Born in Baltimore in 1937, Philip Glass began studying the violin at age six but reports that his serious interest in music didn’t begin until he took up the flute two years later. After his sophomore year in high school, he entered the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He graduated at age 19 and determined to become a composer, moved to New York in order to attend the Julliard School. A few years later he was in Paris for intensive study with Nadia Boulanger, and at that time he was hired by a filmmaker to transcribe the Indian music of Ravi Shankar. For the next ten years, Glass composed a large collection of new music, some of it for the Mabou Mines Theater (Glass was one of the cofounders of that company) but most of it for his own performing group, the Philip Glass Ensemble. In 1976 Einstein on the Beach initiated a series of Glass operas that include Satyagraha and Akhnaten. He has written music for the theater and for dance as well as scores for movies, including Mishima, The Thin Blue Line, Koyaanisquatsi, and Powaqqatsi. He lives in New York City.
In 1966, Glass made the first of many trips to India. His Buddhist study and meditation practice began at that time.
This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov together with Robert Coe, author, critic, and playwright, whose book Post-Shock: The Emergence of the American Avant-garde will be published next year by W.W. Norton. Lynn Davis’s photographs were taken in August 1991 at Glass’s summer home in Canada.
Tricycle: As your Buddhist studies followed an interest in yoga, let’s start there. That puts us back in 1962, when even a yoga teacher was hard to come by.
Philip Glass: I found one in the Yellow Pages, under the Y’s. For the next three years I studied with Indian yoga teachers, including one who started me being a vegetarian.
Tricycle: And did yoga put you under some kind of Eastern umbrella that extended to Buddhism?
Philip Glass: I never heard anything about Buddhism through my yoga teachers. It was through John Cage that I knew anything at all, through his book Silence. And just a year or two before that, the first really good edition of the I Ching came out, which I knew about through an English painter who had joined the Native American Church and was a peyote eater. Throughout the late Fifties and early Sixties the painters were the most adventurous people in the arts, the ones most committed to searching out new ideas. So it’s not surprising that I would know of the I Ching through a painter. And then John Cage. I certainly did not learn about him at music school. He was not considered a serious musical influence at that time. Certainly not by the people at Julliard. Then in Silence there were all these references to Zen koans. But the big explosion in the culture happened in 1968 when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi. They brought back Indian culture. Only after that did people like Ravi Shankar begin performing in large concert halls—and filling them. George Harrison made Ravi Shankar a household name. But when I started out, any kind of Eastern interest was still pretty marginal.
Tricycle: What were you reading?
Philip Glass: Well, there was an odd assortment of things like Marco Pallis’s Peaks and Lamas, and then the yoga books by Theos Bernard. But he also wrote about Tibet. Bernard had gone to Tibet in the late Thirties. But see, from reading Bernard and from reading Charles Waddell, I figured out that one of the gateways to Tibet was the Darjeeling district. It was still a thriving, culturally intact Tibetan community, not yet disrupted by the Tibetan refugees that came soon after. Another interesting person I read at that time was Arthur Avalon. He had another name: Sir John George Woodruffe. He wrote the Serpent Power and several other books. He concentrated on the yoga that developed in the Bengali parts of India, and that led me to Ramakrishna. But I didn’t get to India until 1965.
Tricycle: After working with Ravi Shankar in Paris?
Philip Glass: Yes. I had received a fellowship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1964. For extra money, I took a job transcribing music for Ravi Shankar. He had been invited to Paris by Conrad Rook to write the score for the film Chappaqua.
Tricycle: Had you worked with Indian music before?
Philip Glass: I had never even heard Indian music before! Funny, isn’t it?
Tricycle: Yes. Because in another two years it was on everybody’s transistor radios.
Philip Glass: It seemed to have happened overnight. But in order to find a way of notating the music, I made my first on-the-spot analysis of how Indian music was put together.
Tricycle: How did you notate it?
Philip Glass: The trick, of course, was to take a medium that was based on a different principle of organization and to write it in a language developed for Western music. Western notation was developed for music that is organized along Western lines.
