Ira Glass Interviews His Cousin, Composer Philip Glass

Jan 31, 2012
Originally published on February 1, 2012 2:31 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 21, 1999.

It's no coincidence that composer Philip Glass and This American Life host Ira Glass have the same last name: They're second cousins, but they didn't know each other well when the Field Museum in the Chicago asked Ira to interview Philip on stage in 1999.

On today's Fresh Air, we replay excerpts from that conversation in honor of Philip's 75th birthday, which is Tuesday.

Philip Glass is one of the fathers of minimalist music. He started off writing for his ensemble and went on to write operas, dances and film scores, including the music for Koyaanisqatsi, Kundun, The Fog of War, No Reservations and The Thin Blue Line.

Interview Highlights

On working in his father's record store

"I worked there from the age of 12 until I was in my 20s. In those days, those were the old 78s. And all the records were scratched anyway, so you could play anything. So we played music all the time. By 15, I became the classical record buyer for the store. And I learned a lot because I was the one who ordered the records."

On his father

"He began as an auto mechanic. And then at a certain point in the 1920s and 30s, people started putting radios into cars. So he began fixing the radios just the same way he fixed the cars. He learned how to fix radios. Then he got interested in the radios and got rid of the cars and just had a radio shop. Then someone told him that he should sell some records in the radio shop, and gradually, over 10 or 15 years, the record part became bigger and bigger and bigger."

On his first job at the record store, which was to break records in order to send them back to the record label

"My first job, my brother and I, on the weekends, we went down to the store, and we jumped on records. ... That was my first professional job."

On style

"In order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique — you have to have a place to make the choices from. If you don't have a basis on which to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all. You have a series of accidents."

On repetition

"I consider the first 20 performances just learning the piece. Think about it this way: If you think about a pianist who plays a Schubert sonata through his whole lifetime — if you listen to Rubenstein or Horowitz playing their repertoire later in their life, you understand the richness with which they play that music, and how differently they must have played it when they were younger. ... I think it's only after about 20 performances that we begin to understand what the dynamic structure of the piece is."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today. That's why this evening was chosen for the U.S. premiere of his "Symphony No. 9" at Carnegie Hall. Glass was one of the founders of what is often called minimalist music. He started off writing for his ensemble and went on to write operas, dances and film scores.

Here's an excerpt of his new symphony, performed by the Bruckner Orchestra from Linz, Austria conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, who is also conducting this evening's performance. The recording was released today on iTunes.


GROSS: Philip Glass was interviewed by Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life" in 1999. Ira is Philip's second cousin, although they didn't know each other well when they spoke on stage at the Field Museum in Chicago. Lucky for us, Ira didn't broadcast that interview on his show, but he gave it to FRESH AIR to play, which we did back in 1999. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of it.

IRA GLASS: We are first cousins once removed, which means that you're my dad's first cousin.

PHILIP GLASS: That's right.

GLASS: And the conversation that we had before this show was just long enough to play some Jewish geography...


GLASS: relieve you all of the burden of hearing it. And our families both lived in Baltimore. By the time I was old enough to sort of be awake to anything you had moved, first to Chicago and then here, then to New York.

GLASS: No, I was here, I was in Chicago for about five years.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: Fifty-two - '52 to '57.

GLASS: That was before I was born.


GLASS: By the time I was sort of awake enough to know that you existed you were in New York and then in Paris and...

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: ...and then back in New York. Your father owned a record store. First of all, I've read that you actually worked in the store sometimes.

GLASS: Oh, I worked there from the age of 12.

GLASS: Really?

GLASS: I worked in there until I was in my 20s.

GLASS: And do you remember what music was playing and what music you liked?

GLASS: Well, all kinds of music. In those days you could, those were the old days of 78s and no one worried about, all the records were scratchy anyway so you could play anything. So we played music all the time. I eventually became, by 15, I became the classical record buyer for the store. And I learned a lot because I was the one that ordered the records, 'cause my father, Ben Glass - that would've been your great uncle...

