Philip Glass on Piano Music, Memories and Motorcycles

Philip Glass (photo: Flickr/letterchen)

On a blustery afternoon in early December, Philip Glass climbed the massive staircase that leads up to the Juilliard School lobby, and barely winded, sat down for a long conversation about this music, life and career. Our talk, which formed the basis of a cover story for the February issue of BBC Music Magazine, veered from topic to topic, and one was struck by his candor on matters like the business side of his career.

There were also some points that, for reasons of space, didn’t make it into the magazine piece. On the composer’s 80th birthday, here are four “outtakes” that address both his life and art.

On preparing his 2015 memoir, Words Without Music:

“I don’t have any journals covering this much time. I’ve discovered that I clearly remember the dates of pieces. I use that as a map. Once I got into my music years, I was on very solid ground.” [The book begins with Glass’s childhood in Baltimore and continues to nearly the present day.] “I had to decide what kind of book I wanted to write. I decided I wanted to write a book for people who came to concerts and wanted to know who I was. It’s very simple. That did not mean they were professional musicians.

On the popularity of his solo piano music, especially on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music:

“The most popular form of music that’s sold is piano music. It sold in my dad’s record store. It sold today. I wasn’t surprised. We did a recording of the Etudes and we sold thousands of them. People like piano music. In a film like ‘The Hours,’ the piano became an important part of that score. After that, Michael Riesman, [the director of the Philip Glass Ensemble], made an arrangement of piano and strings that he can play live. There are endless arrangements.

On Glass scholarship and turning 80:

I haven’t seen a great rush of people doing any research. I don’t really care. You must remember, I’m playing all the time. I’m still doing 40 or 50 concerts a year. Forty times a year means you’re practicing. It means you’re always in touch with the audience. Even if I’m not playing and I go and see an opera — I went to see Aknahten at the L.A. Opera recently – I’m not on stage but I’m hearing it from the point of view of the spectator.

On his love of motorcycles while studying at Juilliard:

I was a young guy, what was I going to do? Do you think I was a monk in a monastery? We had a motorcycle club at Juilliard. We would get on our bikes at 125th Street. In those days we had an elevated highway [the West Side Highway] all the way to Coney Island. It was not uncommon on a winter night to ride all the way to Coney Island, have a hot dog and a coke, and drive back. Peter Schickele was one. We were motorcycle guys. It was a great experience to see the country.

Photo: Philip Glass (photo: Flickr/letterchen)

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