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An Interview with Philip Glass on music, meditation, and the avant-garde.
Tricycle: Can you apply that to your meditation also? Meditation, too, can become boring.
Philip Glass: You have to figure out how it isn't boring. Right now I'm practicing for a concert that I won't even do for two months. In a certain way, I'm playing the concert. It won't be different.
Tricycle: With enough attention, you can eliminate the gap between the present and the future?
Philip Glass: But you don't postpone life, with the result that your practice for life and your real life are the same. Rubinstein was playing Chopin at the end of his life as if he had just discovered him. Bernstein played the music of Mahler as if it had just been written. This happens to musicians all the time, and if it doesn't, you have nothing to give. You have to play each piece as if it were new. I do that now with music I wrote twelve years ago. I'm not pretending it's new. It has to be new. You can't fake it. To Boulanger, Mozart was a contemporary composer; Bach was totally alive.
Tricycle: Have there ever been conflicts between Tibetan practice and making music?
Philip Glass: My Tibetan friends have always encouraged my music practice. I've been encouraged to devote myself entirely to music. There is some kind of recognition on their part, I think, that music is a kind of "practice," too—that this is practice in their terms. This is a practice of a kind that need not be profane or self-cherishing.
Tricycle: And then, too, you did a series of operas with overt social themes.
Philip Glass: I did three operas about social change through nonviolence. It started with Einstein on the Beach, which I did with Bob Wilson, though at the time, I didn't know what I was doing and would not have seen it that way. But with the next one, Satyagraha (in which Mahatma Gandhi was the main character), I was consciously thinking about a religious revolutionary. Again with Ahknaten and with his impact on the social order—in terms of the society as a whole or the individual in society. In my own work, those polarities went from The Making of Another from Planet Eight by Doris Lessing, which is about the transcendence of a whole society, to a personal hallucination such as Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. That's the range, and the concern reflects Buddhist practice.
Tricycle: How deliberately did that enter your music?
Philip Glass: At a certain point, I wanted the music to reflect my feelings of social responsibility. Take the image of the artist as someone cut off from society. We learn from dharma teachers that this separateness is an illusion, and things begin to shift—we begin to see ourselves as connected.
Douglas Perry playing Gandhi in Satyagraha (Tom Caravagua)
Tricycle: In the opera trilogy Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha,and Ahknaten (about the Egyptian king), the agents of these revolutions (of physics, of politics, of religion) were all individual great men. The movements that followed would have been impossible without these three individuals, and yet all three of them ended in some kind of disaster or failure along with great triumph. From Einstein, we get Hiroshima. . . .
Philip Glass: Not only Hiroshima, but also the paradox of quantum mechanics, which was a terrible failure that Einstein himself never recovered from. Gandhi lived to see the India that he had fought for torn apart by religious war and division. And Ahknaten, after seventeen years of reign, was almost forgotten. He was eliminated from the list of kings.
Tricycle: Still, there is a deified dimension to these heroes as you present them here.
Philip Glass: Is that a paradox? In Buddhism, we see the deification of the teachers all the time, although the teachings themselves point us in a different direction.
Tricycle: In both your version of Gandhi and in Richard Attenborough's film, we see an exclusively deified portrait of Gandhi—air-brushed in terms of what we know about his personal life.
Philip Glass: I did not idealize Gandhi. That is, I never worked with the real Gandhi, and I took poetic license or artistic liberty to do that. As long as we are going to read every day about wars and rapes and mayhem, let's read about that, too. It was just a tiny bit of balancing. The Satyagraha movement and Gandhi himself have been kept alive by politicians, particularly by Martin Luther King, Jr., but also by artists. There is scarcely a political movement of the twentieth century that doesn't go back to Gandhi.
Nothing that Gandhi wanted to do worked. Not one thing he tried succeeded. For a monumental failure, he is definitely one of the great men of our time. It's easy to be an idealist when you're twenty. Try being one when you're fifty. Or when you're seventy, as he was. I never went to the "real" man as a source for the opera. I idealized the existing myth.
Tricycle: So addressing the illusion of a separate self for example, or taking on a social issue for the benefit of society, justifies liberal artistic interpretation?
Philip Glass: The artist who does that, in being a purveyor of the idea, becomes partly the teacher. I was not that ambitious. I never felt that I knew that much. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and interesting and wonderful about Gandhi. And I really didn't try to explicate it anymore than that.
Tricycle: In the Glass opera Satyagraha, there is an Indian subject and an Indian story line about a great secular saint of our times. The sets are very distilled and stylized, and everything, from linguistic content, to sound—voices, pitch, rhythm—to the sets, communicates great holiness.
Philip Glass: The music does not sound Indian.
Tricycle: No. But there is an overt transcendence to the music that we had been hearing for several years before Satyagraha.
Philip Glass: But it's also true that Satyagraha makes a very big statement. I think that the occasion of an opera about Gandhi inspired that "transcendent" quality to go to another level.
Tricycle: And are we still getting it all wrong to make associations between this music and a personal spiritual evolution?
Philip Glass: In 1979, when I wrote Satyagraha, I was forty-two, just entering my middle age, so to speak. And that's what we have come to expect from artists, with or without a spiritual practice. The late works of Beethoven are transcendent, and so are the late works of Shostakovich. You can see that with some visual artists, too. There are changes, I think, that you can find in the work of any artist who has seriously plied his trade for a solid twenty years and where the intention of the work has been honorable. So this is not personal to me. But you know, the most beautiful part of Satyagraha, to me, is in the very last scene, when Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, "I have known many a birth and you have not; and I have come to be reborn to move and act with men and to set virtue on her seat again." That's what he's saying. That is the Bodhisattva Vow: "I've come back on earth to move with men and to place virtue on her seat again." I'm not certain, but I wouldn't want to deny that the music is inspired by the text. Because of my interests, I do use texts and materials that inspire transcendence in some pieces. But not in others. But still, I would have to say, Buddhism has affected my life more directly than my work.
Tricycle: How you put on your shoes?
Philip Glass: There is a kind of ordinariness, a kind of ordinary thinking—is there such as thing as high ordinary?—I mean, there is a way of thinking about ordinary life in a distinctly Buddhist way; and I think that's the real practice. Funny, isn't it? It turns out that the pie in the sky is the same pie that's in your refrigerator....
Photographs of Philip Glass by Lynn Davis