Composer Glass reflects on U of C, opera, film

By Deirdre Kelly

Philip Glass boasts an impressive resume. Considered by many to be the founder of minimalism (a term often inappropriately applied to his music), Glass composed the official music for the 1984 Olympics, has had works premiered by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, and most recently, was lauded for his film score to The Hours. Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg, and David Bowie are just a few of the luminaries with whom Glass has worked. But what really impresses people when they read Glass’s biography? “Graduate of the University of Chicago, 1956″—at the age of 19. Though even Glass’s official Web site ( describes him as majoring in mathematics and philosophy, this is not true. It’s a rumor, Glass says, started by people who want to draw a connection between music and math. It may also just be easier than describing the broad education Glass received at a time when specializing was even less encouraged by the University than it is now.

Tonight, Glass will be performing at the Chicago Theater with his Philip Glass Ensemble in a live concert screening of the film Koyaanisqatsi. I spoke to Glass by phone about his experience at the University, about composing, and about Koyaanisqatsi.

DK: What was your musical experience at the University like?

PG: I wasn’t really studying music there. I did do a lot with music, though. I studied scores from the library. I began playing the piano and practicing there. I began writing music there. I went often to hear the symphony play. I kind of was pursuing my own education at that point. Right after that, I went to Julliard.

DK: Would you encourage students who want to go into music now to get a liberal arts education?

PG: I thought it was invaluable. Because later when I began to work, not so much in concert music but when I began to work in the field of theater music where subject matter becomes essential, I had learned how to use a library; I could do research. For the first number of years I was writing operas, I wrote my own librettos, so I had the kind of education that was essential to be able to pursue any of those things.

Further thoughts on the University of Chicago:

PG: It was a wonderful place to work when I was a kid because there were so many interesting and independent people there. I gather that that tradition is very much still there. We were encouraged when I was there—we’re talking about 1952, we’re talking about 50 years ago; whew, that’s a long time ago—but we were encouraged at that time to explore the academic world. We could freely attend classes that we were not necessarily registered for. I often did that; I rarely went to the classes I was assigned to. I usually went to somebody else’s classes, and it was extremely interesting. We were not encouraged to specialize very much at that time but to broaden the basis of what would become our education. That’s what we did. And I think that to an extent that’s still true. It was a wonderful place to be. What I like about it now are that the music department and the theater department seem much more active than they were when I was there. The theater department was active. But the fact that this [The Sound of a Voice, running now] is my second opera at Court Theatre—that never could have happened in the 1950s. And also, I’ve met numerous teachers and music students who are at the school and it’s a very different place, much more active than when I was there. So I think it’s a place that I would like even more now than I did when I was there 50 years ago, though I liked it very much at that time.

Thoughts on the theoretical vs. the practical sides of music:

PG: There are some institutions where music has a more theoretical basis, not such a practical basis. I would rather put it in that way than call it academic and nonacademic. Of course it can be wonderful. For some people to study the history of style, the history of music—it’s a very fulfilling path for them to follow. And teaching it can be. We should be careful to understand that those kinds of endeavors can be completely worthwhile.

Being a practical musician means, for example, for a composer to be able to perform his music, which is a wonderful accomplishment. I do about 40 or 50 concerts a year, which gives me a tremendous reach in the music world which I wouldn’t have if I didn’t perform. In the same way I’m more interested in the development of musical language than in codifying musical language or what the history of music might reveal to us, though I’ve studied that too. I have no ideological basis for writing music apart from my own development.

Thoughts on writing for audiences:

PG: There’s a huge difference between writing something like the opera at Court Theatre right now, The Sound of a Voice—it’s a small theater, maybe about 250 people at the most—and a film like The Hours, where in a matter of months maybe 10 million people would see it. It’s completely different. And only a fool would pretend that you could do the same work in both places. And both have their advantages and both have their difficulties. I think that the main thing is to be aware of what you’re doing. When you’re writing a film score, you’re working in a part of the music world which is involved with entertainment. Not that art music isn’t as well, but film is exclusively entertainment whereas the world of opera is a very high aspiration artistically and entertainment at the same time. That’s been the hallmark of opera: that’s it’s been the place where art and entertainment come together. The concert tends to be a little bit more abstract. The sources for concert music tend not to be literary or movement oriented, or visually oriented, but tend to be about the music itself. So understanding these differences makes it possible to function well, I think, and skillfully in different areas.

On the concert vs. a recorded screening of Koyaanisqatsi:

PG: The music was composed for the film—the live performances came a few years later. The recording might require 40 or 50 musicians. Through sampling and synthetic reproduction of acoustic cells, we’re able to replicate the sound of a larger orchestra with a fairly small ensemble. [The original score] was done in the conventional way in that it was music that was meant to be synchronized with the film mechanically. That was the only way in which it was conventional, in fact. The way that Godfrey Reggio [Koyaanisqatsi director] worked was not at all the way that filmmakers usually worked. We worked together on the film in a collaborative spirit, which is not usual among filmmakers.

DK: Does Koyaanisqatsi feel like a different work now than when you first made it?

PG: It feels very different. We finished it in ’79, and it took us about a year to find a place to play it and so forth. The strange thing about Koyaanisqatsi is that it seems as current today as it did then. It seems to be more about the world we’re living in now than about the world it was composed for. Partly because Godfrey was a visionary, is a visionary. He saw way into the future. People who see the picture now are astonished by the kinds of imagery. It’s very much the kind of imagery you would expect from a post-9/11 film rather than one that was made 25 years before.

Koyaanisqatsi is tonight only, 8:00 p.m. at the Chicago Theater (312-902-1500).

The Sound of a Voice runs through November 2 at Court Theatre (773-753-4472).

Koyaanisqatsi is a totally unconventional film that takes an intense look at modern life. Without dialogue or narration, it produces a unique view of the superstructure and mechanics of our daily lives. Produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass, the film is an 87-minute evocation of a Hopi word that means “life out of balance.”