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First Lesson, Best Lesson

An Interview with Philip GlassHelen Tworkov with Robert Coe

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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 MishimaThe Thin Blue LineKoyaanisquatsi, 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.


TricycleAs 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.

TricycleWhat 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...

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