitude of the piece. I spent a lot of time with Godfrey, talking about the film, and while he was editing the film, so I knew his mind pretty much about these things. On the other hand, he didn’t give me very specific Instructions about that. We consider these works collaborative works, and he left it to me very much to find the emotional color for the piece. He didn’t say “this is going to be a loud piece”, or “this should be a quiet piece” or “this should be a lyrical piece” or “this should be a dynamic piece”. Although, in fact, on one piece he did say he wanted a super-dynamic piece, and I suppose you know which one that is, the one with all the time lapses…
Yes, near the end (‘The Grid’).
Yes. That was the only special one. That one, he said, would have to be kind of an emotional breakthrough. It’s a climax and crescendo of “the film happens here”. And that was the only clue I had, but that was really enough. I knew, therefore, where the emotional epiphany of the film was supposed to take place, and then I worked my way to it, and I worked my way out of it. But the exact feeling was left to me. For example, the part with the airplanes, the part that we call “Vessels”, I decided to use an image of voices to describe the lightness of the planes in a way. At the same time, the planes themselves are quite heavy and large, so there was a curious interplay between these floating massive pieces of metal, and I chose to use voices for that. But very often, I had to make those decisions, and I made them pretty much on my own, and they seemed to work out pretty well.
On the Ransom Wilson recording of your piece, ‘Facades’, it says that it was written for KOYAANISQATSI. Was this a sequence that was dropped?
Yes, it was dropped. ‘Facades’ refers to about a 6-minute sequence which was a montage of lower Manhattan Wall Street, on a weekend, when there isn’t anybody there and all you see are the buildings. It was six minutes of Wall Street buildings, and I called it ‘Facades’. That segment did not end up in the film, so when it got dropped out, the music got dropped out with it.
Overall, I think the film and the music work very well together in creating a flow for that film, which I certainly don’t think would have been there without the music.
Working with both Godfrey and Paul Schrader, both of these filmmakers expected the structure of the film, as they said to be articulated by the music. Now that wasn’t true for Errol Morris and THE THIN BLUE LINE. That film was a different matter entirely. It’s very much like a detective story, a series of interviews. It doesn’t need its structure articulated. It needs something a little bit different. What Errol was looking for was a character mood content to go with each character. He wanted it mostly, and very often, not to be what you were looking at. He was looking for something quite different. That was a very tricky project, actually, to get that right. It took a lot of tries to get it exactly the way Errol and I thought was working properly.
In some of the reviews of that film, people have described your score as being rather cold. I didn’t feel that, I felt rather…
I don’t feel that’s true, and I haven’t read any reviews. I must say that I find that a rather surprising reaction…
I felt it was quite the opposite. It gave me the emotional response of loneliness, of despair, of the hopelessness of the situation.
Actually, that’s what Errol was looking for. And more than any other filmmaker I’ve worked with; he was willing and anxious to describe in very concrete terms the things he wanted to hear in the music. Neither Paul nor Godfrey did that. They never used words like that, but Errol did, and he used them quite a lot. He was particular about that. Paul and Godfrey were more willing to let me discover some kind of symbiosis with the music and the image.
In working on POWAQQATSI, did you alter or refine your working methods with Godfrey Reggio?
Somewhat altered. In many cases, I wrote the music before the film was shot, for instance, I knew what the opening sequence, Serra Pelada, was going to look like, because we got the Cousteau films and other documentaries on the subject and I looked at them so I knew what the content would be. I then wrote and we recorded it on a synthesizer, with sampled percussion, and even the vocal parts were put in. Then we took that with us down to Brazil, and I played it for the cameraman before he filmed it! I also played it for the people that were being filmed. I completely reversed the normal procedure of film, then music. I did music, and then we did the film.
Now, that happened to a degree with other sections, but not to that dramatic degree. Other places, there were collections of footage, or what we call “subject rolls”, and I began to write music, and as I finished the music, they began to edit it to the music. We did a lot of altering in the final stages – altering of music, altering of image.
I recently saw the film, and…
Did you like it?
Yes, I did, but not as much as KOYAANISQATSI. I felt it lacked the emotional flow of the first film; it felt a bit disjointed. As far as the music goes, though, I think its one of the most interesting things you’ve done so far. There seems to be in that score a sort of broadening of your style; an overall sound that’s sort of different from your past works.
I was interested in reinforcing the places we were, through the instrumentation. That’s why that happened.
I’ve read that you’re working on a third film for Godfrey Reggio…
This one we call NAQQOYQATSI. KOYAANISQATSI was “Life out of Balance”; POWAQQATSI was “Life in Transformation”, and this means “Life as a State of War”. Not a very pleasant subject, but that’s going to be the third one. They’re not sequels, it’s a trilogy. Sequels are a bit different. You know, that’s when RAMBO I is successful, they do RAMBO II, and they keep making them until they stop selling them. This was conceived as a trilogy from the beginning, and trilogies usually have a large structural overview to them, which these three do have, and I hope that will become apparent. It might be a few years. It always takes a few years to raise the money for these things.
