First Lesson, Best Lesson

An Interview with Philip Glass on music, meditation, and the avant-garde.Helen Tworkov with Robert Coe

Born in Baltimore in 1937, Philip Glass began studying the violin at age six but reports that his serious interest in music didn't begin until he took up the flute two years later. After his sophomore year in high school, he entered the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He graduated at age 19 and determined to become a composer, moved to New York in order to attend the Julliard School. A few years later he was in Paris for intensive study with Nadia Boulanger, and at that time he was hired by a filmmaker to transcribe the Indian music of Ravi Shankar. For the next ten years, Glass composed a large collection of new music, some of it for the Mabou Mines Theater (Glass was one of the cofounders of that company) but most of it for his own performing group, the Philip Glass Ensemble. In 1976 Einstein on the Beach initiated a series of Glass operas that include Satyagraha and Akhnaten. He has written music for the theater and for dance as well as scores for movies, including Mishima, The Thin Blue Line, Koyaanisquatsi, and Powaqqatsi. He lives in New York City.

In 1966, Glass made the first of many trips to India. His Buddhist study and meditation practice began at that time.

This interview was conducted for
Tricycle by Helen Tworkov together with Robert Coe, author, critic, and playwright, whose book Post-Shock: The Emergence of the American Avant-garde will be published next year by W.W. Norton. Lynn Davis's photographs were taken in August 1991 at Glass's summer home in Canada.


Tricycle: As your Buddhist studies followed an interest in yoga, let's start there. That puts us back in 1962, when even a yoga teacher was hard to come by.

Philip Glass: I found one in the Yellow Pages, under the Y's. For the next three years I studied with Indian yoga teachers, including one who started me being a vegetarian.

Tricycle: And did yoga put you under some kind of Eastern umbrella that extended to Buddhism?

Philip Glass: I never heard anything about Buddhism through my yoga teachers. It was through John Cage that I knew anything at all, through his book Silence. And just a year or two before that, the first really good edition of the I Ching came out, which I knew about through an English painter who had joined the Native American Church and was a peyote eater. Throughout the late Fifties and early Sixties the painters were the most adventurous people in the arts, the ones most committed to searching out new ideas. So it's not surprising that I would know of the I Ching through a painter. And then John Cage. I certainly did not learn about him at music school. He was not considered a serious musical influence at that time. Certainly not by the people at Julliard. Then in Silence there were all these references to Zen koans. But the big explosion in the culture happened in 1968 when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi. They brought back Indian culture. Only after that did people like Ravi Shankar begin performing in large concert halls—and filling them. George Harrison made Ravi Shankar a household name. But when I started out, any kind of Eastern interest was still pretty marginal.

Tricycle: What were you reading?

Philip Glass: Well, there was an odd assortment of things like Marco Pallis's Peaks and Lamas, and then the yoga books by Theos Bernard. But he also wrote about Tibet. Bernard had gone to Tibet in the late Thirties. But see, from reading Bernard and from reading Charles Waddell, I figured out that one of the gateways to Tibet was the Darjeeling district. It was still a thriving, culturally intact Tibetan community, not yet disrupted by the Tibetan refugees that came soon after. Another interesting person I read at that time was Arthur Avalon. He had another name: Sir John George Woodruffe. He wrote the Serpent Power and several other books. He concentrated on the yoga that developed in the Bengali parts of India, and that led me to Ramakrishna. But I didn't get to India until 1965.

Tricycle: After working with Ravi Shankar in Paris?

Philip Glass: Yes. I had received a fellowship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1964. For extra money, I took a job transcribing music for Ravi Shankar. He had been invited to Paris by Conrad Rook to write the score for the film Chappaqua.

Tricycle: Had you worked with Indian music before?

Philip Glass: I had never even heard Indian music before! Funny, isn't it?

Tricycle: Yes. Because in another two years it was on everybody's transistor radios.

Philip Glass: It seemed to have happened overnight. But in order to find a way of notating the music, I made my first on-the-spot analysis of how Indian music was put together.

Tricycle: How did you notate it?

Philip Glass: The trick, of course, was to take a medium that was based on a different principle of organization and to write it in a language developed for Western music. Western notation was developed for music that is organized along Western lines.

Tricycle: There has been criticism of the interpretation you made of Indian music at that time. And haven't you yourself referred to your own music of the late Sixties as having grown from mistakes that you made about the structure of Indian music?

Philip Glass: I'm not sure it was a mistake. But it was a very narrow reading.

Tricycle: Wasn't there a real misunderstanding of the structure? That the central technique of Indian music is additive?

Philip Glass: That's what I thought it was. And that was a misapprehension. I thought I was listening to music that was built in an additive way, but it turned out it really wasn't. It is built in a cyclic way. And that turned out to be very useful, because the misunderstanding, the use of an additive process, became, in fact, the way I began to write music.

Tricycle: Did you get to India through Ravi Shankar?

Philip Glass: No. Through Swami Satchidananda. I had met him in Paris when he was en route to New York. He had a yoga ashram in Sri Lanka, that is, in Ceylon, and he invited me to study there. This was in the fall of 1966. I was married to JoAnne Akalaitis then, and we went off to India overland, the classic route: through Turkey by train, through Iran and Afghanistan by bus, and into Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, and then into the Punjab. When I got to New Delhi there was a letter waiting for me from Swami Satchidananda: "Dear Student: You'll be happy to know that I have had a tremendous reception in New York and have started a school here, so there is no reason to go to Ceylon. Please come back to New York. You can study with me here." Well, I had no intention of returning before seeing India, and because of the Bernard books we ended up in Darjeeling, but with Kalimpong as our goal.

Tricycle: Were you deliberately in search of a teacher?

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