MUSIC : Minimalist Pushed to the Max : A record label, a Bowie-Eno-inspired first symphony, a Cocteau project--what else is new, Philip Glass?
His music may be labeled minimal, but it has created a one-man industry of maximal extension for its composer. Just turned 56, Philip Glass is tackling the role of tribal elder with characteristic determination, if not real relish. Fresh from the premiere of his 10th opera, “The Voyage,” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he has a raft of new projects awaiting their premieres, is still touring with his ensemble, and has seen the production side of his efforts blossom into a new record label, Point Music, on which he has just released his first symphony.
“The way Point evolved--we’ve been working together for over 20 years, (producer-sound designer) Kurt Munkacsi, (keyboardist-conductor) Michael Riesman and I,” Glass says. “I have a publishing company, a production company and a recording studio built around my musical output. We’d developed a team with particular talents, and I felt we were underusing them.
“We began thinking aloud about a label. I would do A&R;, Kurt production, Michael music direction. We went to Philips and they were all over us. It was not a hard sell.
“They supply the physical production, and do the marketing and selling. Our part is to identify artists, contract them and make the records, within certain budgets.”
Marketing and selling may be the domain of the parent company, but Glass is doing his part. On his way back from India, with many other projects coming to a boil, he stopped in Los Angeles for four days of promotional activities surrounding the release of his “Low” Symphony.
Without getting existential, the composer says he wants to let the recordings define his label. It may look somewhat motley now, he concedes, but in 10 years, with 50 to 60 recordings out, defining characteristics should be clearer.
“They (Philips execs) were pressuring me for some kind of definition of what the label would be, but I don’t want to define it too narrowly,” Glass says. “There are various strands that looked to me like they were converging into what would be the early 21st-Century art--a combination of high tech, world music and collaborative projects.”
If you don’t want to wait 10 years to evaluate Point’s attitude and convictions, you could do worse than to study the “Low” Symphony, which seems to typify some of Glass’ concerns. Each of its three movements is based on music by David Bowie and Brian Eno, from Bowie’s 1977 “Low” album, and critics have been quick to jump on the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomies suggested by the title.
That idea about the title took Glass by surprise, and he was even more astonished when he discovered that it was indeed a meaning Bowie intended.
“It didn’t come from me, but I asked David about it and he said it was true,” Glass says. “Part of it was that he was in a very low state then, but it was also intended as a play on low art and high art. For me, its meaning is mostly just self-referential.”
Glass had the ideas that eventually became his symphony as long ago as 1977, when he first heard Bowie’s pioneering album. It took the new label, however, to breathe symphonic sound into the concept.
“I wanted a Point project that was a little grander in style,” Glass says. “I’ve done some other pieces for orchestra, but never a symphony. I thought I was going to get through this life without writing a Symphony No. 1. Odd coming from me, since I’m really a theater composer, but it really fell into a three-movement form quite easily.”
The first movement comes from Bowie’s “Subterraneans,” and the third movement from “Warszawa” by Bowie and Eno. The middle movement is based on “Some Are,” by Bowie and Eno, which did not appear on the original “Low” recording, but was included on the 1991 CD reissue as a bonus track.
“What interests me about the middle movement,” Glass says, “is that from David it is very slow, very modal. I reinterpreted it harmonically, and I came out with a much more vigorous piece, which required faster tempos.”
Bowie was also struck by the second movement transformation. Involved in the completion of one of his own projects, he taped a video dialogue with Glass that Philips has used as a sales tool. The five-minute tape, with excerpts from the symphony, has been played in some retail stores, and may be broadcast.
“I’m absolutely awed by what you’ve done to our work, the way you’ve worked with it,” Bowie tells Glass on the video. “One section in particular, called ‘Some Are'--which is, I guess, the way we performed it, quite pristine and maybe a little precious even--and you’ve taken it and given it a new energetic dynamic that I would never have guessed was in it.”
In one of Glass’ classic paradigm-shifting ironies, he recorded his symphony before its premiere, at the Art Projekt ’92 in Munich last summer. The recording enlists conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who gave the U.S. premiere last November in New York.
That was just after the premiere of his opera “The Voyage” at the Met. Glass says that “Low” and “The Voyage” were composed in much the same time frame, and that his long experience working with theater orchestras taught him what he needed to know for his symphony.
“I really learned about the orchestra by writing operas,” he agrees. “With different productions and more performances, re-scoring and changing things, you get to fiddle around, which you don’t with a (symphonic) orchestra.
“I think I’ve acquired a symphonic voice, in a way. I’m starting to recognize sounds which I think are characteristic of my orchestration. That’s very true of ‘Low.’ ”
For his symphony, Glass says, he was bringing together types of music usually compartmentalized as discrete and opposing entities. This sort of synthesis is not necessary for the younger composers he is bringing to Point.
