Philip Glass: “I knew many great people. So many of them are gone now”

Award-winning composer Philip Glass speaks to The Big Issue about the last time he spoke to long-term friend Leonard Cohen and his plans for the future

By the time I was 16 I was going to the University of Chicago and I was starting to write music. [Glass entered university at 15 due to an accelerated college system]. It was a very good university but they didn’t have a good music department in those days. It was a very academic university. To further my interest in music I would go to the music library and copy out the scores and learn everything I could. Chicago was a great city for music – the jazz scene was very much alive then. I heard all kinds of people there, like Billie Holiday. And they had a very good symphony orchestra so I could go down and hear a new work by Bartók. It was a good place to be at that time.

My love of music started very young. There was always music in the house. My dad had a little music shop in Baltimore. In those days you didn’t have such a thing as a megastore. My dad’s store was like a candy shop. It was very small. He would bring the records home and we would listen to them, then he’d take them back to the shop. The old 78s. That was the only way to hear new music in those days. You didn’t hear it on the radio. So we heard all kinds of things, he listened to everything from jazz to symphonic to contemporary. When I came home for vacation I would work in the store and I became the buyer. I didn’t think of music in terms of genre, just in terms of good and bad. I think to this day, I have a very cosmic taste in music.

I was three years younger than everyone else at Chicago University. I was 15, they were at least 18. But the oldest kids kind of took care of me. My family were far away in Baltimore, they knew that. I had lots of friends, tonnes of friends. I could find them in the library, the cafeteria – they were all over the place. I had a lot of fun there. By the time I was 19 I had done all my academic studies (mathematics and philosophy) so I could go to Juilliard in New York and just study music.

When I went to Paris in my 20s [Glass won a scholarship to study with the esteemed composer/composition teacher Nadia Boulanger] we studied Bach and Mozart. Because the language of music took a big step at that time, it became a very powerful form. There isn’t any popular music that goes beyond the harmonies of classical music, they’re just not there. When I came back from Paris to New York – I was about 30 – I didn’t teach music. I was already writing. If I had to do commercial music, it didn’t take me much time. I gave myself a time limit of two hours in fact. So I could make a living writing commercial music [including TV ads and cues for Sesame Street] while I was also writing an opera, music for a film or a piece of theatre. I had a command of the language due to my training.

There isn’t any popular music that goes beyond the harmonies of classical music

My younger self wouldn’t be surprised that I don’t go out a lot. Though he was more outgoing than I am now. But even when I was younger, I didn’t go to a lot of parties. I realised if I stayed out too late I couldn’t work the next morning. I remember when I came to London in the Nineties there was a lot of house music. The problem with the house music scene is they didn’t get going until one in the morning and I preferred to be asleep by then. But I stayed up and went to listen – it was the only way to hear the music. I had lots of fun doing that, and I worked with all kinds of people, doing arrangements for people like S’Express. But now my work time is so important to me. And I have lots of children and I like to spend time with them. I need to get to bed early – around midnight – then I get up around 6am and I work all day. I’m not seen much outside of my house.

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The teenage Philip would be very surprised that I could make a living making music. That I can go out and play 30 or 40 concerts a year all over the world. I had a day job until I was 42 [Glass had a moving company with his cousin – Time art critic Robert Hughes was once astonished to find him installing his dishwasher]. I would move furniture for three days, then for four days I’d stay home and write music. You could do that in those days. I was very surprised when the day came that I didn’t have to do that any more.

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The young Philip would be impressed that I got to know and work with Ravi Shankar. I was his assistant for a while. He was someone I admired, he was composing and out playing, all the things I wanted to do. I was in touch with him for 40 years, up until two or three days before he passed away. If I had to go to Los Angeles I’d go early and have lunch at his house. He always had young people around. He was a born teacher, he couldn’t stop teaching. After lunch he’d say, let’s go to the music room. And we’d go down there, four or five of us, and we’d sit down and he’d actually start giving a class. He couldn’t help himself! Those were priceless visits for me. He was quite an amazing guy.

The last time I spoke to Leonard I asked him when he was next coming to New York. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He said: “This old car isn’t leaving the garage again

I knew many great people. So many of them are gone now. I knew Doris Lessing for 30 years, Allen Ginsberg was a good friend for a long time. I’m now older than they were when they died. Leonard Cohen. I knew him for many years. The last time I spoke to him I asked him when he was next coming to New York. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He said: “This old car isn’t leaving the garage again.” At the time I didn’t really understand him. I think he was really saying goodbye. I never saw him again. He died about a week later.

I would have liked to have had more time to get to know my father. He was killed by a car when he was 67. Not that old. He didn’t get out of the way quickly enough and someone knocked him down. But generally, I don’t look back on my life. I think about what I’m doing next week. I just don’t look through the rear-view mirror. A lot of dollars I might have missed, a lot of people who have gone – there’s nothing to say about that. I have a lot of things I still want to do. I get up very early and I work all day. I’m running out of time. I’m 80. If I’m going to write 12 more symphonies I better
get going.

ENO’s Satyagraha is at London Coliseum from February 1–27 eno.org

Philip Glass’ Letter To My Younger Self appeared in Big Issue 1292, now available at The Big Issue Shop