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: ...he was a self-taught - he knew a lot about music but he really learned it all by himself. He didn't have a music education background.

GLASS: Would he play you songs and composers...

GLASS: Oh, yeah.

GLASS: ...and say listen to this part, listen to this part?

GLASS: No. You know what was interesting, Ira, was that we had a very interesting collection of records at home. His introduction was interesting. He began actually, this is how it began. He began as an auto mechanic. And then at a certain point in the 1920s, 30s, people started putting radios into cars. And so he began fixing the radios just the same ways he fixed the cars he learned how to fix radios. Then he got interested in the radios and got rid of the cars and just had a radio shop.


GLASS: Then someone told him that he should sell some records in the radio shop, and gradually, over 10 or 15 years, the part of the record became bigger and bigger and bigger. And at the end of his life the radios were just a tiny bench in the back of the store and he used to fix radios there. So he came to music that way.

Now what he had at home - and he didn't know much about music, but he would buy these records and he would take them home. The ones that he couldn't sell he would take home because he wanted to listen to them to see what was wrong with them.


GLASS: You know, he said well, there must be something wrong with this music and he figured well, if he could figure out what was wrong with it then he would know what the other - so the music we had at home were like Shostakovich's String Quartet's music that was modern for that time.

GLASS: And why Shostakovich not selling in Baltimore at the time?

GLASS: Well, we're talking about the 1940s.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: When - we're talking about pieces that were new at that time.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: And the idea of classical music was really the European 19th, 18th romantic tradition, so anything that was modern at all was, had a difficult time. So we had, what we ended up at home with was a collection of very esoteric music. What happened is that the more he listened to this music the more he liked it.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: And he ended up liking all this strange music that no one else listened to. And then he became an advocate for this music. And people - I witnessed this many, many times -people would come in the store and he would try to sell them all this new music that, he said - you know, I bet you never heard this guy Britten, Now this Benjamin Britten is a really terrific composer. And he would practically give these, push these records on people and he...


GLASS: And he had any number of people in Baltimore whose musical taste was formed by this. It was very simple - people came in and they'd listen to music and they learned by listening, and as they explored things they didn't know. And I witnessed this. Well, I have to tell you a really interesting story. Did I ever tell - I should tell you what my very first job in the store was. You see, in those days, those are the days of 78s, and every record store have always called, you had an allowance, a return privilege it was called. That was actually what it was, a return privilege for broken records.

GLASS: Wait. If you would take the record home and break it you could bring it back?

GLASS: No, no, no. No, it didn't work that way, Ira.


GLASS: If you were, if you had the store and some records arrived and they were broken...

GLASS: Oh, I understand.

GLASS: So for you...


GLASS: So the merchant could return the records.

GLASS: Right.

GLASS: It was called a return privilege. And it was a strict, it was something like, the way they figure it out they made it something like 5 percent of the records could be returned.

GLASS: Right.

GLASS: Now what happened was that you didn't actually break 5 percent of the records, but you could return 5 percent of the records. So what you had to do, if you wanted to return records and get your money back you had to break them.


GLASS: That's cute, huh?

GLASS: So that was your job?

GLASS: My first job...


GLASS: brother and I were, on the weekends, we went down to the store, and we were sent to the basement and we jumped on records.


GLASS: We were - and...

GLASS: It's a good preparation for what was to come.


GLASS: Well, that's the kind way of putting it.

GLASS: Well, no, no.


GLASS: So, I gradually worked my way up - what?

GLASS: And classical music, right?

GLASS: It didn't matter.

GLASS: Yeah.


GLASS: It didn't matter what you broke.

GLASS: Eddie Fisher.

GLASS: They counted it by the label.

GLASS: Right.

GLASS: And you did it by the, you did it by the company so there would be, and there would be companies like OK Records or Blue Note Records or RCA Records, they all had a return privilege. But the only thing is that all the RCA Records have to be in their box and all the broken OK Records have to be in their box and all the broken Blue Note Records had to be in their box. You couldn't mix boxes. But they didn't really care what was on the record. They just had to be broken.


