First Lesson, Best Lesson

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

Philip Glass: I was interested in something more exotic than studying yoga in New York. I was ready for an experience in India in a way that, for example, Bernard had had. My question was whether the teachers who appeared in those books were still around; and more specifically, were the teachings that I had read about just book learning, or were they practiced?

Tricycle: By 1967 you were back in New York, fresh from India and doing beginning meditation practices; and your minimalist compositions Id the years 1967, 1968, and 1969 to some extent evolved out of the work you did with Ravi Shankar. Yet you have denied a common assumption that this music was influenced by meditation practice, and you have also been quick to disclaim any association between your work and so-called meditation music.

Philip Glass: At the time, there were a lot of composers doing similar experiments with composition, and they hadn't been to India. They didn't have Buddhist teachers, and they hadn't been studying yoga since 1961.

Tricycle: By around 1968, there were articles on the "new meditation music" that referred to you, Terry Riley, Lamont Young, and Steve Reich.

Philip Glass: I have always considered that a misconception.

Tricycle: Let's clarify something: meditation music does not imply that meditation is the inspiration for the music, or that the music comes from the experience of meditation, but that the music itself promotes—or induces—a contemplative state of mind. A mind that is encouraged to find its own resting place rather than get jerked around by auditory emotive buttons.

Philip Glass: If you go to any of these float tanks or new-age spas, what's the music that they play? They don't play Terry or Lamont or me. They have "new-age music," which doesn't sound the same. The music that the critics thought was that music hadn't even been written yet. It came later.

Tricycle: Was there no common source for the minimal music that was written in the late Sixties?

Philip Glass: What's confusing here is that by 1968 North America was awash with ideas of a new culture, and the associations are inescapable.

Tricycle: Is it completely coincidental that at the same time as meditation practice enters North America in a big way, a movement in music appears with obvious parallels to meditation-music that, for example, denies habitual patterns of expectation, breaks the convention of beginnings and endings, eliminates crescendos, and dissolves the dualities of peaks and valleys?

Philip Glass: There are other sources.

Tricycle: Such as?

Philip Glass: Samuel Beckett. Don't forget that I was working with the Mabou Mines Theater at the time. And in those days we were all completely involved with Beckett.

Tricycle: How does Beckett's influence translate in musical terms?

Philip Glass: Non-narrative theater or non-narrative art is not based on theme and development but on a different structure. The influences are not Indian alone. Beckett was a big influence. So was Brecht. Genet, too.

Tricycle: Can you say something about the parallels to the dharma?

Philip Glass: These writers took the subject out of the narrative. They broke the pattern of the reader identifying with the main character.

Tricycle: How is that accomplished?

Philip Glass: Brecht does it with irony, as in Mother Courage. Beckett does it through fragmentation, as in the theater piece Play. And Genet does it through transcendent vision. Miracle of the Rose is an example.

Tricycle: Is it the detachment from character identification that apprehends a dharmic sensibility?

Philip Glass: It has to do with the self-grasping or self-cherishing mind. Brecht is the obvious example of trying to go beyond the self-cherishing mind. But in each case, the attempt is the basis for defining the artist as avant-garde.

Tricycle: What accounts for this?

Philip Glass: World War I saw the end of a nineteenth-century Romantic idealism. These men came after that. They had lived through that disillusionment, and it produced an attitude that was freshly and newly critical of the Western tradition that landed the world in such a mess. Then, of course, it is even more intense for the generation after World War II. That's us. By the Sixties, coincidences of cultural ideas were going on. On the one hand, you have an explosion of Indian culture, and on the other, a reaction to nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative art. These two cross-currents tended to reinforce each other. When I came back from that first trip to India, I started looking at paintings by Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, and again I saw work based on a different kind of thinking, work that was as different from abstract expressionism as abstract art was from the post-Dadaists. Genet and Beckett were two of the most important people in this respect, and you can trace that back to Duchamp, if you like.

Tricycle: That's an interesting crossroad, because the Duchamp-Cage-Zen connection is probably both the quietest and the most effective Buddhist influence in this culture. And if you really want to get into Western Buddhist genealogies, you can connect Cage and Genet to Artaud and to Bali.

Philip Glass: I'm not trying to deny the Indian connection. But the base of it was much broader.

Tricycle: Well, it's curious. At a certain point there is the Indian explosion and what the press is calling "minimal meditation music." Yet throughout all of your interviews, you have always said, "No, they've got it all wrong." Yet the parallel remains; but unlike your contemporaries, there has been an aspect of your music—that obsessive, compulsive, driven dimension—that, shall we say, is even "Faustian." This seems to be about a Western sense of control. And one could see, in retrospect, how that would lead you back to a Western tradition.

Philip Glass: I think that's accurate. And another dimension to this is that the word minimalist was originally applied to visual artists that I knew quite well—Sol Lewitt, Don Judd, and Robert Morris. If you spoke with them, they would probably not make any reference to the Indian influence at all. There was a cultural change of mind that was happening in the Sixties that embraced all of these art forms and drew from many sources: European as well as Far Eastern, Indian as well as American. Yet within all these influences and changes, it never occurred to me that my music was about meditation. The theater was an important source for me. A lot of my work came out of a need to evolve a musical language that could be married to the theatrical language that was going on around me.

Tricycle: And this musical language had no concrete reference.

Philip Glass: That's right. It was a self-referential musical language that was, in essence, abstract.

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