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Music Is a Place: A Conversation with Philip Glass

We spoke with the innovative composer about his Tibet House Benefit Concert, working with David Bowie, and what music might sound like in the future.

Illustration by Dessie Jackson

Philip Glass has one of those old-school, broken-in East Coast accents, the kind that’s dying out, thick with melody and irreverence that reveal both his Baltimore roots and the four decades he’s spent living in New York.

It’s a sharp contrast to the subtle, stirring compositions that have made him one of the most influential and prolific composers working today.

He'll mumble and go off on tangents, constantly and excitedly meandering into new ideas; you get the sense that the processes of speaking and composing are one and the same for him.


But that nomadic curiosity is also his hallmark: His work has appeared everywhere from opera houses to concert halls to theater stages to movie screens. He has three Academy Award nods to his name. For all of his contributions to the classical music world, he’s perhaps as well known for his collaborations beyond and between it, which include everyone from Lou Reed to The Roots to David Bowie.

Many have occurred on stage at Carnegie Hall over the past 26 years as part of the annual benefit concert Glass directs for the Tibet House, the NYC-based education and cultural center he co-founded in 1987. The concert has expanded beyond its intial goals of raising money to preserve Tibetan culture, and now donates to multiple causes serving vulnerable populations across the globe.

Each year, Glass and a committee of music industry players invite a mix of younger and established artists from both the pop and classical worlds to perform at the event, marking the first time many of the larger acts play the 2,800-person capacity Carnegie Hall. Though the committee spends six to eight months planning the event and crafting its eclectic lineup, artists meet for the first time in a rehearsal the day before the concert, which features Patti Smith's backing band and a string quartet for accompaniment. That spontaneity has made the fundraiser's one-of-a-kind performances—like a duet between Caetano Veloso and Laurie Anderson, or Glass playing piano for the Flaming Lips—somewhat legendary.


This lineup for this year’s event, which takes place February 22, includes FKA Twigs, Iggy Pop, Gogol Bordello, Sharon Jones, Foday Musa Suso, Lavinia Meijer, Basia Bulat, and Dechen Shak-Dagsay with Helge van Dyke. Chuck Close, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman, and Arden Wohl will serve as Honorary Chairpersons for the evening.

We spoke with Glass, 79, by phone from his home in New York about what’s in store for this year’s event, the nature of collaboration, and what music might sound like in the future. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NOISEY: David Bowie's music has had a strong presence at these concerts over the years—he performed twice, and his music has often been source material. Do you expect there to be a nod to him in the works this year?
Philip Glass: I would say that’s a pretty good guess. He was a very important person in this world. He lived here, not too far—he lived downtown. People knew him, he worked with people. But he was a very private person. He didn’t hang out a lot. There was a tremendous emotional reaction to his passing. I think people were just surprised. I said, "Well, of course everyone has to die, but surely not David!” It was a big emotional thing.

Even though you worked in different genres, there's a similar sense of presence and fluidity in your music, and you've both cited each other as influences. Your first symphonies were based on his albums with Brian Eno, Low and Heroes. In what ways did he influence you, and how do you feel you influenced each other?
You know what it is, listen, they came to music late in their lives, both of them did. David was a painter before that, I forget what Brian did. And they became wonderful composers of melodies. Electrifying. I thought they were, among the composers, it didn't matter from what part of the music world they came from, I thought they were some of the most beautiful melodies I'd ever heard. And I was impressed with them, it was just talent. Just, you know, they hadn't gone to the conservatories that I had, and none of that stuff. But they were talented musicians. They are, I mean, Brian's still working.


At the time, I hadn't written a symphony yet. This was the 80s or early 90s. I had written operas and all kinds of other orchestra music. And I wanted to try what the form would be like, and I got the idea to use a theme by the composer—now, this is very common in the concert music world, they'll say "variations on a theme by," and they'll name the composer. It's very legitimate, and people kind of like it because they know the theme. I had known David for a while, I met him—oh, I think, maybe in the early 70s when he first played at the place—I think was actually the Peppermint Lounge. Could you possibly remember that place? Does anybody? [Laughs] I knew him from when he a very young man. And we kept in touch.

And I called him up and let him know what I wanted to do, and he was very interested, and said yes. The first one was my "Symphony Number 1." And I used that as the basis of the symphony. I also managed to compose music of my own that continued and sometimes played along with their music. So it became a real integration of what they had done. [When] they worked together, they didn't discuss who did what. I had no idea. But in the same way, when I was working with the material, I was kind of becoming an invisible collaborator, because it sounded like them, but it wasn't what they would have done.

So let's put it this way: it's gotten me into writing concert music in a way in which the actual symphonic pieces were sort of the testament to the orchestra itself. I hadn't done that [before]. And so that was a big help for me. And by the way, I finished my "Symphony Number 10" about two years ago, and I'm about to start "Symphony Number 11." So I started late! I was in my 50s when I wrote that.


It's interesting, because in many ways it feels like the digital era lends itself really well to that kind of exchange and collaboration.
I think you're right. And it worked for me because I was, in the world of concert music, I was one of the first people to use electric keyboards and amplified music. Actually I may have been the first one. And it's all over the place now, as it should be. Making music with these new kinds of instruments is open for everybody. But it's also made it easier for us to collaborate with each other too, so we share instruments. For example, at this concert, someone like Iggy Pop will be playing, and he'll be doing poetry or making arrangements of music of mine, and I'm writing to go with it. It's glorious, real fun to do that for me.

