An Interview with Philip Glass

I’ve always regretted not going to an interview with Philip Glass that PIAF held a few years ago – I think the event was meant to be a q&a sesssion followed by a performance by Glass of some of his piano works. Oh well. As far as modern composers go he dominates the Operatic scene – and with 27 operas written he is certainly prolific. Earlier this month The South Australian Opera Performed a trilogy of his operas (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten), and later this year the Brisbane Festival will be premiering in Australia The Perfect American – and I’m so tempted to make the trip to Brisbane to attend it. Anyway, this article appeared in the Review of the Australian today and I though that for those not so familiar with Glass it would be a good introduction to him.

Composer Philip Glass on his Walt Disney opera, The Perfect American

by Matthew Westwood
This article first appeared in the Australian Review on the 30th August 2014

Renowned composer Philip Glass opens his New York home to Matthew Westwood ahead of the Australian premiere of The Perfect American , his opera about Walt Disney

PHILIP Glass, he’s everywhere. It’s not only that the composer, 77, has been writing music since his teens, and can count in his catalogue 10 symphonies, 27 operas, music for dance and theatre, and many works for ensembles of various shapes and sizes. His umpteen film scores — from stoner favourite Koyaanisqatsi to art-house dramas The Hours and Notes on a Scandal — have given him an audience far beyond the concert hall or opera house. Some of his music has even been used in Grand Theft Auto IV, the video game.

His music is abundant, expansive. It seems to fill whatever space Glass chooses to give it. It can be that exhilarating ride of cascading arpeggios, or those repeated intervals that play on the mind like a worry. Such pervasiveness — So many notes, Mr Glass! — gave rise to a famous knock-knock joke.

So when a visitor arrives at Glass’s townhouse in Manhattan, does one knock on the door or ring the bell? I ring the bell, and there is no “Who’s there?” Glass himself opens the door, standing there in his T-shirt, chinos and sandals.

He is welcoming, but a little uncertain. Perhaps I’ve interrupted him. But he ushers me inside, and down a creaky flight of stairs to the kitchen and a nice sunny courtyard at the back. It’s a beautiful summer day in New York.

I sit at the kitchen table and make small talk while Glass boils the kettle and plunges the coffee. Only afterwards does it occur to me that he’d forgotten the appointment, and maybe what it’s about.

The Perfect American, I say.

“Oh, is that what we’re supposed to talk about?” This is Glass’s 25th opera, on a subject that seems quite perfect for the composer: Walt Disney. After his early “portrait operas” Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten and Satyagraha (about Gandhi), this one is his first about an American subject.

The world premiere was in Madrid last year, followed by London. Next month, The Perfect American will be the centrepiece of the Brisbane Festival, with Australian singers joining members of the original cast, and with the original production by Australian designer Dan Potra.

Strangely, or not, given the prominent subject, the opera has not yet been seen in America. One reason may be that The Perfect American is no Mickey Mouse portrait of Disney. He is shown to be an inspired entrepreneur, the “imagineer” of fantastic worlds, a champion of apple-pie American values. But the opera also presents an image of Disney as perpetuated by his critics: bitterly anti-communist, casually racist and no fan of the civil rights movement. We get the tenor of Walt’s conservatism in a funny scene involving an Abraham Lincoln automaton at Disneyland. “The black people’s march on Washington, would you really agree with that?” he asks the frock-coated president. “Is that what you had in mind when you abolished slavery?” The Perfect American could easily have been a Disney demolition job with a liberal helping of urban myth. (The one about cryogenics is finally put on ice.) But Glass’s opera, at least as seen on a DVD of the Madrid premiere, is more sympathetic than that.

The idea came from Gerard Mortier, the late opera administrator, who sent Glass a novel about Disney by Peter Stephan Jungk. Glass’s interest was piqued — operas are too demanding to bother with subjects that “aren’t close to the heart” — but he insisted on bringing in a collaborator, Rudy Wurlitzer, to do the libretto.

And he had no desire to trample on Disney’s memory. “If you think about it, he’s my kind of character,” Glass says, sitting down with a glass of coffee.

“I think there were people who thought that I was doing it to trash Disney. What an absurd idea. Why would a person of my age, at this time, make fun of somebody? It was too late when I was 20, it’s not worth the time.” Disney’s prejudices, he explains, were consistent with many people of his generation. Glass’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, would have been of a similar age, and had some of the same attitudes. In Baltimore, where Glass grew up in the era of segregation, attitudes about race were very different from today.