Tricycle: There has been criticism of the interpretation you made of Indian music at that time. And haven’t you yourself referred to your own music of the late Sixties as having grown from mistakes that you made about the structure of Indian music?
Philip Glass: I’m not sure it was a mistake. But it was a very narrow reading.
Tricycle: Wasn’t there a real misunderstanding of the structure? That the central technique of Indian music is additive?
Philip Glass: That’s what I thought it was. And that was a misapprehension. I thought I was listening to music that was built in an additive way, but it turned out it really wasn’t. It is built in a cyclic way. And that turned out to be very useful, because the misunderstanding, the use of an additive process, became, in fact, the way I began to write music.
Tricycle: Did you get to India through Ravi Shankar?
Philip Glass: No. Through Swami Satchidananda. I had met him in Paris when he was en route to New York. He had a yoga ashram in Sri Lanka, that is, in Ceylon, and he invited me to study there. This was in the fall of 1966. I was married to JoAnne Akalaitis then, and we went off to India overland, the classic route: through Turkey by train, through Iran and Afghanistan by bus, and into Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, and then into the Punjab. When I got to New Delhi there was a letter waiting for me from Swami Satchidananda: “Dear Student: You’ll be happy to know that I have had a tremendous reception in New York and have started a school here, so there is no reason to go to Ceylon. Please come back to New York. You can study with me here.” Well, I had no intention of returning before seeing India, and because of the Bernard books we ended up in Darjeeling, but with Kalimpong as our goal.
Tricycle: Were you deliberately in search of a teacher?
Philip Glass: I was interested in something more exotic than studying yoga in New York. I was ready for an experience in India in a way that, for example, Bernard had had. My question was whether the teachers who appeared in those books were still around; and more specifically, were the teachings that I had read about just book learning, or were they practiced?
Tricycle: By 1967 you were back in New York, fresh from India and doing beginning meditation practices; and your minimalist compositions of the years 1967, 1968, and 1969 to some extent evolved out of the work you did with Ravi Shankar. Yet you have denied a common assumption that this music was influenced by meditation practice, and you have also been quick to disclaim any association between your work and so-called meditation music.
Philip Glass: At the time, there were a lot of composers doing similar experiments with composition, and they hadn’t been to India. They didn’t have Buddhist teachers, and they hadn’t been studying yoga since 1961.
Tricycle: By around 1968, there were articles on the “new meditation music” that referred to you, Terry Riley, Lamont Young, and Steve Reich.
Philip Glass: I have always considered that a misconception.
Tricycle: Let’s clarify something: meditation music does not imply that meditation is the inspiration for the music, or that the music comes from the experience of meditation, but that the music itself promotes—or induces—a contemplative state of mind. A mind that is encouraged to find its own resting place rather than get jerked around by auditory emotive buttons.
Philip Glass: If you go to any of these float tanks or new-age spas, what’s the music that they play? They don’t play Terry or Lamont or me. They have “new-age music,” which doesn’t sound the same. The music that the critics thought was that music hadn’t even been written yet. It came later.
Tricycle: Was there no common source for the minimal music that was written in the late Sixties?
Philip Glass: What’s confusing here is that by 1968 North America was awash with ideas of a new culture, and the associations are inescapable.
Tricycle: Is it completely coincidental that at the same time as meditation practice enters North America in a big way, a movement in music appears with obvious parallels to meditation—music that, for example, denies habitual patterns of expectation, breaks the convention of beginnings and endings, eliminates crescendos, and dissolves the dualities of peaks and valleys?
Philip Glass: There are other sources.
Tricycle: Such as?
Philip Glass: Samuel Beckett. Don’t forget that I was working with the Mabou Mines Theater at the time. And in those days we were all completely involved with Beckett.
Tricycle: How does Beckett’s influence translate in musical terms?
Philip Glass: Non-narrative theater or non-narrative art is not based on theme and development but on a different structure. The influences are not Indian alone. Beckett was a big influence. So was Brecht. Genet, too.
Tricycle: Can you say something about the parallels to the dharma?
Philip Glass: These writers took the subject out of the narrative. They broke the pattern of the reader identifying with the main character.