One question you ask often, and that you get asked often is, "Where does music come from?" You’ve said that it's a place, that it's rooted in a sense of place.
When we say a place, it's a poetic use of the word. However, it's definitely some place that we go to. Place is able to encompass and describe differences in a way that I don't know any other word that can do it as well. I'm talking about the experience of writing. The experiencing of imagining music and the experiencing for you of listening. And maybe writing it down, for that matter.

How is that place changing in context of the internet and the kind of connectivity that that provides people? How does that change the places that we occupy when we make, or listen to, or talk about music?
You know, that's an interesting question. I have children in their teens. I have a son who's 14 who plays music, and works on the internet. And what I see, I think any parent will tell you this, is that he is beginning to work in the world and in a language which I will never understand the same way that he does. What he will be writing and listening to in 30 years is, I can't begin to think about that. On the other hand, I think my generation's most definitely a transition generation. We went from writing acoustic music to learn amplified music and electronic music and visualized music. And even thinking about music compositions in terms of binary constructions instead of sonata form is a very different way of thinking. Entirely different, if you think about it.


But if I talk about digital expansion of music structures, it's sonata form, [or] it's something else. And until ten or 15, 20 years ago, no one thought of anything else. Now, again people are beginning to do this, and sometimes it's not even written down, it's described in different ways, but not using notation that we use. So it's a very, very interesting time. I think there's a lot to be learned from the past, but there's a lot more to be learned, maybe, perhaps, from what we don't know yet.

Do you think the kind of self-curating culture that technology creates hampers or encourages creativity in music?
You know, culture's culture. Culture, it's not something that you can quantify or even challenge. Culture's something we do, you know what I mean? You can't talk about "good culture" or "bad culture." You can talk about how people function within the culture in a good way or a bad way, but the culture itself will can't be judged as if it were an independent thing. So what we'll say is, it's good for culture. Well, of course it is. Because what's the alternative? Not having any culture at all? I mean, there isn't any alternative. This is how human beings express themselves. It's how we remember ourselves, it's how we remember the past. It's how we understand the distant past and the things that are in the future. There's no other way. If we didn't have a culture, we'd be machines. And then, you know, we wouldn't have very much to say to each other.


But when you think about it that way, you as a writer, myself as a composer, we're in different places, we're different ages, we're in different parts of our lives. And yet we're involved in an enterprise, which is making music and presenting music, and writing about music, which we're both familiar with. And which we can share, but we share some very different points of view. And we do it kind of effortlessly. I mean, I know what you think of me, you know what I think of you. It's a very important way for generations to understand each other. To read the poetry, read the writing, to see the paintings, to listen to the music of another generation: It tells you more than anything else can tell you. It's more important than statistics, and it's more important than education.

It's interesting you say that, because the role of music in that cultural sense has changed so much from, for example, when you were a teenager.

So let’s say when your 14-year-old son is your age now, what do you think the role of music will be?
From the history of humankind, as music makers, we have found instruments from 80,000 BC. A little flute made out of pigeon bones. I mean, music has been with us from the beginning of our becoming civilized. Human beings with brains that could think and could judge and could manage and could imagine. So I don't know what its role will be, but I'm certain it’ll be here.


Do you think it will continue to be a driving force in our culture? A lot of people would argue that it’s kind of taking a backseat.
No, I think, it's always been that way. It was that way in the 60s, in my time, in the 60s, 70s, 80s. It's going on right now. I'm around young composers too. People in their 20s and 30s. They’re passionate about what they do, like there's music going on all the time. You may not be able to find it in record stores, maybe you can't even find a record store. You'll find it on the internet. You'll find it YouTube. You know, you can find everything on YouTube. I can audition singers on YouTube now, I don't even have to have an audition. [Laughs] I can just listen to them. The internet has made it, in fact, more pervasive than ever before. Someone says, "Did you hear someone's, such and such music?" And I say "No I didn't." I tap it into my, you know, into my browser, and boom, instant. I don't have to wait for a concert to come on.

The information part of our world is in very good shape. I mean, there's other things that, maybe not so much so. But my experience is that this has quickened, if anything, the exchange of music among people and between generations. So I would say I think this is an extremely fruitful time to be working in the arts. That's usually associated with when society is in really, very bad shape. I think no one doubts that we have a lot of problems. At the same time, that's when the arts really get going. That happened in the 60s, and it's happening right now, 60 years later.

What do you think music will sound like in the future?
I think [genres] are proliferating. I think people are starting to work together. I see so many plays now that have films in them. I see so many, I see the mixer between recorded and live music, and recorded and live performance. All kinds of things are happening. I think that there's a proliferation of new things.

I don't know. [Laughs] I can't tell you. I'm answering as if I'm, you know, some kind of wise person, but I mean, I’ve been through a lot of things, and—one thing I do know is that there are a lot of things I don't know. If I could imagine it, and what I do imagine, is my life’s passion, to be truthful. I mean, I'm thinking about that all the time.

Tickets for the 26th Annual Tibet House concert are on sale now through Carnegie Hall . Special gala packages starting at $500 are on sale now only through Tibet House US.

Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.