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Philip Glass: On Tour, Not a Tourist

NAME: Philip Glass
AGE: 75
BORN IN: Baltimore, Maryland
HOME: New York City
JOB DESCRIPTION: Pianist and composer. His acclaimed opera Einstein on the Beach is touring in 2012.
TIME SPENT ON THE ROAD: 18 weeks a year
PLACES VISITED IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS: 18 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Scotland, Wales, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Australia, and at least a dozen U.S. states

Listen to the first movement of Philip Glass’s Ninth Symphony. 

In the 40 years that you’ve been touring internationally, what has changed the most about travel?
It was more leisurely back in the 1970s. In recent years, my days have become very full. When I was younger, I had much more time. Of course, I didn’t have any money, but oddly enough, I didn’t need any money. Another thing that has changed is that when I first traveled in Germany, there weren’t any Italian restaurants. Every culture had its own cuisine and restaurants. These days you can find an Italian restaurant—or a very good Thai restaurant—almost anywhere, and for a vegetarian like me, that means you always have a place to go.

You have arranged your touring schedule so that you travel in 10-day blocks about three weeks apart. Are you able to compose while you are on the road?
The best situation is what we call “sitting down.” This summer I’ll be in Melbourne to perform the music for Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi film trilogy [Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi]. I can “sit down” there for almost a week. That means I can spend the daytime writing. It’s been a long time since someone said, “Would you like to see the sights?” and I said, “Yeah, let’s go on a tour.” I don’t do that. What I’ll do in Melbourne is try to get a piano in my hotel room, and my routine will be like my New York workday. I’ll get up in the morning, have breakfast, and write music until sometime in the afternoon when it’s time to get ready for the performance. That’s my favorite way of working, because I’m writing as well as performing and traveling.

When did you realize that the job description of a performing composer included so much travel?
Years and years ago. When I was 19 and told my mother I was going to be a musician, she said, “Well, if you do that, you’ll spend your life on the road, going from city to city, hotel to hotel.” I thought, “Gee, that sounds great!” And you know what, it has been great. It’s very interesting and I’ve met people all over the world. I can find a vegetarian restaurant in three dozen cities that you’ve probably never heard of. But I would not say it’s any way to make a living. Actually, I don’t get paid for doing concerts; I get paid for taking airplanes.

But travel has paid off with musical influences and source material for your creative work. The rhythmic patterns of North Indian music have informed the repetitive structures in your compositions, for instance. Is India a place where you feel especially at home?
I made my first trip there in 1966 and became close to the culture’s music and history. All that ended up in my music—in the opera about Gandhi [the three-act Satyagraha, 1980, based on Gandhi’s South Africa years] and Passion of Ramakrishna [2006, a tribute to a 19th-century Indian spiritual leader]. Because I developed an ease with the culture, I could deal with subject matter that might have been esoteric for some people.

Other than musical inspiration, do you bring back anything special from your trips?
There was a time when I used to have suits made for me in Hong Kong. But souvenirs? Never. I’ve trained all my children not to expect me to bring anything home, because once you do, then every time you’re about to go home, you end up in the airport trying to buy something that will make the kids happy. I want them to be happy to see me, and that should be good enough. A

Places That Inspire Philip Glass 

BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC
If you don’t go to Brooklyn, you haven’t truly experienced culture in New York City. BAM is the institution that changed the center of gravity for culture in New York, especially for young artists.

BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA
This landscape has long been a source of inspiration for artists. Several years ago, I was invited to perform at the Henry Miller Library, and the experience led me to start the Days and Nights Festival in Carmel Valley.

CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA
Since 1976, I’ve been going to Cape Breton every summer to spend time with my family and write music. It is where I wrote the majority of the opera Einstein on the Beach. Much of what we think of as the traditional music of Canada is very deeply rooted there.

CHENNAI, INDIA
The Music Academy has been keeping classical traditions strong since the 1920s. The Chennai Music and Dance Festival, held every winter from mid-December through mid-January, is the best way to immerse yourself in South Indian arts.

MEXICO CITY
Culturally speaking, Mexico City is the most interesting city in Latin America. Whenever I perform there, I try to visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the National Museum of Anthropology, and the Frida Kahlo Museum. Einstein on the Beach will be performed in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in November.

RIO DE JANEIRO
Rio is heavily influenced by both African roots and indigenous culture. I met the music group Uakti there and have collaborated with them and many other Brazilian artists over the years.

Photo by Raymond Meier. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.