Two Philip Glass Interviews

John Eyles By

Sign in to view read count
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?

PG: I don't need much of a trigger, really. It was what I thought about when I was doing it. In the same way that a lot of the environment in this film is snow and weather of different kinds, and people outside and walking, I was looking for a musical encounter with that image that would give it another emotional layer. The interesting thing about images is that they are probably the most important element in the arts today, and at the same time they are less articulate, in a certain way, than music. Music can actually define very precisely a mood whereas images will change a lot according to what you put with them.

GS: You mentioned the word "narrative". You [Michal] were saying you were not looking for narrative, although the film itself seems to be very rich in suggested meaning and mystery. You, on the other hand, Philip, quite often say that you are trying to redefine the role of music within film in order to give music more of a sense of narrative.

PG: Not so much. It is more about the structure of the film. In a lot of commercial or even independent movies, the music basically is decorating the film. It doesn't actually articulate the structure of the film. In the cases where the music can do that, it becomes a powerful companion to the image. It leads you through the experience in a far different way than just kind of telling you what you're supposed to feel when you are looking at it.

GS: Would I be I right in saying that in the Godfrey Reggio film Anima Mundi, it is much more of the descriptive kind of music than the collaborative?

PG: Sometimes it is, but then the descriptions can be quite odd. For instance, in Koyaanisqatsi, there is a whole section of just planes in the air. And I wrote a piece for voices. What I liked about planes was that they were so heavy but they seemed light and I thought the voices would be the right?So I have to find a quality in the music that will not exactly match but will state in a musical way something that we're looking at.

GS: Did you ever disagree about time and structure? Because this idea of form in music matching form and arguing or having a dialogue with visual form?were your ideas similar when you felt something was right or were there tensions in that process?

PG: (to MR) Did I give you pieces of music that you began to cut with, to edit with?

MR: Unfortunately, we didn't have an argument. Philip described the music he was going to write, and then he invited me once to his studio and he played on the piano and asked if I liked it, and I liked it a lot. But the only thing was that I showed you some images and then it was very strange to know that sound can really change the whole meaning of the image. I was a bit curious about it, because you make a work and it does have a sound for you, even if it doesn't have a sound externally it does have an internal sound that is a very specific sound. Then the music that would come along with it was for me a bit of a mystery because the film came first. In a way, I sort of wrote the notes for him on those five lines [in the film, Notes, there are sections where people actually appear on stave lines and look like musical notes]. But we had the decision at first to be independent, in terms of where we cut it and timing and so on. After I gave the rough cut to them - Philip had already written the music - I went back. I always like to go back and make it better. So I made it a bit longer here and a bit shorter there and I thought now it is really good and I sent it back to them and I got a phone call from Michael [Riesman, conductor of the Philip Glass Ensemble] who was in Singapore and Philip was maybe on the way to the Dalai Lama, and I was in Israel on the road with a cell phone, and they said, "We have the last rehearsal tomorrow and you've changed your piece entirely." I said that I didn't change it entirely. I said I changed it four times and Michael said that he knew exactly where, three seconds here and one second there. So I went back to the editing room for the whole night and recut it to fit.

PG: The difficulty was that Michael had learned the piece, the first edit, and we were going to play it in about three days. So it would have been a big problem.

GS: Now it gets interesting!

MR: Then I realised that we had this cool idea that is very contemporary that we will be independent and lay one thing on top of the other but not really do it together. But I realised that they were really cutting it to the cut.

PG: Michael is looking and timing. He doesn't use any artificial mechanical click track or anything. He is actually synchronising it to the picture, to what is seen, and it also floats a little bit. It is not exactly?

GS: I was going to ask you about this desynchronisation. You've used the word "synchronisation" and your wanting to move away from that ?

