On creativity and collaboration

Composer Philip Glass has worked with filmmakers and choreographers, pop stars and poets. But his favorite collaborator of all just might be you

If it were only you
Naked on the grass
Who would you be then?
This is what he asked

And I said I wasn’t really sure
But I would probably be

Philip Glass/Suzanne Vega
“Freezing” from Songs from Liquid Days, 1985

Composer Philip Glass traversed a long and potentially lonely road in the 1960s and ’70s as a pioneer of a style of music that came to be called “minimalism.” His early works drew immediate attention from audiences and critics alike—some were fascinated, others were horrified. “No musician since Stravinsky has had so great an impact on the sound of music of his own time,” declared Michael McDonagh in High Performance.

But while Glass will forever be associated with minimalism in the way that a famous actor can become renowned for a particular role, it seems equally likely that he will be remembered for how and with whom he has worked. Recalling a half-century of unique and often unlikely partnerships, Glass spoke on February 16 to a sold-out crowd in Schneebeck Concert Hall about creativity and collaboration, responding to questions ranging from “What was it like to work with David Bowie?” to “How did you find your voice as a composer?”

Drawing on examples such as the landmark five-hours-with-no-intermission opera Einstein on the Beach; his experience scoring Koyaanisqatsi, the first of a trilogy of films with Godfrey Reggio; and his work accompanying poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, Glass engaged a rapt audience in an intimate conversation about the purpose of working together in life and in art. The following are his words, excerpted from that talk.

— Gayle McIntosh

The listener as collaborator
The thing that’s fundamentally new about the work of the late 20th century has to do not with the materials of the theater but the relationship the theater has to the spectator. John Cage talked about how in listening to music he expected the listener to complete the work. This answers the old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? And the answer is: No!

Music is about listening. What’s interesting about this is that part of what we understand doesn’t reside entirely in the work itself. It shifts the idea of the meaning of the work to the perceiver, the spectator, the audience. When we look at modern theater, we can’t say definitively what the piece is about. We don’t know what it’s about because that would deprive the piece of its true meaning, which is this: the piece is unknowable.

We can know part of it, but not all of it, because we don’t know what other people are going to think about it. How many productions have there been of Carmen? Sixty thousand? Eighty thousand? Eighty million? None of us could have seen even a small part of that. What’s happened over time is that we all know what Carmen is, although we haven’t all seen the same Carmen. The productions altogether have created a kind of consensus. With my work, I think the best thing that can happen is there are enough productions and enough different views that there’s a sort of collective consensus about what it is.

Collaboration through interpretation
What has made work in contemporary opera, theater, and film vital is our willingness as the makers of these works to allow them to be interpreted by the audience and our fellow collaborators. An interpreter can show a composer something about his or her work that they didn’t know. Interpreters are tremendous creative forces. I’ve seen it happen where a performer can take a piece of music I’ve written and show me something I’ve never heard.

When people perform my work, I want to find out what they can bring to the piece. When I work with a writer, a designer, a director, a choreographer, the best thing I can do is let them do their work. I’m rarely disappointed— although sometimes it can be completely weird. Richard Foreman did a production of a piece of mine called The Fall of the House of Usher. He decided to do the whole thing in shades of pink. The whole opera. The lights, the costumes, everything. To look at that for an hour and a half—it was tough. He was making a statement about looking at it, and he did that through color. I thought that was extraordinary. I wouldn’t have known what it was until I’d seen it.

Einstein on the Beach—on Wall Street?
[Robert Wilson and I] had never written an opera before, neither one of us, but we wanted to do a theater piece. The first thing we did was try to find a subject and a title. The whole title was originally Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street. We never actually knew what Wall Street had to do with it, and it didn’t fit on the page, so we dropped it. We never found the beach either. It’s funny because we never asked each other what we meant by that, so I don’t know what he thought. Basically, Bob and I made images that connected to Einstein. We really didn’t know what that meant, but here’s the thing—everybody else did. And they told us. There is a trial scene in Einstein, and people said, ‘Oh, that means science is on trial.’

The thing that was interesting for me about Einstein was that in order to perform it, we needed an orchestra pit—and lighting, wing space, fly space, a light bridge, costumes, and people who could sing and dance. The only place we could do it was in opera houses. We didn’t know if it was an opera or not, but we weren’t going to be told it wasn’t an opera. For me, the opera house became a big canvas that we could work in.

I’ve become more of a theater composer than anything. With concert music, the subject of the music is the language of the music itself. With theater music, the subject could be the music, but it could be image, or movement, or text. It was important to me to be in the most active part of the music world that I could be. I wanted to be interacting with other musicians and artists, and addressing issues in the world around me. I found the opera house was a place where I could do that.

Composing for film
Godfrey Reggio approached me and I said, I don’t write film music. I really can’t help you. But I went and watched about 20 minutes of a reel that later became part of Koyaanisqatsi, from the Hopi word that means “life out of balance.” I was very impressed.

[Through working in film] I learned that if you put up an image and change the music, the image looks different. Whatever the image is, the image will bow to the music completely. What this tells me is that images are surprisingly neutral. I see this all the time in film. The power to change the image with the music is almost limitless.

The process of finding one’s voice …
As a young man, I was trying to figure out: Where does my music fit into the world I live in? How does it become part of that world? How would it be seen as part of that world? In our country, we don’t have public support for the arts. You become a painter or a writer or a composer in spite of everything around you. The situation is somewhat different in Europe. We’ve lost a lot of very talented people in America simply because we don’t know how to nurture them.

I was working in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the great French teacher of harmony and counterpoint, and working as an assistant to Ravi Shankar. They taught in different ways: Boulanger taught through fear; Ravi taught with love. The result was the same; it was just their temperaments. She liked to scare you to death, and he hugged you to death.

You can learn from both—I did. And I was not a young man. I was 27. I had been writing music since I was 15, been through Juilliard, a Fulbright, and was involved with these two great teachers when I wrote a piece for La Comedie. There was something about the music that … that did more than I thought it would. I tried to figure out what that was. And that’s what I did for the next 10 years.

That was the voice. To me it was unmistakable.

… and the necessity of losing it
One of the biggest challenges we have as composers is finding our own voice. You’re trying to find that voice, waiting for it to appear. It usually happens in your late 20s or 30s, and then you spend the next 40 years trying to get rid of it. That’s the truth. Once you’ve reached that place where people know what you do, getting away from that is a huge problem. The more work you do, the more the weight of it can drag you down.

When I work with someone I don’t know, something will happen that I’m not prepared for. I rarely work with the same people again, and I won’t work with the same team. I try to create a situation where I don’t know what’s going to happen. Some of the most astonishing things have happened with people because I discovered we thought about music in a very different way. Then I had to start thinking about how they thought about it, and that changed the way I thought about it.

It’s through collaboration that real, profound changes are possible; I haven’t found another way to make that happen. I’ve become a collaboration junkie.