Philip Glass was in Irvine, California in March, 1997 for a solo piano concert. The second recording in his three-part series of the works of Brian Enos and David Bowie, Heroes Symphony, had just been released, and KUCI lined up an interview.


KUCI: We're here with Philip Glass. Welcome to Philharmonic Infierno.

GLASS: Thank you; I'm pleased to be here.

KUCI: We've just got a copy of the Heroes Symphony. It's just come out on Point Music. This is music that you wrote, drawn from the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno, and it's the second such symphony that you've written; the first was the Low Symphony.

GLASS: Yes, that's right.

KUCI: How did that come about; how did you start working with Bowie and Eno?

GLASS: Well, it's important to note that David and Brian, it's based on their music--I know them, and we've talked about the project--but they didn't actually work on this record. I've known them since the early seventies, and there was a period in the middle seventies when they both lived in New York; I think Brian was beginning to work as a record producer, about the time he was doing the B-52s and Talking Heads, and David was also in and out of New York a lot, and we got to know each other during that time. I heard the original Low and Heroes records--LPs--when they came out, probably in '78 or '79. I was very struck with them, and I remember at the time thinking that this was music I'd like to do something with.

What that means really, is that I, like many in the past, composers can be inspired by the work of other composers, and when that happens sometimes a composers will do variations on a theme, or a series of transformations, or whatever. It's a kind of homage to the other composer's work. And it really works when you really are taken by the work. And I was really struck by these early pieces. I thought that what they were trying to do was to redefine certain parameters in pop music. To work less in terms of formula and to work in a more experimental fashion. I think--remember, at the time there were other people doing this--there were Kraftwork, and Tangerine Dream, and of course Frank Zappa. So the idea was being experienced by people that pop music had maybe an art form to it; it wasn't always commercial music, it didn't always have to be entertainment music, but those people could work in another mode that had a more serious character to it.

KUCI: So I see that this was also written for Twila Tharp's dance company.

GLASS: Well, at the time when I begen to work on this--I had already spoken to David, we had begun with Low in 1990, so this was something we had been meaning to do--and when I began to work on this, I think it would have been spring of '96, Twila Tharp called me. We had done a work together called In the Upper Room. And she asked if I would have time to do a new work. She has a new dance company, a completely new outfit, and wanted some new music for it. I said "Twila, I'm busy with this other project; I don't think I'll have the time to do this." She said, "Well, what it it that you're working on?" I told her it was Heroes, and she got very excited, "why don't we just make a dance out of that?" So I called David, and he liked the idea, because he had started with Brian, and then it was extended to me. So this would be our fourth collaborator. And he liked the idea that this would also make it different from the Low Symphony, which was actually just a symphonic work, but by putting it out as a dance, it would introduce a theatrical quality to it, which was not in the Low Symphony.

KUCI: So given that you have written music for Twila Tharp dance pieces before, what makes this a symphony?

GLASS: You know, that's a good question, and I'll you a very subjective answer. This is in six movements and it's in six movements because it's a practical matter--for a dance company to dance for more than eight or ten minutes without taking any break at all, it's difficult. So whereas in the Low Symphony each movement was 15 minutes, and there were three movements, I kept the same overall length of time, about 45 minutes, which is a good length of time for a concert; it takes up half a concert, and I divided them up into smaller units. Now what that meant was that, on the positive side, I could reference more of the original CD. Then I was talking about taking six of the original cuts instead of maybe three. So I was covering more of the original material; that was the good part. It also meant that I was thinking about it in a much different way than simply as a symphony but as more of a theatrical piece.

So the question is why is it not just a suite of movements for dance? My answer to that is that it still has a kind of shape to it, with the beginning, the Heroes piece, finale at the end, with V2-Schnieder. There's definitely a feeling as you go through the piece of alternations, of slow pieces and fast pieces, and in my view, it has the cohesiveness that we expect from a symphonic work. Whereas if it were simply a suite of dances, as for example the Baroque dances of Bach, you would just have a collection of pieces that you could put them in different order. My feeling about this piece is that the pieces are in the only order they can be in, this is the right shape of it, it has a definite structure and it pulls you toward the finale at the end. And all those things mean to me that it has an integrity of structure which gives its symphonic final form.

