About The Omnipresent Phillip Glass
Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts, a film produced and directed by Scott Hicks By Tom Savage
This excellent documentary/interview film with and about Phillip Glass starts with him going down the Astroland roller coaster in Coney Island with a smile on his face. All those years of involvement with Buddhism and other spiritual traditions would seem to have paid off. But why subject one’s life to danger gratuitously? The question is neither asked nor answered. Glass claims not to be a Buddhist. Nevertheless he has a Buddhist teacher named Gelek Rinpoche and is on the boards of numerous Buddhist organizations including Tibet House and a magazine I get four times per year about Buddhist topics called Tricycle. The film features Chuck Close, the famous artist who paints portraits mostly in black dots that look like blown up photographs. Close has known Glass for many years, since they were young and unknown, and has painted many portraits of him. The gallery at the Metropolitan Opera was given over this spring to these portraits. I don’t remember how many there were but they filled the small gallery. In the film, Joanne Akalaitis, the director, is interviewed. She was once married to Phillip Glass. Glass is quoted as saying “a new language requires a new technique.” When he was young, Glass made his living as a cabdriver. He talks about his early concerts in lofts. It so happens I went to one of those over thirty years ago. His music at first seemed loud, repetitive, and boring. I didn’t get the point then, as many people still don’t now. It so happens I love Glass’s many operas, a good number of which I have seen over the years, but find his Symphonies boring. Close and Glass say they like negative reviews. They must be kidding. Still, I suppose the early non-comprehenders contributed to their fame. Asked about fame through “vilification”, Glass says “it helped.”
This is a good film but has some drawbacks as a movie. A lot of talking heads. I couldn’t help wondering if this film will be shown eventually on the public television series American Masters? It looks and sounds very much like one of those programs which is okay, I suppose, but this is supposed to be a movie I’m seeing in a movie theater. Glass inherited money, after which he bought a home in the country, in Nova Scotia. He hasn’t driven a taxi in a long, long time.
What is music “about” anyway? Glass is shown working with the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a champion of many new music composers, on a piece called “Waiting For The Barbarians”, a piece not based on the great Cavafy poem of that name. Glass cites Ginsberg as an influence and a friend. Allen never wrote a poem of that name.
Glass’s father knew and liked classical music. Glass was the youngest student at the Peabody Conservatory and then moved to Juilliard. A dead wife is mentioned briefly named “Candy.” His current wife is interviewed at length. Glass claims to be open to suggestions from his co-workers and collaborators, also filmmakers. Glass has scored many films in recent years including at least one by Woody Allen. Glass calls himself an “impersonator” and an “impostor” then laughs. Erroll Morris and Godfrey Reggio, filmmakers are interviewed. Also Martin Scorsese who made Kundun, about the Dalai Lama. Although influenced a great deal by Ravi Shankar’s music, Glass also studied with Nadia Boulanger, the great French teacher who taught most of the important American and French composers who have emerged since the 1930’s. Glass says he was afraid of her although she, somehow, gave him self-confidence. But to him Shankar is as important a teacher as was Boulanger. Although to many of us the music of Ravi Shankar seems like a dated fad now, if one listens to it again, one can see that there is a relationship possible between it an Glass’ music. Some of this film, however, is about Glass as a person. He does the Chinese meditative exercise practice chi gong every morning. This Taoist practice brings us to Glass’s other spiritual interests, including a Mexican Toltec shaman.
Also, it turns out that Waiting For The Barbarians is a novel by the well-known South African novelist J.M. Coetze. Finally, Glass comes off as a truly unpretentious and even humble man. He still seems surprised by the good luck that brought him fame after his opera Einstein on the Beach was produced and directed by Robert Wilson years ago. Although he is certainly now the best-known American composer of his generation, it is not one hundred percent certain that his music, outside his operas, will last. It’s initial hypnotic effect has given way to official acceptance, in that his twenty year old opera Satyagraha about Gandhi was done this year by the Metropolitan Opera company itself, which had never produced one of his opera before. Although done at the building which houses the Metropolitan Opera during a period when the company was not in residence, Einstein on the Beach was actually produced independently.
Although the film was informative, it added little to my understanding of Glass, as I’ve been listening to his music with pleasure for nearly thirty years.