You mentioned Paul Schrader earlier. Would you describe the amount of creative latitude you had as a composer on MISHIMA?
I talked to Paul early on, before the script was written. I saw the development of the script with him. I went to Japan and met with him in the early stages of the filming. I asked him where the music went. He took the script and shoved it across the table and said, “You tell me where it goes!” I had a budget for an hour of music, and I put in pretty much where I thought it should go. He had one or two things he needed. Apart from that, I wrote maybe eighteen music cues. There were places were it had to go below dialog, and places where it could come more into the foreground where they were visual episodes. It’s not that hard to figure out where the music goes once you’ve thought about it and taken a look at it. I wrote to the script, not to the picture. I had to analyze from the script where there would be time for music. I then made a work tape, and he cut the movie to the temporary track – but the temp track, you have to remember, was the actual material in the final film.
I felt it really helped, along with the photography, to define the different feelings of the storylines of the past and present, and the sort of “super reality” of the play segments.
That was done very consciously in terms of choice of instrumentation. String quartet for the memories of childhood, string orchestra with percussion for the novels, and a more full percussion with orchestra for the present day episodes.
And now, a sort of “question mark” film… HAMBURGER HILL…
I don’t know too much about that film! (Laughs)
Was there more music written for that film?
No. In fact, what I agreed to do originally, was to write the title music. I wasn’t so interested in doing it, but John (Irvin) had me see it and asked if I would write at least the music for the Vietnam War memorial, and I said I would do that. That was the montage at the beginning. I really wasn’t involved with the rest of the film very much. He wanted something for a battle sequence, and I did that, but I didn’t see it was the kind of film I could really get involved with. On the other hand, I did it as a kind of gesture to the event, to the memorial. It was my commentary on that. I grew up during the war, too, like a lot of other people. So, it was something I could feel a response in myself to, but I didn’t get involved very much in the rest of the film.
The reason I asked about the possibility of more music, was that your music suddenly comes in again, almost at the end of the film, during the final charge up the hill.
Yeah, he used it again, another part of it. It wasn’t the kind of relationship I had with Paul, or even Errol or Godfrey. I don’t mean I don’t like the film, or that it was unpleasant to do. I just mean that John Irvin is more of a conventional filmmaker in a certain sense. And I don’t mean to denigrate the film; it’s just that he is not so used to working collaboratively as the other men are, and so I simply didn’t try to.
Did you write the music for the battle scene before the film was finished?
I actually don’t remember. I didn’t write very much music for him altogether, maybe less than ten minutes, which by my standards is not very much at all.
In general, how would you compare your film scores, of your approach to films, to that of a standard Hollywood composer?
I don’t work by industry standards at all. For one thing, I don’t work with a temp track – you know what they are. Editors insist they must work with a temp track, and I won’t work with one. I expect to be involved with a film at least a year before the cutting begins. In other words, I have to be involved before the film is shot. I’m not an industry composer, and if I can’t do it as a collaboration, I don’t do it at all. I don’t even get asked very much.
I’ve made it very known that this is the way I want to work, and the only people who call me are people that are willing to call me way ahead of time and to let me be involved. I ask a lot. I want to know who’s going to be in it, I want to know what it’s about. I’m too difficult. You get something different with me. A lot of films are sort of slopped together, and I don’t work that way, so I simply don’t do it.
If the opportunity came up to work in such a manner on a more mainstream film, would you like to do that?
Well… any mainstream film couldn’t be made the way I would work on It. The industry simply doesn’t, work that way, as I’m sure you know. Independent approaches to film are not encouraged by the industry, and they’re not supported, so it simply doesn’t come up. Let me put it this way: I’ll believe it when I see it. They would have to prove to me that they’re willing to work with me the way I want to work. If they can assure me that they are willing to let me have the input that I need to have, then I’ll do it. You know, it’s too much trouble for filmmakers to work with someone like me!
What brought this question up was watching 1000 AIRPLANES, and thinking what an excellent job you might do on a good science fiction film.
You know, I know a lot of those guys in the business. I know George Lucas, and I know Francis Ford Coppola, and they’ll wisely never ask me – and they’re friends! They support the work. As you know, their names are on some of these films. They are “presentational” friends; they (the films), say “Presented by…”, but they never ask me to work with them, and I understand why. They know me and they know that I don’t work their way.
But we all understand the nature of the beast, and I think it’s a wise thing for them not to ask me unless they are willing to put up with me. I’m not a difficult person to put up with, It’s just that I don’t make movies that way; therefore, I must appear difficult.