KUCI: So on the cover of the album it's got a photograph of you and David Bowie, and Brian Eno, and I was struck by the fact that if a person were to pick this up, and be familiar with the original work of Bowie and Eno, and they were to play this and not recognize any of the themes or melodies, they'd be very surprised. In some way, by taking another person's work, you're also answerable to that original work.

GLASS: Well, in a way, but more to them than to anyone else. By the way, the thing that strikes me about the cover is that I have two eyes and they each only have one. However, if you turn over to the back, the two missing eyes are on the back, so that takes care of that.

I was concerned about--you know, in a way--I have a public that certainly knows my work, and I knew they would be coming to this music anyway, besides that there are people who are followers of David's music and Brian's music, so there are several other audiences involved. ANd of course, when you talk about responsibility--I mean I hope people would like the piece, but if people don't, maybe there's somethig else they'll like; I'm not going to worry about it too much. I was more concerned that David and Brian felt that in fact what I was doing was legitimate in terms of taking what they had done, and bringing it to a different place. In other words, saying something. The question really is, "Do I have anything to say about that music that's worth writing down and listening to, and is it a legitimate extension and exploration of that original material?" David and Brian both felt that it is, and David's been very kind in his comments about it.

I think the other thing I should say also is that this second one, Heroes, really departs more radically from the original than the symphonic Low does from its original. And I think, looking back on it, when I was doing Low, I was a little more self-conscious about that--I stayed closer to the original--perhaps I was concerned that David and Brian might be disturbed by what they could consider as liberties--I was taking liberties with the work. New harmonies, new rhythms, certainly the orchestration was completely different. Thinking about it, I must have been somewhat self-conscious about it,and I stayed closer to the original. Having done that, coming back to this four, nearly five years later, I think I approached Heroes with a lot more confidence about what I could, let's say get away with, and still legitimately present it as based on the music of David and Brian.

The reference to them was important because I felt that what they had done was original, I felt it was striking, I think these two works, as well as Lodger, the third, have a real place in popular music history. So there's no point in messing about with them unless I felt I had something to offer. I approached this with more confidence, and it departs more radically from the original. And I think for David it was more successful; I think it is for me as well.

KUCI: Another criterion for being a symphony is that it's written for orchestra. Now a lot of your other music is written for the Philip Glass ensemble, or for specific musicians. And one of the things that's striking about your music is the control you have over timbre and sound dynamics--when you write for keyboard, for instance, you often get a completely different kind of sound, that nobody's ever heard before. Did you have to give some of that up to write for orchestra?

GLASS: Well, I gave something up, but what I was doing--and let's go back to the original--their original was for synthesizers. Now interestingly enough, one of the things that David and Brian and I used to talk about in the seventies were the electric keyboards that were available, and what was very interesting to all the people working then--not just in popular music but in experimental music--was the new technology that was being made available with synthesizers. It was just coming on and being made available at that time, around 1976.

But there's also something very specific about the quality of the original, which when you go back and make comparisons between the original and what came out later; the original is very dark. I remember David once quoted--he said there's was a kind of icy menace about it. They were written in Berlin; these were their Berlin years. Berln was a very strange place at that time; people have almost forgotten what it was like, but West Berlin was this little islad in the middle of a totalitarian state; it was surrounded by guys with machine guns and barbed wire. it was like it was unreal. I went through Berlin a number of times--I gave concerts in Berlin during those years--you couldn't believe what it was like. David was living there at the time; they were working on these works at that time, and I believe of the character of those pieces, and the darkness, comes from that time and from being there.