PG: We do that too. For example, in this picture [ Notes ] you can definitely see that there are sections. There are images that are distant, images in the mid-distance and images that are closer. Some images are on five lines, some on two or three lines, and some at an angle. So those became definite places when that changed that I could make changes in the music. I didn't do it all the time, but I did it enough so that hopefully the spectator who is looking at it is more or less convinced that I was looking at the movie, which may not have been entirely true. So what happens in between those moments can be much more free. What I have always liked is a kind of breathing place between the image and the music. I don't like the music right on top of the image. I want them to be like two people who are dancing and every once in a while they may catch a hand or do a spin together but a lot of time you are just looking at them together.

GS: It is difficult for you to answer this, but do you think this is why so many directors like working with you, because they feel that, in a way, your music gives them some space to work?

PG: Well, not that many do like working with me! I don't know what to say about that except that when I was working with Stephen Daldry, what he liked about the music for The Hour s was that there was something emotionally slightly abstract about it. The emotion of the picture wasn't exactly in the film. It's that little bit of distance which I think is very important because I think that is where the spectator begins to create their own encounter with the image. When you are completely synchronised, then it becomes like a commercial where the cameraman is actually telling you what to look at. One of the differences between theatre and film is that in film you are looking at it with the cinematographer or director showing you, in the theatre you are looking in a much freer way. So when I'm making film music, I'm aware of the fact that it is not theatre music. Since we can't actually step back from the film I try to make the distance in that way.

GS: Is the approach very different in the commercial film industry? You adopt almost a completely different persona. I can't imagine directors like Martin Scorsese saying, "Take a bit more time there."

PG: He doesn't do it that way at all. He always takes time away from you. He is a time thief actually. (Don't tell him I said that.) In one way you can say that it is different, but writing music for an opera or writing music for a film fundamentally you are matching image and music. There is a basic activity, which is not going to change. What does change is the rules of the workplace. If you're working on a Hollywood movie and the director of the studio or the producer wants something to be changed then by God you change it or you're out the door. When you're doing an opera, no one tells the composer what to do. The opera house is the composer's house. You can pick the director and the designer; it works that way. That sounds very different but in actual practice the work that we do - of making a combination of image and music or movement or text, those are the four things - is not that different. It is just a question of who gets the last word. In the collaboration with Michal and I, in the end Michael got the last word because he was conducting and he had to be able to see what was happening.

GS: I'm interested that you talk about the rules of the workplace changing because in a way this is a very different workplace from anything that has existed in the past. Ten years ago you wouldn't have got this sudden explosion of artists working in film much more and putting these films on in a gallery. They put them on in cinema, they put them on now in the concert hall. And the audiences you are writing for are very different. In an art gallery, people wander past the film if they were watching this. Here, you are sitting passively but you are watching live music. In the cinema everything is fixed.

PG: Generally speaking, filmmaking has fallen way behind the other performance arts, which have become much more fluid in terms of how the elements come together. With Godfrey [Reggio], I could do lots of different things. Godfrey and I work in many, many different ways. By the way, I had made a list of ten film makers I wanted to work with, and I called the first four (I only needed four because I had Godfrey) and they all said yes, so I never got to the other six. [The four were Michal Rovner, Shirin Neshat, Atom Egoyan and Peter Greenaway.] I don't know the order of the first four. I said I wanted to work with these. There was a fifth one I wanted to work with, someone who was doing animation. I never got to the animated one. But at any rate, by being the initiator of the project, by my making the phone call, in other words, that helped to create a certain freedom in the relationship, that it was not going to be an industry-defined relationship.

GS: (to MR) What do you feel about this movement of place with your work? I am struck with art shows that are around now where so much of the work is on video. You go into a gallery and you see so-and-so video, 45 minutes. You are never inclined - because there are so many of them usually - to sit and watch the whole thing. You have actually got your work here with a passive audience. Does that make a difference to the creative process, where it is going to be seen and how it is going to be seen?

MR: The first question that I think we talked about, our first dialogue, I asked Philip, "Do you take the audience into consideration with how long you want them to sit and watch something or sit and hear something?" Because in a gallery I know they can walk out. I often like to walk out. I didn't today because I had a commitment, but I did think a lot about it a lot more than normally I do. Usually, my work plays in a loop...

