Help Composer Philip Glass Keep Tibetan Culture Alive

Philip Glass speaks the way his music sounds—vibrant, enthralling, and whimsical, like you can envision his brain formulating his thoughts. I had the pleasure of talking on the phone with the legendary composer, who, with pieces such as Music in Twelve Parts, Einstein on the Beach, countless film scores, and collaborations with everyone from David Bowie to Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, revolutionized the music world.

Glass and I talked about the icy New York City weather before diving into the real crux of the conversation—Tibet. Ever since a trip to Northern India in 1967, Glass became enthralled with the crisis wreaked on Tibetan culture due to China’s invasion, and decided to aid the diaspora in any way he could. The Tibet House, which he created with Richard Gere and professor Robert Thurman in 1987, has had one goal: keeping Tibetan culture alive. The organization has become particularly famous for its annual Benefit Concerts, which have boasted performances from musicians in various realms of the music world, including Iggy Pop (who is performing again this year), Flaming Lips, Dev Hynes, Ira Glass, and others.

Glass spoke passionately about the cause, but in between moments of excitement, he also let his mind wander to the days where he worked as a buyer for his dad’s music record store. Read on to get to know about the teenage life of a genius.

Iggy Pop performing at the 2014 Tibet House Benefit Concert.

Iggy Pop performing at the 2014 Tibet House Benefit Concert.

How do you select the musicians that perform at the Tibet House Benefit Concerts?

We have a committee comprised of people in the music world who are all interested in the concert. It’s a very solid group of people who are connected with other artists, and not just artists that are necessarily performing here. We start meeting around June, and it takes us about half a year to get the program together. There’s a dinner after the concert, and people pay to go to the dinner, so the money is earned through that, but none of the performers are paid. I would say there’s no one around that we can’t call. What we really need is access, and now we have enough people so I can know everybody’s agent. I call the person, and then I write a personal handwritten letter to everybody that we invite, and they keep the letters.

You collaborated with some of the most iconic members of the arts in every medium. What particular collaboration stands out as having a big impact on you and your work?

I work with a lot of different people. I normally work with people in the pop world and the concert music world, but I also work with people from Africa, from Australia, from South America. What’s great about the concert is that it’s a place where I can invite people back. This year I’m inviting Foday Musa Suso, a Kora player from Gambia who preserves the history of the Mandingo people in his songs. I’ve known him for 30 years and this may be his third time with us.

I bring some elements of all world music, like people from the classical music world. I’ve had people play the harp, or play the violin…and they will also play with Patti Smith’s band, which might be the only time that those two worlds can collaborate. It’s a real crossroad, this concert, which has also led me to enhance my relationship with music. If I just played only my music or played with people who sound kind of like me, my life wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. I wouldn’t know as much about music, so I benefit from this tremendously.

You once said that you had to break the rules, even your own. Do you still follow this? What’s the biggest rule you’re breaking now?

Writing operas was something I didn’t think I would do, but I did. I’ve also worked with people from the world of country music, which I hadn’t done before. A lot of these are my own limitations and I’m able to break through on my own.

I grew up at my father’s record store in Baltimore, Maryland, where we sold all kinds of records. I knew everything that was in the store. Maryland is right next to West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania, so all their music was down there. Besides the Beethoven String Quartets and the Bartók Orhcestral music, I grew up listening to all the rock; I knew everything because we sold everything at the store. By the time I was 15, I was the record buyer for the store [laughs], so it’s been easy for me to wander into areas that are unknown to me. I found this Kawali band in Dallas, and they came up a few years ago. I didn’t even know the music until they came.

“[My father] was a self-educated person when it came to music, and he was always curious.”

What’s the first piece of music that you remember having a huge impact on you?

My father would listen to music when he came home from the store, believe it or not. He had been a car mechanic who fixed radios and cars, but he was a self-educated person when it came to music, and he was always curious. I think I got that from him too. I remember very clearly listening to the chamber music of Franz Schubert with my dad. I could have been five or six years old. He would want to know what music was in his store and what he was selling to people—he was that kind of guy.

He became very interested in modern music, and his store was probably the only place in Baltimore you could find music by Stravinsky and Bartók in the early 1950s. I went to a very good music school, the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, it was conservative in terms of the music, but the store was in downtown Baltimore, so all kinds of people came. People who worked on the ships coming up from South America would come into the store looking for multi band radios or short wave radios they could use on the boats. So many people came that my dad began learning Spanish. He was an interesting guy. He took something that would have been an ordinary job for somebody else and he made it really interesting.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

From my father? I’ll tell you a funny story. I was out buying records for the store when I was 15. The Juilliard Quartet had recorded all the Schoenberg String Quartets in four LPs, which I ordered. Every two weeks, when the orders would come in, my brother, my father, and I would open up the records, but we didn’t know what the covers were like since you would just get a list. But we were very curious about the covers, because that could help you a lot. And Ben, who was my dad, but whom we called Ben when we were at the store, was opening the boxes, and he came across the four sets of these Schoenberg Quartets.

He said, “Kid what are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean? Ben, this is the great modern music of our time!” He said, “Okay. Put ‘em up on the shelf. When you sell the last one, tell me.” I went off to college and every time I came back I went to see how many there were, and finally one day they were all gone…it must have been ten or 12 years later. I said, “Ben, the Schoenbergs are gone?!” And he said, “Did you learn the lesson?” “Well, what was the lesson?” He said, “I can sell anything if you give me enough time.” It was a hilarious thing to happen.

When it comes to your creative approach, is it different when you’re composing for personal means than when you’re composing for a film?

No, it’s not that different. The big difference is who makes the decisions about what’s happening. With the film, it’ll be the picture editor and the producer—the composer has very little to say. For films I could write my own pieces, but what stays in the movie is ultimately not my decision. If I’m writing music for a dance company, the tempo, believe it or not, has to do with the size of the stage. With a small stage, the music has to be slower, and with a large stage, the music has to be faster. Think about it; space and time works that way.

The only place where the composer is really in charge of everything is the opera house; no director could be hired that I didn’t approve of, no designer could come in that I didn’t like…I can take care of all the things. Writing operas or chamber music, I do what I want to do. But, in the world of theater and the world of film, if I write music the director doesn’t like it will definitely not be played and I have to rewrite the songs. Do I mind that? Yes, in one way. On the other hand, a producer can lead you to do interesting things you hadn’t done before. That happened when I was working for Scott Rudin on The Hours. He had all kinds of questions about the music, and we got into discussions, but it didn’t bother me, actually. Sometimes I thought I was right, sometimes I thought, “Well maybe he’s right.”

If you could relive a moment of your life, which one would it be, and why?

The first time we performed Einstein On The Beach at the Avignon Festival in France. I’d like to relive it because I was so excited and tired at the same time. If I did it again, maybe I would be able to listen a little bit better and understand what the audience was doing. I was so caught up in the excitement of the moment that it came and it went, and before I knew it, it was over. I said, “Well what the hell happened?” [laughs] It lasted five hours and I still don’t know what happened.

Get your tickets for the Tibet House Concert at Carnegie Hall, this Monday, February 22nd. 

Stay tuned to Milk for more classy classical music.

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