GLASS: Anyway, so I, that was my first pay - I wasn't actually paid. But that was my first professional job...

GLASS: In music.

GLASS: In the music world.


GROSS: We're listening to composer Philip Glass, speaking to his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." We'll hear more of their 1999 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Composer Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today. Let's get back to the interview he recorded in 1999 with his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life."

GLASS: Now in 1964 you moved to Paris and you studied with Nadia Boulanger. Can ask you to talk about what she was like and what you learned from her?

GLASS: Oh, she was a, you know, I don't like to talk - are there any Boulanger students here in the room? I always get into trouble when I talk about her because actually she wasn't a very nice person.


GLASS: She was a wonderful teacher who was a great master of music technique, of counterpart of harmony, of analysis. And she was extremely, how can I say, demanding from the first moment you walked in. For example, if you arrived at the door of the apartment, if you are as much as a minute late it was better just to go home.


GLASS: Because if you came in late you got such an abuse. You were criticized on every level of your being and character and - so basically if Metro slow that day, if you got off at the wrong stop, and then you just went home.

GLASS: And there was something that the students called Black Thursday, something like that?

GLASS: Oh, yes. There was a general lesson of analysis that all the students went to, maybe 30 or 40 people. It was not a very large living room that she taught in, and then there was the Black Thursday class. And we were convinced that she put together her, eight of her students; she took the four best ones and the four worst ones and put them together.

GLASS: But you couldn't tell which you were.

GLASS: We couldn't tell which was which.


GLASS: By the time she got done with us we were just - those lessons were devastating. Those classes went on for three or four hours and they began at nine o'clock and went to about one.

GLASS: Describe a typical exercise.

GLASS: Well, I'll give you one. There were some very funny - this is one that I was very fond of because it was so sinister.


GLASS: You walked into the class and into the room and we were all there, of course, on time, for sure. And on the piano would be just line of music written in tenor clef, which is not a common clef, but you're supposed to know it. OK, so first of all, there's seven clefts. Probably most of you know two if you know any, you may know three clefts, but you're supposed to know seven. The first thing you do with her is you learned all seven. And she said, Danielle, before we begin the lesson today would you just play the harmony that goes with this melody? And Danielle would play the first chord. And she says oh my god. How can you play that chord? And she's like, OK, Paul, you play it. So she went through the room until we got the first chord right, then we did the second chord, the third, the fourth, the fifth. And finally, three or four hours later, she had beat us into completing this four-part harmony exactly the way it was supposed to be. And then she said well, you know, she said my dear children, she like, she says I really didn't expect to spend a day like this because, in fact, I thought you would know this. And she behind the music rack she pulled out, it was the second movement of a Beethoven viola and piano sonata. And it was, basically, she merely had expected us to replicate exactly the voice leading that Beethoven had done.

GLASS: From one of the melodies to re-create the entire...

GLASS: And she said well, of course, if you had, if you knew the piece it would have been easy.


GLASS: Well, she picks something that no one knew. And then and the fact that we had done it - actually, it was kind of a miracle that we had done it at all. She succeed - let's put it in a different way - she succeeded in eliciting from us the exact voice leading of the original. It took four hours.

GLASS: Do you think that there is a pedagogical efficiency to terror?


GLASS: You know, I find, I tell you, I'd finally after I'd been there about two years I finally figured out why I was there. We were having a lesson and I had come in with my harmony. We came to a place in the music and she said, it's wrong here. And I said, Madame Boulanger, it's correct. I cited the rules of voice leading and said that all these things are correct and there's nothing wrong with this. And she said yes, she said, but if Mozart had done it he would have done it like this. And she plays it the correct version, which was that perhaps the soprano was in the - the third was in the soprano instead of the root of the chord was in - whatever I had done I'd done it wrong. And I looked at her and I said but look, the rules are right here. And she said yes, but it's still wrong. I was astonished. And I - it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. I realized that she was teaching the relationship between technique and style.