PG: We have that possibility with this piece too.

MR: Yes, we talked about it. In case it shows in a gallery or museum, it would be in a loop. So someone can walk in, stay a few times long or it doesn't matter they can walk out. Now that I saw it today, I think I made it more dense and more fast than I would normally do it. For myself, maybe I would make less going on. But I think people have to see the full twelve minutes.

GS: Do you feel this increase in flexibility and atmosphere and emotional response having the music live as opposed to having it canned and all fixed? Does that make a difference? In a way, it is going back to the old silents, isn't it?

PG: I think it is different, but we can talk about that in a minute.

MR: You know, it is sort of a very dignified way to show something?In a way it is adding another seriousness to it, which in one aspect is very nice, it's very entertaining. Also, if people don't want to watch the film they can watch the orchestra. On the other hand, I think it is a bit destructive, all this form of stage and audience. There is something about it?

GS: It certainly does put something between your artwork, as it were, and the audience.

MR: I think I personally prefer to obliterate the viewer with an experience, to have them come into it, or maybe to see it by surprise somewhere in the street. But I it like [this] too, it is in addition.

GS: Philip, Michal would rather obliterate you, I think. No, no, no, obliterate the viewer with the image?

MR: Amplify them, rather?

PG: It is true that putting it together takes something away, but it adds something which is essential to this, which is what we are going to be doing all week here. We are taking a performance in real time - which is very different from something recorded - and combining with images that are pre-recorded. What it does is give the moment of viewing an urgency and immediacy that otherwise we don't have, the presence of interpretation. I've been to a lot of shows, including Michal's, and there is no way for us to change it. When we do live performance, we do change it. It's a little bit like when scientists are trying to look at the original Big Bang, at the moment of creativity. I think when you look at performers, it is that window we have into creativity?When we see people playing live, we experience something of the spontaneous suddenness of something actually emerging out of nothing.

MR: I was very lucky to be here last night at the rehearsal for what is going to play tomorrow, La Belle et la Bete, which is really magnificent. It was wonderful. I just walked here. There was nobody here. I sat down. It was empty. The orchestra was here. They were talking. There was no special light or anything. "Completely non inspiring." But then suddenly it all happened. Suddenly the film came up and they played and they sang and it was really magical. And then it ended the same way, abruptly. That total transformation of the space was very strong to be in.

GS: Philip, could you encapsulate in a few words the difference of approach of the four filmmakers you worked with. How did they differ?

PG: One of the most interesting things about working with people is that they are all different. It could be Allan Ginsberg or Bob Wilson or Doris Lessing or Michal Rovner or Shirin Neshat. One of the reasons I like to work with people I haven't worked with before (although I often work with them again) is to discover how that encounter is going to happen. Michal and I work very close to each other, just a few blocks away, so we had the opportunity to speak frequently. She came to my studio. I went to her studio. I did that also with Shirin Neshat, who also lives down the street. She had a storyboard and I actually began writing music to the storyboard and showed her what it was going to be like. Although I did that also with Michal. So with these two I was able to work very closely. With Peter Greenaway, he was living in Holland. I was in Holland, so I went to see him and he had a film idea. The Man in the Bath was something he had been working on and had completed, and I wanted to talk about that. He didn't want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about something completely different, which didn't help me at all, and I went away not having had the conversation I wanted to have. And then I just wrote the music. But he did something even stranger. When I finished the music, he actually completely re-edited it. It was far too late to do anything. Fortunately, the film and the music are both so chaotic, in a way, that one can hardly notice. But I notice. And Michael, who had learned the score, he had to relearn it. That is the difficulty; we had to do it that way.

GS: So this was a filmmaker completely re-editing his film as a result of hearing your score?