“I grew up in a segregated city: schools, dining rooms, swimming pools, golf courses, everything,” he says. “(Disney’s) attitudes, which were informed by his background, were not unusual. My father wasn’t very different. I liked my father. When — what do you call them? — coloured people came into his record store, he looked at them because he was afraid they would steal something. That was very common … He wasn’t any better, he wasn’t any worse.” The Perfect American is set in 1966, the final year of Disney’s life, as he visits his home town in Marceline, Missouri, and struggles to get the Walt Disney World theme park started in Florida. English baritone Christopher Purves gives a sensitive portrayal of Disney, presenting him as a conflicted figure, determined to protect his public legacy as he confronts his mortality. Purves created the role in Madrid and is coming to Brisbane to sing Disney here.

Disney’s antagonist in The Perfect American is not a robot president or, indeed, a gadfly Andy Warhol. William Dantine, an invented character, is an animation artist who challenges his former boss over his treatment of employees. Scores of unsung artists breathed life into Disney’s animation films, Dantine says, and yet Disney takes all the credit. He lets rip with what must be the greatest insult to the imagineer-in-chief: “All you are is a moderately successful CEO, nothing more than that!” Among several themes that the opera conjures with — not least that old chestnut, the American Dream — is the notion of authorship in the age of cultural manufacture. Certainly, none of Disney’s greatest achievements in cinema would have been possible without the teams of studio animators under his command. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the world’s first animated feature, released in 1937, required about 1.5 million individual drawings and painted backgrounds. A few years later, Disney animators went on strike over their pay and conditions, interrupting work on Dumbo. (In The Perfect American, director Phelim McDermott shows a chorus of identically dressed animators toiling at their work — although the scene is more Anaheim than Nibelheim.) Disney, of course, was not the first or the last cultural producer to rely on a busy workshop behind the scenes. Master painters of the Renaissance used assistants in their studios. Warhol’s Factory produced art on an assembly line. And showing at New York’s Whitney Museum until October is a retrospective of Jeff Koons’s oversize baubles, produced by others in hi-tech factories.

It happens in some fields of music too: composers may sketch out a piece in outline and leave the “colouring” work to arrangers or orch­estrators. Glass anticipates the next question.

“I’ve written a lot of pieces, and I’ve got 30,000 pages of manuscript, written in my hand. Anyone can look at them,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean I do all the work. Someone has to put that stuff into computers, someone else has to extract the (instrumental) parts. We call it music preparation; music preparation is not composing. I don’t write the tunes and have somebody else do it, no. For me it wouldn’t work, because the thing that makes it characteristically mine is how I hear music.” Glass’s score for The Perfect American is brighter-keyed in places than some of his other music. In keeping with the opera’s subject, Glass says he imagined a musical palette of primary colours: red, blue and yellow. “Can you imagine writing a 12-tone opera about Disney?” he says. “What a waste of time! The beauty of working in the theatre is that each project can be so unique. So innovation within a general musical attitude, and innovation within who you are, is necessary. I think you would say that Wagner did that: Parsifal doesn’t sound like Meistersinger.” The makers of The Perfect American have avoided making direct quotations from Disney films and characters, permission for which may have been a copyright licence too far. Mickey Mouse does not make an appearance, nor does Glass’s score croon to the melody of When You Wish Upon a Star. Potra, the production designer, says the Disney Studio did “not want any copyright material shown”.

Instead, Potra conjures a world of cinematic illusion and magic. Potra studied animation when he was growing up in Romania — even behind the Iron Curtain, he says, Disney was a major presence — and he has reproduced the texture of hand-drawn animation in stunning projections that are part of the opera’s design. There are, for example, allusions to a waddling duck and to big, round ears that may resemble those of a familiar rodent.

Glass says there were discussions about using Disney material, but the idea was put out of mind, given the inevitable obstacles.

“As it was, I didn’t want to have to ask permission from anybody to do the piece, we never got permission and we never asked for it,” he says. “Just to clear the air right now, I’m yet to talk to anyone from the Disney studio about this. Not one person from Disney has talked to me. So any conversations between us are fictional, they didn’t happen.”

GLASS lives in the East Village, a student and gentrified bohemian hangout near New York University. The neighbourhood has cultural cred: in the 1950s and 60s it was home to the beats and hippies; venues such as punk nightclub CBGB and the La MaMa playhouse encouraged wilder forms of performance. There are galleries, bookshops, restaurants and cafes, some even serving decent coffee by Australian standards.

In Glass’s kitchen, soft light filters through the windows, as does all the traffic noise of Manhattan. The legs of pedestrians can be seen walking by. A police siren sounds. Glass’s studio is just upstairs, with its grand piano under layers of manuscript paper, and one wonders how he finds quiet time to write music.

Glass is a lively conversationalist, generous and funny, but he has the heavy eyes of someone who is permanently at work. He writes music pretty much every day, sometimes rising at 4.30am or 5am to start work, something he never used to do: “I thought that was sheer slavery.” When he travels, as he often does, he says he barely bothers to push his body-clock into a new time zone, and continues as if he were at home in the East Village.

