With yet another Oscar-touted film score on his CV, Philip Glass tells Kevin EG Perry why he outlived his younger friends David Bowie and Lou Reed
On a bright, clear afternoon in Hollywood, Philip Glass is considering why it might be that, aged 80, he has outlasted his younger friends and collaborators, David Bowie and Lou Reed. He traces it back to the excesses of the Seventies, an era whose hedonism he deliberately observed from the sidelines.
“I didn’t have the money to corrode my body as some of my friends did,” he says wryly. “When I was a young man I was afraid of that lifestyle and I stayed away from it. I hate to put it so crudely, but I gained an extra 20 years of life.”
Today, one of the world’s most influential composers, known for his pioneering minimalist operas and Oscar-nominated film scores, is indulging in nothing stronger than decaffeinated black coffee. His accent is melodic, Baltimore by way of half a lifetime in New York, and his avuncular air carries a hint of mischievousness. Was he not tempted even once to join in with the drugs and the decadence?
“It was too much,” he says. “I wanted to get up in the morning and write music, I didn’t want to have to recover from last night. I don’t mean to be critical. In point of fact, it’s not about the habit, it’s about the way someone lives in the world. My way was different.”
He’s in Los Angeles for the premiere of the National Geographic film Jane at the Hollywood Bowl, accompanied by a live orchestra playing his original score. It’s a beautiful and revealing documentary about the life and work of primatologist Jane Goodall, stitched together from lovingly shot archival film by her late husband, Hugo van Lawick. “That’s a gift,” says Glass of the footage of Goodall and her chimps. “If you can’t write good music to that, you should just give up.”
There has already been some talk of more Bafta and Oscar nominations for Glass’s score, but he downplays his chances of breaking his duck. “I can’t win it,” he says. “The reason I’m there is to give the gongs a kind of authenticity. I have a certain sangfroid about the whole thing.”
As a child, Glass was something of a prodigy, starting university at 15 before travelling to Paris to study under composer Nadia Boulanger and later sitar player Ravi Shankar. But it wasn’t until he was 42 that he was able to earn a living from his music. During the Seventies, while he was writing his debut opera Einstein on the Beach, Glass’s income came from a series of odd jobs: driving cabs, plumbing or moving furniture. He remains very proud of the name he dreamed up for his removal company.
“We understood that people who hired a mover did it from the name,” he explains. “My partner came up with Prime Mover. Much too intellectual, didn’t work at all. Then I came up with Chelsea Light Moving. It was supposed to give you the idea of young men with white gloves who would handle your furniture with grace and dignity. Actually sometimes it was just me and my cousin Gene throwing things into the truck.”
It was such a good name that in 2012 Thurston Moore, the former Sonic Youth frontman, lifted it for his new alt-rock band. “I just roared,” says Glass. “The idea that Chelsea Light Moving would be an influence on someone was hilariously funny. That name solved a huge economic problem for me. With a name like that we only needed to work 10 days a month.” There is even truth to the story that Steve Reich, fellow composer and sometime rival, worked alongside him, although not for long. “Steve actually brought gloves but he only made it through half a day,” says Glass, adding tactfully: “It was not his cup of tea. He did other things.”
For years, there were rumours of a feud between Reich and Glass, both titans of the American avant garde, although both have remained tight lipped on the details. These days, any competitiveness with either Reich or fellow contemporary John Adams has faded into the past. “Those are my colleagues,” says Glass. “As time goes on, I feel closer to them. In the early days of the Seventies, nobody was listening to our music, so we were each other’s audience.”
He is aware that, 40 years on, it would be impossible for an aspiring Philip Glass to get by in New York on 10 days’ work a month. “The economics are more severe than they used to be,” he says. “My first loft in New York cost me $30 a month. I could eat lunch for 85 cents. It was easy. Now kids rarely have a studio alone. Many of them work five or six days a week.” Although he sympathises, he is unconvinced by the idea of supporting them with government funds. He never received any such support throughout his career.
“The great thing about not having public money is no one bothered me. I believed I was better off without that sort of support. I think a lightness of spirit comes from being detached from all these kinds of cultural edifices like foundations. I had true independence.”
Glass used that freedom to develop his melodic, insistent, idiosyncratic sound – and to try to dispel the belief that opera is elitist. “I never felt that way,” he says. “Starting with Einstein on the Beach, I was on a mission. I was interested in [writing about] social change, and the heroic figures of our time: Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. I stuck with American themes pretty much, although Gandhi only became an American theme because of Martin Luther King.”
Consistently prolific, he went on to write 15 operas, 11 symphonies and a multitude of piano and ensemble works. His film scores remain probably his most popularly known music, and he’s been nominated for three Oscars: for 1998’s Kundun, 2002’s The Hours and 2007’s Notes on a Scandal.
Yet he has no real interest in awards or resting on his laurels. He still has work to do. Having written symphonies inspired by the first two albums of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Low and Heroes, he plans to complete the set. “I’m working on the Lodger one now,” he reveals. “I shouldn’t really say anything as nothing’s in ink yet, but I do want to finish it. Bowie preferred my Heroes symphony to Low as it was very different, and Lodger will be different again.”
Glass’s ability to reimagine his sound has long confounded those who sought to peg him simply as a writer of repetitive minimalism, but I can’t resist leaving him with an old joke: “How do you know a piece of minimalist music? It takes longer to perform than it did to write.”
“That’s true, I like it,” he says, smiling indulgently. “It’s true in the sense that a piece like Two Pages [an early piano piece of his from 1968] is really an idea. What’s misleading is that creative ideas don’t live in the world of time, of sunsets and sunrises, they live in a different world. I like the joke, but it misses that important point. The ideas are snapshots, and the works are paintings.”
Jane will be released in UK cinemas on November 24 and on National Geographic next year