Two Philip Glass Interviews

John Eyles By

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Early in January, Philip Glass brought his Philip on Film series to The Barbican, one of the musical highlights of the year so far. During the course of that week, he gave two interviews that highlighted his working methods and his collaborations with filmmakers. As this month sees the DVD release of Naqoyqatsi - the third part of Philip Glass's and Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (as yet unseen in the UK) - this is an opportune moment to print these interviews.

The first interview took place on January 7th following an evening of short films. Graham Sheffield (Artistic Director of The Barbican) interviewed Philip Glass and Michal Rovner, director of one of the shorts, Notes .

Graham Sheffield: What drew you to Philip's work and the idea of the collaboration with Philip in Notes ? How did it begin? Because I think this idea of the collaboration is something that we will talk about more than anything else this evening...

Michal Rovner: Actually, it was Philip who contacted me. I was very pleased because I have listened to Philip's music years and years ago. While I was working, it was one of the very few things that I did like to hear. It did not interrupt me and inspired me and created the right space for me to have, in addition to my own thinking. I thought there was something in common with our work in that we are both not looking for any kind of narrative. I thought it would be a challenge for me to do something in consideration with someone else. When you are an artist, you are actually doing a sort of monologue, and in collaboration it is a dialogue, a conversation. I was very much looking for that kind of extension.

GS: Was Philip the first composer you have worked with or have you worked with other composers?

MR: I did hire other people to compose my work, and I was not giving them so much freedom.

GS: But in a way if you talk about collaboration and dialogue, as you had with Philip, you sign away some of your freedom in that dialogue. How does that feel to you as an artist?

MR: I was very pleased to do it for Philip, because I liked this music. I actually was surprised. I said, "OK, how are we going to do it? Are you going to give me your music and I'll make something for it?" and he said, "No, we'll do it the other way round." So, in fact, he said he would write a concert for my film. I really wanted to get a cue from him. What is the point of this collaboration for me if I'm not going to have any interaction? I did want an interaction. I said, "OK, Philip. How are you writing your music normally? How do you do it? A B C and then A1 B1 C1? Do you change it?" and he said, "OK, let me show you." I gave him a notepad and a pen, and he started to write A B C then A1 B1 C1 and then he said "But sometimes I write A A then B B. But then sometimes I would write A1?" So I had a whole page of these kind of mathematical formulae. It was very confusing actually.

GS: (to Philip Glass) Is that how you remember it?

Philip Glass: That is pretty accurate. The interesting thing was that of the five different people I worked with, in the end I worked more closely with Michal than with anyone. Because she had another idea, she said, "Let's look at some images." She invited me to look. She has so many images that she works with. We looked through her library, or the work she was working on, and she invited me to pick out pictures that I liked. And in fact, that became the basis of the film. There was one I particularly liked of people on an inclined plane, walking at an angle. She didn't have enough of those for the movie but she was going back?(to MR) Where did you film that?

MR: In Russia...

PG: Yes. So she was going back to Russia and she said she would film some more. The idea of the structure, I have to say, that is a dramatic idea that I worked out many years ago with Bob Wilson. We often did pieces like that, even down to the timing. We didn't worry very much about what we put into the structures, because you have to find a common ground to work in. And I thought that would be a way to begin. But her idea actually turned out to be more productive, in a way, because she basically was tailor-making the images to the music, based on my reactions to them.

GS: So you found this single image - the slope with the people moving, almost these little Lowry-like figures, in a way - and that was the trigger was it for the music?


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