There was a time, back in the dark ages of the mid-'70s, when the music of Philip Glass existed only on the very fringes of “serious” music. Considered a star of the second wave of minimalists, after Terry Riley and La Monte Young, Glass turned out works that were radical by virtue of seemingly simple elements--repetitive tonal patterns, chugging, insistent rhythms--at a time when the atonal schemes of serialism ruled the contemporary classical scene.
All of that seems like relatively ancient history by now. Arguments rage in critical and academic circles over Glass’ significance in the music world, but in the role of composer as commercially viable entity, Glass reigns supreme. His catalogue includes operas, film scores, conceptual theater pieces, as well as instrumental pieces. Last year’s big Glass release was his “Low Symphony,” based on materials from the David Bowie album “Low.”
At this moment, Glass has hit the road in stripped-down fashion, sans his regular ensemble or any accouterment whatsoever. He shows up to a gig--such as his UC Santa Barbara stop Friday night--sits down at the piano and churns out snippets of music from his vast catalogue. Glass began doing solo concerts five years ago, in support of his solo piano album on CBS. What began as a quirk has developed into a periodic practice for the composer.
In a phone interview from New Orleans last week, Glass explained the ongoing lure of going it alone. “It gets down to what I consider the fundamental relationship of the composer, the instrument and the audience, with nobody else there. It’s rock bottom. You’re talking about a quintessential communicative experience.
“When I was a kid and I played my pieces on piano, in some part of my mind, I envisioned that someday I’d be playing for a public. I did that with the ensembles and the operas and all that other stuff, but there’s an experience that resonates very deeply in my psyche to be on the stage by myself with my music.”
Meanwhile, back home in New York, Glass’ production company and ensemble continue to hone a current large-scale project, a live synchronous score to Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which will tour the world beginning this summer.
Whatever one thinks of his music, Glass has clearly struck a nerve with a wide audience, including serious music aficionados and also those who would steer clear of classical concerts. It has enabled Glass to keep his self-reliant musical machinery in constant motion--like much of his pulse-driven music--around the world.
Do these solo piano concerts reflect the nature of how your music is created? Do you write primarily on piano?
“I do. The instrument I have at home is a piano. My production studio and office is three blocks away. That’s where I have all the synthesizers and samplers and where all the sound programming and the recording gets done.
“But at home, the only thing I have that is high-tech is an electric pencil sharpener. I have a piano and a desk, and I write music the way I’ve always written it. I begin the day with a piano and I end the day with a piano. In a way, I’m a relic, compared to the way the younger musicians use the writing programs.”
Would you say that your earlier pieces, which have recently been reissued, were more about process and experimentation than later works?
“They were. And the thing to remember is that I’m a person who doesn’t repeat my own history very much. If I’ve solved a problem really well, I tend to go on to something else. After I wrote ‘Einstein on the Beach’ (1976), the idea of writing the Son of Einstein didn’t interest me at all.
I’m still thinking about new problems. That’s what’s interesting about developing, that you can still find yourself, at the age of 57, with musical problems that you don’t know what to do with. If I write a piece and I know what I’m doing, I’m immediately suspicious.”
Do you have a fear of complacency?
“I have a horror of it. I sometimes say that it’s my successes that I’m afraid of. I don’t mind repeating failures, but repeating successes I’m horrified by.”
You’ve been seemingly continuously prolific over the past 25 years or more. Has there been much creative downtime, when nothing came to you?
“Virtually not. Part of it is that I’ve built around myself an organization with a production company and an ensemble which needs to work.
“One of the axioms in our organization is that work leads to more work, and not working leads to more not working.”
Have you thought about where minimalism fits in the context of contemporary music these days?
“It’s found its niche. It was a period of time, really from about 1965 to ’75, when that work was really being done. None of us accepted the moniker at all. It was an anti-establishment movement, and the agenda was nothing less than to reform the language of modern music. And we did it. How much of the music will be memorable or playable, I don’t know.
“In fact, the younger generation is doing something very different, whether they call it maximalism or whatever. There are some wonderful composers. Also, as to the issue of minimalism versus serialism, they’re not interested at all.
“They grew up listening to this music. I’m not a threat to them. They think of me as this nice middle-age guy who has been around since they were kids.
Has your attitude toward serialism, by now, softened? Do you like Elliott Carter again?
“I have to tell you--I always liked it. I wouldn’t admit it in public. Now I can admit it, because it’s safe to do so. I love Elliott Carter’s string quartet and Milton Babbitt’s piano music.
“But when they were dominating music to the exclusion of everybody else, we never would have said anything nice about them. It was part of the game. They trashed us, we trashed them. It was part of the fun. It was this great scandal going on in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s over now.”
Do you feel that you’re in midstream as a composer?
“I feel that way. The music that I’m known for has only been around for the last 25 years. I began writing this music in 1965, but it’s only the music from 1969 that’s still in our repertory. I was saying to a friend, ‘I better live to be in my 80s, because I have another 30 years of music to do.’ ”
* WHAT: Philip Glass.
* WHERE: UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall.
* WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m.
* HOW MUCH: $12 to $20.
* FYI: 893-3535.