PG: From my point of view, it was a disaster. From the point of view of the actual piece and the audience, I don't think it makes any difference at all. My personal problem with it doesn't really matter. We ended up using it the way he did it. With Atom, we had quite a different situation, where there were some images he wanted to use of this church that was burning. They were images made by Elia Kazan and he had been very protective and wouldn't let anyone use those pictures. But I happened to know the family and I got a message to him that I was very interested in doing this and I think they somehow got him in a weak moment and persuaded him. He was afraid it would be very political, which of course it was. And I said, "It's not going to be political. It's going to be purely aesthetic." But I had no idea what Atom was going to do. So then Atom sent me this picture and it was completely the opposite of what I thought it would be. The night of the first performance, Mr. Kazan's wife came, who had been the intermediary, and I didn't say anything to her but she was clearly going to see a film that was very brutal and very political. Afterwards, I said to her, "Francis, how did you like the movie." And she said, "I thought it was very, very good." I don't know what she thought, but it was done, it was a done deal. She could have said, "Oh my God. You've taken this image and?" But she didn't say that. Every relationship was different. With Atom, I thought we were doing one piece and ended up doing another. With Peter, he didn't even properly talk to me. With Shirin and Michal, we talked a lot. If you look at them, in a way, I don't know that you can tell. These interactions are highly personal. It's how you work but has nothing to do with what happens in the end.

GS: It is interesting that there are a number of themes and images and ideas that keep recurring in the films, even though they are by totally different people and they didn't speak - fire, journey, Diaspora...

MR: No entertainment.

GS: [Question from the audience] Philip, have you ever felt frustrated and wanted to edit the film yourself?

PG: No. I have watched a lot of film editing - especially with Godfrey [Reggio] - for the last twenty-five years. I have never wanted to do it myself. On the other hand, in the commercial projects I have done, where I have to make changes I don't want to make, I have done my best to persuade the director not to do what he wants to do, and they never listen. But I have never been tempted to make a film or become a filmmaker. To me, it is a metier that is so refined and professional in its own way that I wouldn't dare to do it. I hope for the best with my collaborators, and very often the best happens. Sometimes it doesn't.

GS: [From the audience] The repetitive phrase in the Shirin Neshat film sounded very Persian. Was that deliberate?

PG: It was actually the voices of the women [in the film] which had been recorded by Shirin and then she handed the tape to us. It is in a very odd meter, and Michael was the one who managed to edit the tape in such a way that it sounds like they are actually singing in the rhythm of the music, but initially they weren't. All the consonants, sounds and vowels were in fact the original language but the rhythm of it had been altered to fit the music.

GS: [From the audience] What qualities do you look for in collaborating with a filmmaker? How did you make up your shortlist of people?

PG: I was interested in people who were working very independently. This whole exercise of working with film and music, which we're doing this week, is about re-examining the whole way in which films are made and the way they are put together, the way the elements come together. So I wasn't interested in working in any industry-style way, because there is plenty of that. There is no need to do that. I wanted to go back to the beginning of when film and music, when sound and music came together in the late twenties. At some point, for some reason, it was decided very quickly that the words and the images would work in a certain way and since then that has become the convention. The way commercial music is written, that is the way it is done, even usually with the music coming at the end. That is why I say it is not really like the silent movies. And I wanted to go back and look at that. For example, the one we are doing tomorrow, La Belle et la Bete, is a completely different way of thinking about how image and music go together. That feels like a strange thing to say. I hesitate to say it is an original idea because I don't think we really have original ideas, so to speak. It is so rare to have them, but by God, I had one! The whole way of how image, music, text, movement go together, what I'm trying to do and what I've been able to do in concert halls - and to a limited extent in films. Sharin and Michal are really artists who have come to film; Atom and Peter are filmmakers who also make art movies as well as making commercial movies. Godfrey is Godfrey. I don't know how to describe him. He has always made his own work in his own way.

GS: [From the audience] Where was Shirin's film shot?

