Philip Glass, AB’56, offers advice to music students at UChicago. (Photography by Rob Kozloff)

Philip Glass meets a new generation of students

The composer shares his thoughts on art, the audience, and beer.

“The thing I like best is to hear music that I’ve never heard before,” Philip Glass told a group of UChicago music composition students, “and the best way to do that is to listen to someone under 30.”

Glass, AB’56, was on campus in February as a UChicago Presidential Arts Fellow. The three-day residency included a concert of his work and a public Q&A with University Professor of composition Augusta Read Thomas. But for 80 minutes his time belonged exclusively to 13 aspiring composers—mostly graduate students—plus Thomas and assistant professor Anthony Cheung, seated in a circle of chairs on the Logan Center Stage.

Glass told stories from a long career with a host of well-known collaborators and teachers. A benefit for Tibet House at Carnegie Hall was four days away. His music would accompany Iggy Pop reading a poem—“a poem that only Iggy Pop could’ve written,” Glass said.

Talking about another Tibet House performer and Glass collaborator, Gambian Kora player Foday Musa Suso, Glass noted that the two did not share a common language other than music. “If he was playing in D, and I was to start playing in E, he would smile,” Glass said. “If he smiled, it was OK.”

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3368","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"360","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] (Photography by Rob Kozloff)

About composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger, with whom Glass studied in Paris after completing a master’s degree at Juilliard, he said, “She was just a monster. But she banged that stuff into my head, and I can truly say I haven’t written a note of music since then that wasn’t influenced by that experience.”

Glass also fielded questions about technical matters like instrumentation and counterpoint. But much of what he had to say concerned creativity, inspiration, and staying active at 79.

On creativity: “We make a big difference between being artists and not-artists, but I don’t think there’s much difference. When I see people working, whether they’re scientists or poets, or chefs or whatever they are, as human beings we have the ability to go beyond what we think we are into some other place.”

On collaboration: When Glass wrote an opera with Christopher Hampton, he told the playwright, “No words with five syllables,” because longer words are more difficult to set to music. “Four syllables, tops. Three is the best. Two, even better.” The opera title, Appomattox, just barely fit Glass’s criteria.

He also discovered, when working with a dance troupe, that if the stage is larger, the dancers have to move faster. If it’s smaller, they have to move slower. “The tempo has to fit the stage.”

On the audience: “I write music because that’s what I like to do best.” If other people like his music, Glass said, that’s nice, but irrelevant. “I’m not doing it to make people happy. I’m doing it because it makes me happy.”

On getting started: Glass recounted a story about his now-14-year-old son, who began to compose music at 7. “He said, ‘Daddy, I can write the first couple of measures, but then what do I do?’ And I said, ‘Exactly! That’s the problem. The problem is what happens next.’”

On longevity and clean living: “I don’t do drugs. It’s not a moral issue; I just don’t have the time. When I was a kid I did LSD once and I couldn’t do anything the next day. I thought, ‘the hell with this.’” Glass, who does tai chi and compares being a musician to “the practice of an athlete or a monk,” had two close friends and contemporaries who died in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “and I didn’t. And the difference was I wasn’t hanging out with the Velvet Underground getting stoned.”

... but an occasional indulgence never hurt: Glass prefers beer to wine. “Wine, you never know what it’s going to taste like,” he said. “Beer always tastes the same.”