A GLASS ACT
As composer Philip Glass holds a phone to his ear on one level of his spacious New York City home, a film crew from the Bravo cable network is setting up a shoot on the floor beneath him. "I don't know exactly what they're doing," Glass admits, exuding an air of exquisite indifference. "All I've heard is that it's for a program on `twentieth-century originals,' or something like that. They make up these things, you know."
Such is life for Glass, an acclaimed classical artist who for the past twenty years or so has experienced celebrity of rock-star dimensions. He floats easily through the worlds of opera, theater and dance, yet he also maintains high-profile friendships with pop artists many of his classical peers look upon with disdain. Far from viewing these associations as slumming, however, Glass describes them as opportunities for artistic growth.
"I wrote a song for Suzanne Vega a few weeks ago, pretty much for the hell of it--because I know her and there was the chance to do it, and because I thought it would be fun to do," he notes. "When I work with someone like her or Paul Simon or David Bowie, they bring something to the work that's new for me. And that's exciting. It's invigorating."
Although he's nearing sixty, Glass is pleased that he hasn't entirely lost his reputation as a classical enfante terrible--a figurative bomb-thrower with the temerity to believe that it's possible to make music that's both challenging and widely popular, at least by contemporary-classical standards. He takes great pride in his ability to upset expectations by blurring the lines between genres, and with his latest creation--La Belle et la Bete, an opera inspired by the gorgeous 1946 Jean Cocteau film released in this country under the title Beauty and the Beast--he's once again broken some substantial rules.
The scope of Glass's gamble with La Belle may not be immediately apparent. After all, his decision to juxtapose screenings of the film with live performances of his compositions is not without precedent: Symphonies across the country have frequently taken similar liberties with silent masterworks. But in those cases, the restored or newly composed scores didn't replace an existing soundtrack. By contrast, Glass's most certainly does. Everything from the film's original music to the unforgettable readings of Cocteau's cast, headed by Josette Day as Beauty and Jean Marais as the Beast, is turned off in favor of the newly penned opus (available in a lavish double-CD set on the Nonesuch label). Moreover, live vocalists interpreting the film's main characters are placed prominently on the stage and lit in theatrical fashion, so that they compete visually with the black-and-white marvel unspooling behind them.
"The general idea," Glass explains, "was to think of ways that film could be incorporated into live performance. Or, to put it somewhat differently, ways in which opera could incorporate film into live performance. Because opera's always drawn from plays and novels and the literature of its time. And yet film, which to my mind is the literature of its time, resists inclusion, because it's not a live performance art. So the whole enterprise was about transforming film from being a mechanically reproduced art form into one that could be interpretable in live performance.
"There were all kinds of fears about this notion--a whole list of them," he concedes, chuckling. "For example, we wondered, `Would the film overwhelm the performers?' Because Jean Marais is no slouch as the Beast, and it's one of the most visually beautiful of all films. But, in fact, the concept works amazingly well--better than I expected it to, to be frank. What happens, in effect, is that the singers become alter egos to the characters that you're seeing on the screen. In a sense, they almost merge with them. It's actually a kind of trick we play with our minds when we're watching it: The singing La Belle and the acting La Belle start to become the same person. It's very interesting psychologically."
Glass expected that cinematic purists might be offended by La Belle, and with good reason. One can construe the composer's project as a violation of the film's initial form--the sonic equivalent of colorization. Glass rejects this charge: "The original film is intact--we happen just not to be listening to the soundtrack," he says. "Audiences aren't simply watching the film. They're experiencing a live performance, which is precisely what I intended it to be. In fact, I legally can't make a video or a movie using this new soundtrack. The original composer's family allowed me to perform it live by turning off his soundtrack, but I'm not allowed to remove it. They wanted to protect the integrity of the original version, and I think they're quite right. Replacing the original score was never our objective.
"Thus far, everyone has seemed to understand my intentions," he goes on. "We haven't been to Los Angeles yet--we're scheduled to do four shows there--but we've performed it in New York, London, Amsterdam, Madrid and other places where people know film, and no one's squawked yet."
If that's true, the response to La Belle is virtually unprecedented in Glass's career, which has been marked for decades by sniping from all quarters. He was born in Baltimore and received his musical education by listening to the classical recordings that went unsold at his father's radio-repair shop. His first instrument was the violin, followed closely by the flute, which he studied rigorously throughout his youth. He was only fifteen when he enrolled at the University of Chicago (his majors were philosophy and mathematics), and upon his graduation four years later, he was granted admission to New York's Juilliard School and began studying music in earnest.
According to many classical-music historians, there were two principal strains of modern composition during the Fifties and Sixties: serialism, an approach often associated with Anton Webern in which tones are fixed in arbitrary designs that frequently defy traditional tonal relationships; and the so-called chance music exemplified by John Cage's unprecedented experimentation. After two years spent under the tutelage of Paris-based Nadia Boulanger and the discovery of the Indian music of players such as Ravi Shankar, Glass rejected both styles in favor of music built on shards of note clusters--rock listeners might liken them to riffs--that are repeated over long stretches or shifted subtly to achieve a hypnotic, otherworldly effect. Simply because Glass rejected the atonality that was so fashionable then, trademark efforts like 1973's Music With Changing Parts seem almost romantic today. But when they were first heard, during a period when Glass was toiling as a taxi driver and a plumber to make ends meet, these rigorously spare pieces (as well as compositions by Steve Reich and other kindred spirits) led to the coining of a new term: minimalism. The word has dogged Glass for decades, and he clearly believes that it's outlived its usefulness.
