Minimalist music, maximalist career
Philip Glass: 'Be careful what you want'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "The trouble with my career is I'm finally doing what I want to do. And the reason it's a problem is that I'm doing it all day long and don't have time to do anything else."
Friday and Saturday, composer Philip Glass rejoins one of his favorite collaborators, the West African kora artist Foday Musa Suso in the wide, moss-ceilinged open-air Cistern in Charleston, South Carolina, to play music from their seminal work based on the drama by Jean Genet, "The Screens." The performance is part of the 25th anniversary Spoleto Festival USA, which this week also stages the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Dock Street Theatre and Bale Folclorico da Bahia at Gaillard Auditorium.
"You spend your whole life pining for the moment when you can play as much music as you want to, and write as much as you want to, and interact and collaborate with anyone you want to, practically -- and it's taken me 40 years to get to this point from the time I was a student -- and the trouble with it is that it's a very demanding but very exciting life."
At 64, Glass' name is tied to popular film scores including "The Truman Show" and "Kundun"; to one of modern theater's most challenging works, "Einstein on the Beach"; and to the aural-spectacle performance pieces "Koyaanisqatsi," "Powaqqatsi" and the coming third installment in that trilogy, "Naquoyqatsi." He's one of the United States' most honored composers. And also one of its most road-worthy.
"You know what they say about being careful about what you want because you might get it? I think I got what I wanted. My problem is that I hate to turn down work."
In the month leading up to this weekend's performances, Glass has spun around like one of his fast-cycling musical figures between performance dates in Washington; Boston, Massachusetts; Northampton, Massachusetts; and Burlington, Vermont. Then he went to Melbourne, Australia, for the premiere of his new work, "Voices" for didgeridoo, organ and narrator. Then he was off to London to join the "Screens" group, as he calls the ensemble he'll play with in Charleston. "That's a few UK performances. Then Chicago for some work on an opera." And then some time in New York spent on a new music-theatre work, "In the Penal Colony," a stage effort commissioned by A Contemporary Theater in Seattle.
"I'm thinking about three or four pieces from now. You know what the trouble is, don't you? It's like the weather, you can't control it. You can't say, 'I want a little bit of rain.' You get whatever the rain is. You can't say, 'I want a little bit of the sunset.' It just doesn't work that way.
"Especially in the arts, things have a momentum of their own. You have more work than you want at one time and then you don't have enough work at another time. It's almost like natural phenomena. Pacing it? Pacing it is impossible.
"Just when you think you have all the work you can handle, then a piece you were waiting for comes along."
'All the work'
Glass' music as as distinctive as his mop of hair. The native of Baltimore, Maryland, started to study music seriously at age 8 in flute, after first taking up the violin at 6. He loaded baggage onto planes to support himself at the University of Chicago, majoring in math and philosophy.
A fan of Charles Ives and Virgil Thomson, Glass studied in Paris under the legendary Nadia Boulanger. While there, he was hired by a filmmaker to transcribe the music of Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. The impact of Shankar's Eastern idiom was to reverberate through Glass' music from then on.
His first base in New York was Mabou Mines, the highly regarded experimental theater company of Lee Breuer whose "The Warrior Ant" was seen in a past Spoleto Festival in at the Cistern. Musically, Glass' Mabou years took him to "Music in 12 Parts" and "Einstein on the Beach," the collaboration with Robert Wilson that went a long way to seal both men's places at the heart of American stage-performance artistry.
As happens so easily with work once labeled "avant-garde," Glass' music has been sold short by many who think he's about endless "minimalist" repetitions of looping phrases that "phase," as Steve Reich might put it, into new patterns as you listen.
In fact, much of Glass' music is surprisingly approachable, harmonically lush and sometimes achingly dramatic, as in his compositions for the Kronos Quartet or the sinewy strains of the "Aguas da Amazonia" music he collaborated on with the Brazilian ensemble, Uakti.
Today, Glass stands with Wilson, Reich, Anne Bogart, Martha Clarke and John Adams -- a member of an elite and constantly evolving group of independent but conversant creators in theater and music.
Then again, as he'll tell you, there's precious little standing to it. He's running.
'A very nice time'
"In my business, it's very bad form to complain about working. There are so many people going through what I went through, and I hope they'll get enough success to allow them to do what they want to do.
"People say, 'Are you a workaholic?' I say, 'No, the problem is I'm a fun-aholic.'
"I do about 80 concerts a year. I know, it's crazy. But look, look, I think I know how to do it now. I'm trying to block out the year ahead. I say, 'I'll perform in January and February, then again in June and July, then again in October. I can do 80 performances in four months. It doesn't take a whole year.
"It's very helpful to a composer to have this dialogue with the audience, the constant transactions that happen between the audience and composer-as-performer. I mean, I've been doing this for 54 years. I know that that is, since I was 10. It really feeds into the music."
The music fed by this weekend's Spoleto performances has been with Glass for quite some time. Playwright Jean Genet's "The Screens" was adapted for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis by JoAnne Akalaitis in 1989. The original script is set in the early 1960s in the Algerian fight for independence from France -- it's a play about colonialism, exploitation and European concepts of what is "Arab" and what isn't.
Glass and Foday Musa Suso had traveled together on preparations for Glass frenetically urgent film "Powaqqatsi" in the mid-1980s. Together, they were able to bring to Akalaitis' adaptation of "The Screens" a peculiarly graceful mix of Western and African musical patterns. "The music for 'The Screens,'" Glass says, "is clearly something neither Suso or I could have done alone and was full of surprises for both of us."
'Someone else's career'
"Today, I have a production company, a publishing company, my own composing -- there are a lot of people involved. A little commercial work (some of the Hollywood film scoring he does, for example) isn't a bad thing to keep the cash flow going.
"There are probably a dozen people involved in the publishing and the recording studio -- three work on archiving and music direction. And there's an accountant. By the time you get done with it -- not counting six or eight performers -- it's an operation.
"Many of these people have been with me 25 years."
And it was the same 25 years ago that Italian-born composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded Spoleto Festival USA, a New World counterpart to his longstanding annual festival in Spoleto, Italy.
This year's $6.2 million budget and 17-day span of performances have brought the Joffrey Ballet, the Angiel Aerial Dance Company, playwright Kevin Kling, commentator David Sedaris, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane ensemble, Spain's Compania Nacional de Danza and other companies and artists to Charleston. The two major operatic productions this season have been director Petrika Ionesco's staging of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" and Chen Shi-Zheng's production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas."
Festival representatives don't issue mid-run numbers on ticket sales or budgetary figures. But a spokeswoman for Spoleto says the non-profit festival is on-target with sales and box-office revenue as it enters its final week of performances.
And staying in good financial condition, as well as stoking the artistic furnace, is part of what Glass says keeps him going, too.
"It's a sobering thought -- at least for me. When I think about these good people who've worked for me for 25 years, I can't say, 'Well, let me take this next year off.' Those people are depending on you.
"There's simply a point at which you realize that your career has become someone else's career."
In a special program on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the Albert Simons Center recital hall, members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra will perform rarely played early work of Philip Glass, now considered key instigating music in the minimalist movement. Festivalgoers may want to consider hearing this program before Saturday's 9 p.m. performance of "The Screens" at the Cistern for more context on Glass' career as a whole.
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