“Young composers like Todd Levin and John Moran, who walk with assurance across styles, are not putting it together--it is together,” Glass says. “The young generation are already in a world where you move freely.
“Of course, this has very little to do with academia, or what some people like to call experimental or serious music. But then that’s never been a priority for me.”
Moran agrees. “No composer today could say he hasn’t been influenced by the Beatles. I grew up listening to groups like the Residents and Devo.”
Moran’s “Manson Family: An Opera” was one of the first releases on Point last year. He is rushing to finish his next opera, “Everyday Newt Berman,” a trilogy of one acts that describe cyclical existence. His new Point project he describes as an experiment in composed pop songs.
“I did my first record on Point,” Moran says. “I have a huge amount of creative freedom on Point.”
The other discs out on Point are the theater music for Genet’s “The Screens,” by Glass and Foday Musa Suso; “Mapa,” from the Brazilian cross-cultural group Uakti, Tood Levin’s “Ride the Planet” and “In Good Company,” from Jon Gibson, saxophonist in the Philip Glass Ensemble.
Besides the new Moran, Point releases in the near future will include a second Uakti disc and a 60-minute, “definitive” version of Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
“Most happen to be performers,” Glass says of the Point stable. “There are benefits when composers play their own music.
“This is modeled after my own career. I’ve developed a relationship with the public in which performance becomes part of the creative process. I relate to composers who think that way.
“I started playing my music because nobody else would do it,” Glass says. “The first time we played in a concert hall was in 1979. For 11 years we played in galleries, museums, parks, cafeterias--I hope we never play in a cafeteria again!
“I’m trying to provide leadership in terms of articulating a philosophy, which has grown very organically out of my 25 years doing new music in this country,” Glass says. “The idea is taking it where usually new music doesn’t get to go.”
His indifference to the institutionally sheltered theorists of contemporary music is palpable. He says he prefers composers who operate “in the real world, where people buy tickets to go to concerts.”
People in droves do buy tickets to his concerts. With all his new entrepreneurial activities, he is not about to lose touch with his concert public. Glass and his ensemble will be at the UC San Diego Price Center on March 26 and at Royce Hall on March 27 and 28 for “Powaqqatsi/Live!” The show combines Godfrey Reggio’s film, the sequel to “Koyaanisqatsi,” with a live performance of Glass’ score.
“I think ‘Powaqqatsi’ is more interesting than the ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ music,” Glass says. “It is more varied in sounds, and more complex in image to sound relationships.”
Glass will be in the ensemble, and the performances will be conducted by Michael Riesman, working visually, with no click tracks. Riesman was also important in programming the synthesizers, which made the transferal from the studio to the stage possible.
“It took a couple of years, working to re-score it,” Glass says. “Qualitatively it’s very far removed from a soundtrack experience.
“There are very slight differences (between the live and studio scores),” Glass says, “but the pieces come to life, with dynamic shadings that could never be captured in recording. You get a couple hundred percent more of the experience with live music.”
With work such as “Powaqqatsi,” “Hydrogen Jukebox” and “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof,” Glass has developed a following for traveling music theater. He is working on a completely new touring piece for 1994.
“Because of my work in the ‘80s, there’s an expectation of theater pieces that can travel,” Glass says. “We created a demand that didn’t exist before.
“There are other people doing this: Paul Dresher, Steve Reich--Meredith Monk has been doing this for years. (Monk and Robert Een bring the West Coast premiere of “Facing North” to UCLA March 12 and 13.)
“I haven’t been alone,” he notes. “I think that’s fabulous. This generation is actually creating audiences and audience expectations through the work. We’re really creating cultural changes in what people can go out and see.”
In addition to Point, Glass is working on an agreement with Elektra Nonesuch, which will record “Hydrogen Jukebox” and has already released the “Powaqqatsi” soundtrack and some of his other film scores. For more than a decade, Glass was with CBS, but after Sony took over the label there came a parting of the ways.
“They moved to Germany,” Glass says, “and the agenda of the company seemed to change. I’m way behind, if my object was to record all of my music.”
His next theater project, an adaptation of Cocteau’s “Orfee” for American Repertory Theater, opens May 19 in Cambridge, Mass., with Eugene Perry in the title role.
“It’s what can be called a ‘musicalization’ of the film,” Glass says. “I went to the Cocteau estate and got permission to use the original screenplay. I virtually changed nothing, although I had to delete a few minor scenes.”
He has also finished his next opera, “White Raven,” with stage director and designer Robert Wilson. With a libretto by Luisa Costa Gomaz based on 16th-Century Portuguese poetry, “White Raven” will have its premiere in Portugal in April, 1994, moving on to the co-producers in Bonn two months later.
Despite the quick sell for Point Music, the struggles to finance “White Raven” should be instructive for anyone who imagines that with his resources and reputation Glass can do anything he wishes.
“We fight for every damn piece,” Glass says. “Everything is a struggle.”