MUSIC : Minimalism to the Max : The controlled music of Philip Glass travels well in collaborative explorations--witness his 'Hydrogen Jukebox' with Allen Ginsberg

Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York.

A couple of years ago, Allen Ginsberg, in a public discussion with Philip Glass, asked the composer whether he sometimes contemplated the unfathomable beauty of his work and if it brought tears to his eyes.

"Of course not," Glass answered. "Does that happen to you?"

"All the time," the poet replied.

"That's what I love about you, Allen," Glass said, bursting into laughter. "We're so different."

The poet and composer then sat together at the piano. Ginsberg read from his 1966 incantatory anti-war poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," and his recitation became more emotional with each line. Glass, stone-faced, accompanied with passive arpeggios, but his music somehow provided just the fuel needed for the explosive poetry.

Glass and Ginsberg certainly are different. There could hardly be more confessional verse in contemporary letters than Ginsberg's. Although the poetic voice of the Beats and the hippies, he has been primarily the detailed chronicler of an untidy soul--his own. Glass' controlled minimalism, on the other hand, is music far removed from the composer's ego, the precise opposite of Ginsberg's emotional extremism.

Yet "Hydrogen Jukebox," the staged presentation of 21 Ginsberg poems set as song texts by Glass that will be presented at UCLA on Friday and Saturday, has proved to be one of Glass' most critically acclaimed theater pieces in recent years.

As it turns out, the encounter between the 65-year-old poet and the 54-year-old composer is not as unlikely as it may first appear.

Glass' perhaps most notable contribution to music has, in fact, been in expanding the possibilities of musical collaboration. In the '60s, as resident composer of the experimental theater group Mabou Mines, Glass early on developed a musical flexibility that has allowed him to collaborate on projects from pop songs with Paul Simon to grand opera. In 1976, he helped revolutionize modern opera when he collaborated with Robert Wilson on "Einstein on the Beach" by treating music and stage imagery with equal emphasis.

And Glass still thrives on such challenges. During a recent conversation in his East Village townhouse, the composer talked about the collaborative process on a number of current projects, all of them of entirely different nature and scope.

There is "The Voyage," a new opera about Columbus that was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for next season.

"Columbus has a major part in it, but it's (also) about the confrontation of cultures," Glass says. "Instead of Columbus meeting the Indians, it's somebody else meeting somebody else. David Hwang wrote the libretto. He's a Chinese-American, not a white European, and that will give you a clue right away about the point of view."

Then there's "The White Raven," a new opera and yet another Wilson collaboration based upon 16th-Century Portuguese poetry and to be given in Portugal in 1993.

And Glass is currently adapting a classic film, Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus," into a music theater piece for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., as the first in a planned trilogy of Cocteau pieces.

Earlier this year Glass contributed the music for a dance theater piece about Marcel Duchamp, "The Mysteries, and What's So Funny?" by choreographer David Gordon, with sets by Red Grooms, which had its premiere at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.; and he also provided the background music for Joanne Akalaitis' production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," Parts 1 and 2, at the Public Theater, a few blocks from where he lives.

Such versatility is remarkable, especially for a composer who is accused, over and over, of repeating himself by writing works presumably built upon unchanging harmonies and rhythms and by changing so little from piece to piece.

Asked if it is possible for the same music to fit the needs of Shakespeare, of opera written for both experimental and traditional venues and of avant-garde dance, Glass notes that he rarely works with precisely the same team twice and never does two similar pieces in a row. And although his style may change slowly, it does change.

"I'm just slow--what can I tell you?" he jokes. "But if you look at the music over a 20-year period, a piece from 1969 and 1989, the change is very clear. We didn't expect Brahms to change with every symphony. He hardly changes at all. I think we are too impatient."

But ultimately, Glass says, the changes have to be internal, and his way of working with Ginsberg, which has led to some surprising stylistic innovations, proves a good example of how he manages this.

"Allen's work is poetry that is meant to be spoken," the composer explains. "He's the best presenter of his work, and once you've heard him read his poetry it changes forever the way you read it.

"Once we had selected the poems (for "Hydrogen Jukebox"), he then made a recording of himself reading them. But I didn't listen to it. Since making a presentation of the poetry without his persona in it was my first problem, I just got away from it entirely. It seemed to me that the only contribution of value I could make was to extend the poems into another medium by musicizing them."

T o musicize is a strange locution, but it may be just the verb to describe how Glass creates his particular brand of music theater, with its combination of the fantastic and the downright practical.

"Hydrogen Jukebox" is the musicization of Ginsberg, the taking of various poems and creation of a cohesive theatrical event in which a spiritual journey from the private Ginsberg to the public Ginsberg, from the literal poems to the transcendental poems, is alluded to but never spelled out.

"Hydrogen Jukebox," which had its premiere at the 1990 Spoleto Festival, also represents the almost evangelical nature of Glass' music theater. The work, staged by the downtown performance artist Ann Carlson and designed by Jerome Sirlin, with his celebrated three-dimensional projection technique, was produced to travel.

"Every year we take a show on the road," Glass says of what has become an ersatz music theater company. "Last year it was 'Powaqqatsi' (the Godfrey Reggio film, with the Philip Glass Ensemble performing the soundtrack live), and the year before that it was '1000 Airplanes on the Roof.' Next year we are going to rebuild 'Einstein on the Beach' and tour with it.

"In effect, we've set up a company which produces music theater. We've never called it anything or announced it. I didn't set up a board of directors and go looking for money. I've never done that; all that bureaucracy is a waste of time. But we have a producer (Jedediah Wheeler, Glass' manager), we have a library, which I'm responsible for, and we just do a piece a year.

"With '1000 Airplanes,' we went to 35 cities worldwide. That's a lot of cities, and when you start hitting that many cities, you're actually doing something very interesting. We're taking at least partly experimental music theater, which certainly isn't 'Evita,' way beyond the confines of the East Coast opera theaters to places such as Marshall, Texas."

Glass says "The Voyage" is decidedly a Met opera. "It's a big piece; it's for the Met; it's an ambitious piece musically. What can I say? I got serious."

He also took the Met seriously. He turned in the score early--last summer--so that everyone would have more than a year to get to know it. And he selected the kind of team familiar with his work and also with working in large opera houses, including director David Pountney, designer Robert Israel and conductor Bruce Ferden.

The composer also wanted to work with a cast that combines Met singers, such as Tatyana Troyanos, with singers who are familiar with his music, such as Douglas Perry, who created the role of Gandhi in Glass' second opera, "Satyagraha."

"I was trying to figure out how do you go into a house which is not known for doing a lot of new work, but which also has all the facilities that you can want.

"I did a lot of smart things in this piece. Sometimes you don't do smart things, so when I do smart things I'm willing to say so."

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