An Interview with Philip Glass on music, meditation, and the avant-garde.
Tricycle: Did that commitment to an abstract language also set you apart from your peers at the time?
Philip Glass: In the late Sixties, any number of people were doing music based directly or indirectly on Indian influences. It was not uncommon to see Western musicians dressed in Indian clothes and lighting incense on stage. What I was doing was far, far away from that. I was quite content to let other people light the incense.
Tricycle: There are perhaps other ways of talking about your music and your own Buddhist meditation practice, but it's tricky, because the newness of Buddhism in the United States fosters an irksome imperialistic tendency to co-opt ideas, people, or music, for that matter, as "Buddhist" when they are not really so. Yet in spite of this, there seem to be recognizable interconnections between your music and your studies in Buddhism.
Philip Glass: Certainly. But not in the music itself. The real impact of Buddhist practice affects how you live your life on a daily basis, not how you do your art. How you live day by day, moment by moment. The impact of Buddhism is not theoretical, as in how you paint or how you write a novel. That's hardly as interesting as how you live on a daily basis, don't you think? Aspects of Buddhist studies, such as the development of compassion and equanimity and mindfulness, are the practical aspects of daily life.
Tricycle: This is a big departure from the exoticism you pursued in India thirty years ago.
Philip Glass: You start out pursuing the exotic, and it brings you around to the most basic daily activities. Also, the music world encourages such an exhausting and compulsive way of living that it is important to balance your life against the demands of that kind of career.
Tricycle: It took a generation to discover that it's about how you put your shoes on in the morning.
Philip Glass: But that's what turns out to be the most interesting thing. That's why I de-emphasize the impact on the actual music itself.
Tricycle: Even though certain aspects of the Buddhist path may have unexpectedly routed you from the exotic to the mundane, other aspects of Buddhist meditation practice complement the classical training of a Western musician: discipline, rigor, the relationship between formal structure and personal creativity, between discipline and playfulness.
Philip Glass: That's what you learned from a teacher like Nadia Boulanger. Though actually, I was already pretty disciplined by the time I got to her. Ane Perna Chodron (from Gampo Abbey) gave me a pin with the abbey's motto, which is the Tibetan word for "discipline." And I said, "Perna, this is the pin I don't need!"
Nadia Boulanger (Frederick Plaut)
Tricycle: The late Zen teacher Maurine Stuart studied piano with Boulanger some fifteen years before you did, and she often spoke of Boulanger in the same terms that one might speak of a spiritual teacher.
Philip Glass: I can understand that. Before I went to Paris I had acquired very good work habits, which in itself is a discipline. But Boulanger carried the idea of discipline to another level. She added something that I became familiar with later through Tibetan practice, something that I can only describe as a devotional aspect of music study, and anyone who studied with her could talk about that.
Tricycle: Were you inspired by Boulanger's devotion?
Philip Glass: Boulanger set herself up as an incomparable model of discipline and dedication, and she expected you to be just like her. And that was almost impossible, because she seemed beyond what any human being could really hope to be. Yet, she did it in a very simple way—I would not say gracious, no one ever said that Boulanger was gracious—but she did it in a simple, dear way. When I studied with her, for example, the only way to live up to her standards and to turn out the amount of work she expected every week was to get up between 6 and 7 in the morning and work all day long. And if I did that every day, I would turn up at my lesson and Boulanger gave me the impression that I had done just about the very minimum.
Tricycle: You have also referred to Boulanger as a monster.
Philip Glass: In the sense that she was a relentless, unwavering example that she expected you to follow. One day I came to a harmony lesson. She saw an error in something called "hidden parallel fifths." She studied the page in silence and then turned toward me. With a look of understanding and compassion she asked how I was feeling. I said, "I'm feeling fine, Mademoiselle." She asked, "Do you have a fever? Do you have a headache?" And I didn't get what was going on. "I know of a good psychiatrist. Seeing a therapist can be very confidential, and one need not be embarrassed at all." I explained that I didn't need that kind of help.
Finally, she said, "Well I don't understand." And I said, "You don't understand what?" And she said. "This!" Then she wheeled around and pointed at the mistake I had made. "How else do you explain the state of mind that produced this error? You're so distracted, so out of touch with reality; if you were really conscious of what you were doing, this could not have happened. How can you live such a distracted, unconscious life that you would bring this in here?" That was Mademoiselle Boulanger.
Tricycle: What effect did that have?
Philip Glass: I decided to find a way of guaranteeing without fail that the lessons would be perfect. I devised a system that entailed a mathematical analysis for each notation so that visually the page took on a completely different look. For the next year and a half every exercise that I brought to her had that analysis, and she never made any comment about it. Amazing.
Tricycle: What were the aspects of her teaching that became more clear to you through Buddhist practice?
Philip Glass: Her insistence on conscious living, on what you might call "self-remembering," though she certainly did not use that term. Her conviction that attention to detail was not just an exercise but a state of mind that reflected the quality of your life.
Tricycle: Were there aspects of meditation practice that were familiar to you through music practice?
Philip Glass: Boulanger concentrated on three things, and they were, in a way, a preparation for working with dharma teachers: first, the basics, the fundamentals of harmony and counterpoint; the second was paying attention, and this was her hardest lesson (and, of course, so much of meditation practice is about paying attention); the third point, which she never stopped talking about, was "making an effort." And that's something else that we hear from our dharma teachers. At the beginning, middle, and end of every lesson, her mantra was, "You must make an effort!"
Paying attention, making an effort, and always the basics—I did that for two years. If you learn only that, you can go a long way. In dharma, too, the first lessons are the best lessons.
What you can learn from both kinds of practice is patience. You learn that what we want to accomplish is going to take time and demand patience. You do the same thing over and over again. Maybe you get a little better at it—slowly. And then, also, the revelation that the teaching is in the practice. You practice the piano not in order to perform but for the sake of practicing the piano. With music, you don't practice and then one day become a concert pianist. You are that. Practice is as much an expression of that as of practice itself. There's another thing that happens to me now, too. I've been doing a piano recital for the last year and a half, the same recital, and I've done it about forty times. And people say, "How can you keep doing it? Doesn't it get boring?" Part of the practice is learning how to play the same recital and find it interesting every time.