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Friday, August 12, 2011

Philip Glass Interview 2002

Ran: 10/8/02 on
Head: Philip Glass Teams with Godfrey Reggio and Yo-Yo Ma for Naqoyqatsi

Philip Glass, the most famous Minimalist, has long excelled at scoring films, most memorably Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Now the series becomes a trilogy with Naqoyqatsi, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Glass discusses the unusual path to the album's creation and how he's allowing more emotion into his music in recent years.

CDNOW: Has your method of collaborating with Godfrey Reggio changed over the course of the three Qatsi films?

Philip Glass: It's changed in that the films have changed somewhat. As they've become more technical, the process of making the film, of finalizing the images, has become more complicated. Even if we start working together, which is what we do, I start writing and he starts filming or making pictures, but I'm now working faster than him, so I'm working way ahead of the picture now. Originally it was shooting in 35 and editing the old way with strips of film on the walls, stuff like that. He made this movie on an AVIT. Eighty percent of it is computerized images. So while I was writing the music, I was rarely writing to finished film. That meant that the music began to take a forward position in the sense of determining how the outcome of the combination of image and music would be in the end. In the end, they were cutting pictures to music.

One of the hallmarks of these films is the rhythm, visual and musical. So now he's doing that to your music, rather than vice versa?

It's pretty much become that, though I still work with Godfrey in terms of the whole dramaturgical treatment we work on. Our studio is here, his studio was down on White Street and Broadway, eight blocks from here, so I was there numerous times in the course of a week watching the editor, John Kane, looking at what the pictures were. Let's say we had a scene, which we call "masked man" or something like that, and I would be looking at the images he was working with, so I knew what the pictures would be and I could get a certain sense of what the flow could be. But I actually didn't see a final version of it until a few days ago when I went to the opening in Telluride when I went to the film festival. That process is a very laborious one, of creating images that way.

How did Yo-Yo Ma come to be involved?

It was a surprise that came towards the end. Sony got interested in the soundtrack, and I was speaking with Peter Gelb, who's the head of Sony Classics. I worked with Sony Classics in the '80s, I had a contract with them for about 10 years. That was with CBS, and when it became Sony, then I went over to Nonesuch and spent 10 years with them. So I have already 11 or 12 CDs with [Sony]. Peter Gelb liked the idea of doing it and suggested it would be really wonderful if Yo-Yo could play on it, which I of course immediately agreed with, it would be wonderful. A few weeks later, Yo-Yo was in town and we met and I showed him the music and he was very interested. Oddly enough, I had written a lot of solo music already for the piece. That was one of the ideas of the piece, there's a whole section at the end. That whole solo cello piece at the end was written before I met him. After that, there were some uncompleted sections that were mostly transitions, and I decided to wrote solo pieces for Yo-Yo to tie the sections together. Then I went back, and Michael Reisman, who's the conductor, we went back to the score and identified places where the solo cello could take over certain sections, so it appears now as a piece that's kind of through-composed with the cello. In fact, it came rather late, and because of the direction the music had already taken, it was easy to make that happen. At this point, the cello seems almost like a subtext of the music, it seems like almost the voice of the music.

Voice is exactly the word, because he has such a vocal quality in his tone.

That's right. There's one section towards the end where there's a woman singing, and he plays along with her and it sounds like a man and a woman. You get that feeling especially when you hear him playing two octaves apart from the woman's voice. That was a very fortunate outcome of working with Sony, which we hadn't thought about. I knew he recorded with Sony, of course, but it never occurred to me that he would be interested. But this is a man who's interested in all kinds of things, he has his Silk Road projects. He's pretty much covered the concert literature, so he's very much moving into new things to do.

One of the interesting things about him playing this work it that it makes whatever emotions there are in the work much more overt than has been the case with your other Qatsi soundtracks.

All the movies have a certain look to them, and so the music is influenced by that. In a certain way, for me, there's a very traditional relationship of the instrument to melodic writing and rhythms in this piece more than in the other pieces. The film itself is very high-tech, and I felt that the music needed to supply a bridge, or kind of a door, for people to enter into it. I was afraid that the film could be seen as rather cold and distant, the way a fabricated image might be, so my desire was to balance what could have been the coolness of the image with a very warm sound, and it's for that reason I picked a large orchestra and, eventually, Yo-Yo. So in that sense it would remind us of more traditional kinds of writing than you would hear in Powaqqatsi or Koyaanisqatsi, and that was a strategy that had to do with film. Besides that, in recent years I have been allowing a very melodic dimension and emotional dimension, I've allowed that much more than in the early music.

It's very prominent in the Fifth Symphony.

Yes, that's true, it was, and that's a recent piece. This piece and the Fifth Symphony are only two or three years apart. I think partly it's just the way people develop. If a painter starts painting on one side of the room, he ends up painting on the other side of the room. I began [with] a very abstract music, the early reductive pieces, and I ended up doing very emotional music. If I'd done that the other way, I may have gone to the more abstract music. You have to go down the line one way or another; whether you move from left to right or right to left, it really doesn't matter very much, you're going to have to move somewhere. In my case, I had begun with a very abstract music; a lot of its emotional impact came from the dynamic of the music and the instrumentation and the rhythmic power of the music. Having done that, I found at a certain point I had to try new materials to kind of keep a musical vision that would remain fresh for me.

I play the early pieces quite a lot now; I'm playing a piano concert this weekend. I'm playing the pieces I wrote 20 years ago much better now than I played them then, because I really understand them now. I didn't understand them when I wrote them. I mean, there's a part of them I didn't get, and now 20 years later I can go back to pieces like the Metamorphoses and I play them very differently than when I wrote them. You can only really start addressing these kind of questions when there's a body of work that's substantial enough and that has come into the world over a length of time that's long enough so that you can actually become aware of your own process, which is also difficult to do. In my thirties and forties I had very little idea what I was doing, though in fact it included all the kind of writing that led to Satyagraha and Koyaanisqatsi. So when I say I didn't know what I was doing, what I meant to say is what the implications of the music might have been in terms of performance and in terms of audience and in terms of development. Like everybody else, usually I'm where I am, I'm not really able to envision things beyond that very much. Of course, the thing is, once you know where it's going, you tend to go there, and then you're in that moment, and that's how it works. It's very hard not to do that.

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