When I came to do my own versions, the first thing I did is I changed from the synthesizer to orchestra. Now, clearly, I've done a lot of work with synthesizers too, but I thought that unless I could change the timbre that radically I would be almost confined to that emotional place that they had started from. Orchestra is already a warmer instrument--it's more transparent, it's lighter, it's more colorful. And at the same time, when I go back and listen to some of the early pieces, the original versions, like Sense of Doubt for example, it sounds to me like a synthesizer straining to become an orchestra. When I heard it I said, "This should be for orchestra." At the same time, Brian of course is a great colorist of electronic music--and so is David for that matter, they're very inventive within that medium, but still, it is what it is. I think it's perfect for reflecting the Berlin that they were living in, but now it's '96--that was then and this is now, as we like to say. I was not interested in simply recreating what they had done, but I wanted to extend it.

So this change to orchestra was a fundamental choice, and I think it made perhaps the biggest difference, besides the other procedures I used, it was one of the biggest single factors in its translation to a new form.

KUCI: So do you think that you ended up with a different mood?

GLASS: Oh yes, I think so. David, everyone's remarked that it's much lighter, it's more transparent. It's warmer. David talks about--one comment I read--that there was a humanitarianism in it that wasn't in the original. Though he said he thought that I had found that, something I had discovered in the music and he didn't know it was there--I don't think that's true. There's a lot in that original, and maybe I extracted it and transformed it to a degree. But this kind of overall feeling of lightness and warmth is what I feel. At the same time, the drama of the original, like in Sense of Doubt or Neuköln--the drama I think is still there.

KUCI: A lot of your music has been written for theater or movies, or for other sorts of visually-oriented performance medium. There's often a multimedia aspect--when people go to see your work done, they're often confronted with a tremendous spectacle of some kind.

GLASS: That's right, and it's interesting because I'm here in Irvine doing an acoustic piano concert, so it's very different.

KUCI: And then there are works like your violin concerto and string quartets, also written for conventional performance media.

GLASS: Yeah, the majority of the works are in the theatrical vein, whether it means dance or different kinds of movement, image, which could mean a film like Powaqqatsi or Koyaanisquatsi, certainly theatrical elements that I got involved with with Bob Wilson and Lucinda Charles and other people. The greater part of the work really is that. There are these other moments in the work which are more in a way almost traditional concert music, like the violin concerto. Or tonight, I'm doing what you can really say is a piano recital--that's what it is. I don't like to give up anything, as you've probably noticed by now; just because I'm writing for synthesizer doesn't mean I'm going to give up the piano. And I like going from one to the other. For me, having that kind of range in terms of possibility activates my imagination. It means I can go from a piano work to a synthesizer work and that when I go to a different medium it seems fresh to me.

KUCI: Another thing I've noticed about your work is that a lot of things come in threes.

GLASS: Yeah, that's right, I have a thing about threes. There are the three symphonies, Lodger will be the third.

KUCI: Another Bowie/Eno symphony?

GLASS: Oh yeah, Lodger will be the third. They announced this as a trilogy--it was always Low, Heroes, Lodger in that order. These were their great, groundbreaking experimental works--which they really were. When I talked to David about it five years ago I said "David, I want to do your trilogy, and I will do all three." He loved the idea--he was curious to see what would happen, after all, this is work of another time.

There have been other threes, too--I'm two-thirds through this one; I'm also two-thirds through Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films--which would be Koyaanisquatsi, Powaqqatsi--these are films of image and music only--and the third will be Nakoyisquatsi, and Godfrey's working on it now. We expect to do the first the forty minutes of that or so within the next year.

Then there's my own trilogy of operas based on Einstein, Ghandi, and Akhnaten, and that was completed in 1984, and I just completed a trilogy of operas based on films of Cocteau--that would be Orphee, La Belle, and Les Enfantes Terribles. Les Enfants will, by the way, be in the Los Angeles area this October.

KUCI: Let us know, and we'll let our audience know all about it. Well, I've got to let you get to your performance. Thanks so much for coming to talk to us, and we'll be playing your symphony on the air this morning.

GLASS: Thank you very much; I was very pleased to be here.


Philharmonic Infierno is hosted by Dan Young every Tuesday morning at 9:00 on KUCI, 88.9 FM