He gives no indication of slowing down. He is putting the finishing touches to his opera The Trial, based on Kafka, that will open in London in October, and he has plans for another, based on a Maurice Sendak story. There’s a double piano concerto for the glamorous Labeque sisters and possibly an 11th symphony. He also has a memoir coming out next year, to be called Words Without Music. It’s about New York.

“I was here in 57,” he says. “Allen Ginsberg, he was 29, I was 19. We were sitting in coffee houses reading poetry, and jazz bands were playing. I was here for the happenings, when artists started doing performances in museums, Andy Warhol, all that stuff was new …

“At that time, you could get an apartment any place in New York, and not pay $100. Now, you get a place and stay there. But I moved to Chinatown, I moved up to the East Side, I moved around town just to see what it was like. I lived through a tremendous time in New York, and the book’s about that.” How much of Glass’s music, the 30,000 manuscript pages of it, is the product of him being in New York? The connection is certainly there, Glass says, in such a piece as Einstein on the Beach, his 1976 abstract opera with Robert Wilson. One of the scenes, called Train, was inspired — in energy rather than form — by a piece called Line Up, by the blind jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, who lived in New York.

“I think the spirit of New York is in the music,” Glass says. “Let’s say, if I had stayed in Baltimore, it wouldn’t have sounded like that. That’s why I left Baltimore! What was missing (in my life) wasn’t in Baltimore, I had to go to New York.” The memoir will be Glass’s second book, after 1995’s Music by Philip Glass, and the composer’s work has been amply documented by others. Six documentaries have been made about him, and a seventh is on the way, about the making of Einstein on the Beach.

But Glass was less than happy about a 2007 documentary by Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Hicks followed Glass for 18 months, as the composer worked on his 8th symphony and opera, Waiting for the Barbarians. Hicks’s portrait opens a window on Glass’s private life, showing him at work and play with his younger wife Holly and their sons.

A startling revelation comes towards the end of the film when Holly reveals that their relationship is coming to an end: Glass is so absorbed in his music and they both want different things. But Glass says Hicks “represented things in ways that he wanted to see it”.

“He came up with his own version of me, which of course I didn’t like, but I don’t think anybody likes that,” he says. “It was too personal, but that’s what he wanted. I saw what he did with me, but I didn’t see what he’d done with other people.” The composer is protective of his private life, but professes not to care what others say about him. “I have a wonderful gene that has served me well all my life: I have the ‘I don’t care’ gene,” he says brightly. “When I was writing music and people were throwing things at me, I didn’t care about that, either. And they did throw things at me. Bad reviews? Pfff. That’s nothing, compared with people throwing eggs at you. Not hard-boiled eggs, soft eggs.” Australian fans of Glass have had plenty of opportunity to see his operas recently: the begetter of so many notes would be the most-performed composer of contemporary opera in this country. Sydney Chamber Opera has recently done In the Penal Colony, and last year a revival of Einstein came to Melbourne during an international tour. This month, State Opera of South Australia has been presenting its remarkable cycle of Glass’s three portrait operas in original stagings directed by Leigh Warren and conducted by Timothy Sexton. The Brisbane Festival season of The Perfect American would bring audiences fully up to date with the latest Glass, except he has already moved on to new opera projects.

The festival’s artistic director, Noel Staunton, has been able to bring The Perfect American to the Sunshine State through his contacts at English National Opera. (The London company co-commissioned the opera with Madrid’s Teatro Real, and Staunton used to work there.) “I arrived at the right time, with money,” he says. Los Angeles Opera was reportedly interested in staging The Perfect American, but Brisbane got in first. In any case, the time may not be right for an American premiere: Glass says “a certain number of people have to die first”.

Brisbane will bring together Purves as Disney, Donald Kaasch as Dantine and Marie McLaughlin as Lilian Disney from the original cast. They will be joined by Australian singers Cheryl Barker as Disney’s nurse Hazel, Douglas McNicol as Roy Disney and Kanen Breen as Andy Warhol. Potra’s evocative production design will be erected on the Concert Hall stage.

In the opera’s touching final scenes, Walt is in hospital receiving treatment for the lung cancer that will soon kill him. He befriends a young boy, Josh, who is excited to be in hospital with the one and only Walt Disney. Josh asks him: How did you do all the millions of drawings for Snow White? Walt explains that he couldn’t possibly do it all himself. He’s like a bee who buzzes around flowers, helping them bloom.

Glass sees Disney for the great innovator he was. “Of course there were people who could draw better than him, but that doesn’t take away from the vision he had. In a funny way, Disney was ahead of his time. His remark was perfect: ‘Without me, none of this would have happened.’ You can’t say better than that.”The Perfect American is at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, September 15, 17, 19 and 20. Matthew Westwood travelled to New York as a guest of the Brisbane Festival.

to watch the trailer for The Perfect American click here

to listen to the Perfect American click here Act 1//Act 2