PG: She does most of her work in Morocco. Her films have a strong cultural and ethnic side to them. She says her films have been invited to Iran. She is a bit hesitant to go back.

GS: But you were the first non-Iranian to work with her?

PG: The first non-Moslem, actually. Mostly she works with Sussan Deyhim who is a wonderful composer. But I invited her. If I hadn't invited her, it would never have happened. She never would have thought of asking me.

GS: [From the audience] Have you ever analysed the importance of rhythm in your work? It seems to have such a primal role.

PG: Rhythm is an interesting thing. We have visual rhythm; we have harmonic rhythm; we have melodic rhythm. Rhythm we often think of as just the beat of the drums. Rhythm is actually the rate at which material recurs. Rhythm comes from the recurrence of material and the patterns that sets up. There is so much visual rhythm in Michal's work. I tend to be drawn to image-makers who relate to structure in that way. But in terms of analysing how I do it, I haven't bothered to do it at all. Except that I know what the technical basis of it is. I learnt a lot of that from non-Western music, and from working with people from Africa and Asia. But I'm more interested in how rhythm occurs in dance and in image.

GS: (to MR) Have you ever analysed your approach to rhythm in your work?

MR: I'm don't know if it's good if I analyse my work anyway. It's not good to be too self-aware.

GS: Do you have a sense that rhythm is an important part or is it image more than rhythm?

MR: Let's say I filmed fifty people and then I layered them and then one I didn't like the rhythm in which one would walk, then I would take one single one out and one would slow down etc. I'll use your question to say something else. I think it's very interesting when you do a co-action like that. The film can actually stand still and the music would give it space to exist in a way, which is, in fact, active. And the other way round. If the film has a lot of movement in it and does have a rhythm as you describe, it really can almost substitute for the rhythm of the sound just like rest.

GS: Which goes back to your point about the dialogue, and they don't have to actually be imitating each other. They can each give space.

MR: If you take two video artists, they will take the space from one another. It is not an easy thing to do but this way it is almost giving space to each other.

GS: Did you enjoy it enough to do another film together?

PG: Oh yes. I am actually talking to Godfrey about other projects, to Michal about other projects. I think the way Shirin works, I am the odd one in her body of work. I would like to work with her again. My family of collaborators is a growing one and I tend to go back to people I enjoy working with. All of these people, (with the exception of one) I enjoyed very much.

GS: I wonder who that was! So we can obviously look forward to Philip on Film II sometime in the future.

The second interview took place on January 9th 2003, prior to the showing of Powaqqatsi, the second part of the Qatsi trilogy. Robert Worby (presenter of Here & Now on BBC Radio 3) interviewed Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio, director of the Qatsi trilogy.

Robert Worby: Godfrey, can I ask you first. You and Philip have been working together on this trilogy for, what, twenty-five years now? How have your collaborative methods changed over this incredibly long period?

Godfrey Reggio: That is an incredibly good question. I've only made a handful of films and what was begun with Philip in 1977 took us twenty-five years to explore. The methodology is one of collaboration. While it is a simple term to indicate, it is a very demanding process. As you probably know, most composers who score for film do background music for plot and characterisation. In the case of my collaboration with Philip, because the narrative structure is removed from the film - all of the foreground plot characterisation is removed - the music becomes the equivalent of the narration and that is an enormous opportunity. Because, as I'm sure you all know, music portends a direct communion to the soul of the listener. It doesn't go through metaphor. It is direct. So the way that our collaboration has changed is one of intensity. I think what we learned in the beginning was a way of dealing with this. Neither one of us had made a film before. We had, through the Braille method, as it were, to find our way. I can't say that in substance it changed. It only became more direct and, if I can be so bold, more profound. It's like if you make a circle around a tree, it's a circle. If you keep making it, it builds up an element of profundity. So over the twenty-five years, we have had a chance to increase our intensity but not change the methodology.

RW: Philip, how do you feel your music has changed in these twenty-five years?

Post a comment


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.