"After the excesses of the serial school, which went on for thirty or forty years, my generation really brought about a return to tonality, as it's called," he submits. "Now there are all kinds of things going on that employ tonality--and because there's so much diversity among the current generation of composers, labels like minimalism seem handy. But they're actually more confusing than helpful, at least to my mind. Artists are reluctant to define themselves too narrowly, because they're in the business of trying to extend their language and their horizons. My activity goes against the idea of definition, because I'm constantly trying to redefine myself--not to define myself. As I tell young composers, the first problem you have is finding a voice, and the second problem you have is getting rid of it."
That's a particularly daunting task in Glass's case, given the singular nature of the work that served as his introduction to mass culture--the 1976 opera on which Glass collaborated with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach. The mammoth undertaking ran for five hours, and although its staging was radical enough to attract considerable notice, it was Glass's score, suffused with howls of keyboards and reed instruments, along with a stirring chorus, that left attendees stunned. Even after the passage of so much time, Einstein's score retains the power to divide listeners. Some find it moving and epic. Some regard it as little more than a stunt. Some feel it's almost indescribably annoying. But no one can deny that it got people talking about Glass--and they've been talking ever since.
Since Einstein, Glass has been astoundingly prolific. As he notes, "I've written twelve operas; I've written music for thirty plays and a dozen ballets and maybe a dozen films." The operas include Satyagraha, based on the life of Gandhi, and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, composed with the assistance of author Doris Lessing. Glass's theater pieces are exemplified by 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, from an idea by playwright David Henry Hwang. In the Upper Room, staged by choreographer Twyla Tharp, is among Glass's best-known works for dance. And his soundtracks for 1983's memorable documentary Koyaanisqatsi, its sequel, Powaqqatsi, and two terrific projects by director Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time) are widely admired. At present, he's scoring a new picture directed by Christopher Hampton and starring Robin Williams, Patricia Arquette, Bob Hoskins and Gerard Depardieu, but he swears that these big names are no indication that he's gone Hollywood.
"This is an art movie--the budget was only 6 or 7 million dollars, and the actors did it because they wanted to work with Christopher," Glass insists, adding, "I rarely get involved with commercial film, because when the big studios are involved, the first issue is financial, and the artistic issues are all secondary. Of course, I don't get asked to score Jurassic Park. But I see these things when I take planes, and it's junk. It's garbage. There's nothing wrong with entertainment, but if there's nothing of artistic merit in it, I'm not interested. It's basically not worth doing. You never get paid enough, and the government takes half of it anyway. So why do it?"
Critics of Glass question such high-minded statements, implying that, for example, 1986's Songs From Liquid Days--which sports lyrics by David Byrne and Laurie Anderson and vocals by Linda Ronstadt and the Roches--reflects a man who would rather be popular than good. Glass was also knocked for 1993's "Low" Symphony, suggested by themes from the 1977 album Low, performed by David Bowie and produced by Brian Eno. The symphony certainly can't be described as rock--even lovers of Low may have a hard time unearthing the Bowie-Eno themes that Glass uses. Nonetheless, the rock-and-roll connection and the cover photo of Glass alongside Bowie and Eno helped the disc become one of the top-selling classical releases of the year.
"That was nice," Glass acknowledges, "but crossover is not much of a motivation for me. The motivation is to extend my own language and discover what possibilities I have as a composer. I don't do these things just to upset you guys. I do them out of my own curiosity."
That may be true, but there's little question that Glass's current inventions are far more accessible than Einstein and the like. La Belle may include the composer's trademark note repetitions, but they're often planted behind sweeping melodies of the sort he once eschewed. Glass doesn't apologize for this seeming incongruity--he revels in it. "If you were to describe La Belle as a minimalist opera, an audience that came to see it would rightly be confused. They would ask, `In which way? What does that have to do with minimalism?'"
Not much--and as a result, a sizable percentage of reviewers who have scoffed at Glass in the past seem to be coming around. Positive notices, coupled with the fame that worshipful cable-TV features confer, have left him in an enviable position.
"I'll be talking about such and such a person to someone, and I'll say, `He's a very nice guy,'" Glass remarks. "And the person I'm talking to will say, `Actually, that guy is a complete rat.' And I'll reply, `He was nice to me.' And I'll be told, `Everyone's nice to you, Philip.' That's when I realize that it's been a while since anyone has really mistreated me. How strange."
Philip Glass & the Philip Glass Ensemble & Singers: La Belle et la Béte, an opera for ensemble and the film by Jean Cocteau. 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 24, Macky Auditorium, CU-Boulder campus, $19-$25, 830-
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