For example, now let's put the question another way. If you listen to let's say a measure of Rachmaninoff and then a measure of Bach, you know which is which without, you know immediately. And the question is well, why do you know that? They both are following basically the same rules of harmonic, of voice leading. But what happens is that you have in your, the course of your listening, you have taught yourself - you've recognized that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem in a certain way. You may not say that to yourself, but your ear will tell you that. And that Bach will do it in his way. And you say, oh, that sounds like Bach or that sounds like Rachmaninoff or that sounds like Stravinsky. And what you're hearing is let's put it this way: You're hearing the predilection of the composer to resolve a technical problem in a highly personal way.

So in other words, now let's...

GLASS: And from that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way to solve it?

GLASS: Well, this is the point. The point is - and this is the other thing which she didn't say in words that day, but which I understood totally, was that in order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique.

You have to have a place to make the choices from.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: If you don't have a basis on which to make to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all, you have a series of accidents.

GLASS: Looking at your career from the outside, one of the things that's striking is the number of different collaborators that you've worked with and I wonder if part of it is because you had the seminal experience of confronting somebody else's work.

GLASS: Well, that's exactly - that's exactly what happens when you find your place, yourself in a place of total ignorance of that kind. And that's the place where you can begin again, you can begin learning again. You know, the difficulty with any - well, it's not just artists or musicians but with anybody in any ordinary part of life - walk of life - the difficulty we have is how we continue to learn.

I mean, this is - everybody has this problem. Because you get what we call our training and education to a certain point and we spend the rest of our life changing gears in the same way. And the biggest - this is particularly true of composers, they pick up a style or way of working a certain way, but the real issue, I've always said to younger composers, it's not how do you find your voice but how to get rid of it.

Getting the voice isn't hard, it's getting rid of the damn thing. Because once you've got the voice then you're kind of stuck with it.

GLASS: You've said to Terry Gross - in fact, she's asked you - do you ever try to compose so it doesn't sound like Philip Glass?

GLASS: I do it all the time and I fail all the time.


GLASS: I learned that the only hope of shaking free of your own description of music was to place yourself in such an untenable position that you had to figure out something new. That happened with Ravi Shankar in 1964 and I repeated that experience. I do it whenever I can. And that means constantly finding new people to work with.

The thing is, is that as much as much as I try to do it, how rarely have I actually succeeded. It's very humbling, actually, when you realize how hard it is to break out of your own training. It's very, very difficult.

GLASS: And how do you feel about that? I mean, is a person only allowed on paradigmatic shift in their lifetime, you know?

GLASS: How do I think about it? I think it's very difficult. I think it's - let me put it this way. If I look at the body of work over the last 30 years and there are about 30 CDs, and if I look at it that way and if I take music that I wrote in 1969, let's say, or 1970 like music, with changing parts, of music, new parts, and then I compare it to "Dracula," something I wrote last summer; if I listen to those two pieces together they do sound like they were written - but on the other hand, if I look at pieces that were written within three or four years of each other I don't hear that. It takes a span of 10 or 15 years for me because the changes are so incremental that I don't - I can't notice them. But I can notice them over 20 or 25 years. I don't notice them over two or three years.

GLASS: I have to say one of the things as a listener that's striking about the newer pieces is that they seem much more romantic and melodic.

GLASS: Exactly. And you see that was the - you see, it depends where you start. Had I started perhaps with the romantic music I would've ended up writing minimal music. But I started writing minimal music so I end up writing romantic music. Basically, whatever point I started was, I left that point.

GROSS: Composer Philip Glass and his cousin Ira Glass, the host of "The American Life," recorded on stage at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1999. Philip Glass is celebrating his 75th birthday today, which is why this evening was chosen for the U.S. premiere of his "Symphony No. 9" at Carnegie Hall. You can hear the first movement on our website, Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Leonard Cohen's new album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.