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London Calling

Two Philip Glass Interviews

By Published: October 15, 2003

PG: And terrifically exhilarating for that reason. One of the things I discovered very early on was that most of us work out of habit and that habit created taboos in the world of music and the world of film. There were things that you weren't supposed to do. Once I noticed that, I got very interested in what those things were. The fact is if something is taboo, which writing tonal music was in 1966, it meant that no-one had done it for a while, or writing repetitive music - no-one had done for a long time because you weren't supposed to do it - and so if you did it you were doing something very radical. The main problem of doing this was to discover what those taboos were. It is very hard. It takes a lot of reflection to figure what are those unconscious habits that we've been taught. The things you're not told, they are implied in your education. No one says, "You can't do this". No one says it in those terms but everything conspires to mould your music making in a certain direction. To break that educational habit and to see the materials of music in a different way takes a tremendous effort.

RW: Music without silence, as well. That early music never stopped and when it stopped, you knew it had stopped as well.

PG: I knew Cage pretty well, and we got along fine but he always said, "Philip, there are too many notes in music. Too many notes."

RW: Where have we heard that before? Which movie? To come back to tonight: we talked earlier about editing and image and music going together. How do you synchronise with the film in real time?

PG: Michael Riesman is the conductor. In fact we took on the idea. When it was originally made, it was synchronised mechanically the way it would be done in a mix. I went to see Napoleon by Abel Gance that was being done with a live orchestra. The music was written by Carmine Coppolla, Francis's father. I went to see this at Radio City Music Hall, where by coincidence we had premiered Koyaanisqatsi just a few years before. It is a 5000-seat theatre. It was full for Koyaanisqatsi also, but when I saw Napoleon, it was a film made in the 1920's and there were three screens. It was an extremely progressive movie. And they did it with a live score. I was so excited by this that I got home and I called Michael up and said, "I've just seen this film with live music. I think we can do this." And what I meant to say was, "I think you can do this, as the conductor"! Basically, we figured out how we could take this; part of the problem wasn't hard; it was taking the orchestra and rescoring it for the ensemble. With the synthesised materials we had, it wasn't hard to do, so the score could be adapted. Michael began studying the music, and already we decided there wouldn't be a mechanical click track. People do that but, for me, the exercise was to create a parallel existence of music with the image that wasn't locked together. What I wanted to hear was a music that flowed in between points of synchronisation that are called sync points. There would be moments when Michael had to be right on the picture and other moments when the music could vary in the way that, when someone plays the piano, when you put a metronome on that person, they are not playing at 120 or 140. There is a tremendous variation of anyone who is playing ...

RW: ... fluctuations in tempo ...

PG: ... and one of the things about real time performances, the things we like about it, is the fluctuations, the feeling of it happening right in front of you. I sometimes compare that to getting a picture of the moment of creativity. It is like the scientist who tries looking back in time at the moment of the Big Bang, to see when was that moment of creation. When you look at anyone playing, you get a snapshot of what that is, when someone is playing in real time. He or she may not be the composer but the activity is very, very similar. The closest that we as spectators can see that happening. I wanted to preserve that in this relationship. When I saw Carmine do it, he really just recycled a lot of Beethoven, The Marseillaise, it wasn't a brilliant score. What was wonderful was the liveness of it. So Michael's task was to synchronise the picture without hooking himself up to it mechanically. It was his problem. He was the music director, but I looked over his shoulder to see what he was doing. He began making little drawings in the score, on the music. In any particular scene - these things may be six or seven minutes - there may only be five or six or seven places where that has to happen. So in between there can be one or two minutes and in that time the music and the image just float together. The fact that they are synchronised at certain points, once the spectator sees that he becomes convinced that we are doing it. Actually, most of the time we are not doing it. We are only doing it every time we think you need to think we are doing it, if you see what I mean.

RW: But it works.

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