Tricycle: How is that accomplished?
Philip Glass: Brecht does it with irony, as in Mother Courage. Beckett does it through fragmentation, as in the theater piece Play. And Genet does it through transcendent vision. Miracle of the Rose is an example.
Tricycle: Is it the detachment from character identification that apprehends a dharmic sensibility?
Philip Glass: It has to do with the self-grasping or self-cherishing mind. Brecht is the obvious example of trying to go beyond the self-cherishing mind. But in each case, the attempt is the basis for defining the artist as avant-garde.
Tricycle: What accounts for this?
Philip Glass: World War I saw the end of a nineteenth-century Romantic idealism. These men came after that. They had lived through that disillusionment, and it produced an attitude that was freshly and newly critical of the Western tradition that landed the world in such a mess. Then, of course, it is even more intense for the generation after World War II. That’s us. By the Sixties, coincidences of cultural ideas were going on. On the one hand, you have an explosion of Indian culture, and on the other, a reaction to nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative art. These two cross-currents tended to reinforce each other. When I came back from that first trip to India, I started looking at paintings by Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, and again I saw work based on a different kind of thinking, work that was as different from abstract expressionism as abstract art was from the post-Dadaists. Genet and Beckett were two of the most important people in this respect, and you can trace that back to Duchamp, if you like.
Tricycle: That’s an interesting crossroad, because the Duchamp-Cage-Zen connection is probably both the quietest and the most effective Buddhist influence in this culture. And if you really want to get into Western Buddhist genealogies, you can connect Cage and Genet to Artaud and to Bali.
Philip Glass: I’m not trying to deny the Indian connection. But the base of it was much broader.
Tricycle: Well, it’s curious. At a certain point there is the Indian explosion and what the press is calling “minimal meditation music.” Yet throughout all of your interviews, you have always said, “No, they’ve got it all wrong.” Yet the parallel remains; but unlike your contemporaries, there has been an aspect of your music—that obsessive, compulsive, driven dimension—that, shall we say, is even “Faustian.” This seems to be about a Western sense of control. And one could see, in retrospect, how that would lead you back to a Western tradition.
Philip Glass: I think that’s accurate. And another dimension to this is that the word minimalist was originally applied to visual artists that I knew quite well—Sol Lewitt, Don Judd, and Robert Morris. If you spoke with them, they would probably not make any reference to the Indian influence at all. There was a cultural change of mind that was happening in the Sixties that embraced all of these art forms and drew from many sources: European as well as Far Eastern, Indian as well as American. Yet within all these influences and changes, it never occurred to me that my music was about meditation. The theater was an important source for me. A lot of my work came out of a need to evolve a musical language that could be married to the theatrical language that was going on around me.
Tricycle: And this musical language had no concrete reference.
Philip Glass: That’s right. It was a self-referential musical language that was, in essence, abstract.
Tricycle: Did that commitment to an abstract language also set you apart from your peers at the time?
Philip Glass: In the late Sixties, any number of people were doing music based directly or indirectly on Indian influences. It was not uncommon to see Western musicians dressed in Indian clothes and lighting incense on stage. What I was doing was far, far away from that. I was quite content to let other people light the incense.
Tricycle: There are perhaps other ways of talking about your music and your own Buddhist meditation practice, but it’s tricky, because the newness of Buddhism in the United States fosters an irksome imperialistic tendency to co-opt ideas, people, or music, for that matter, as “Buddhist” when they are not really so. Yet in spite of this, there seem to be recognizable interconnections between your music and your studies in Buddhism.
Philip Glass: Certainly. But not in the music itself. The real impact of Buddhist practice affects how you live your life on a daily basis, not how you do your art. How you live day by day, moment by moment. The impact of Buddhism is not theoretical, as in how you paint or how you write a novel. That’s hardly as interesting as how you live on a daily basis, don’t you think? Aspects of Buddhist studies, such as the development of compassion and equanimity and mindfulness, are the practical aspects of daily life.
Tricycle: This is a big departure from the exoticism you pursued in India thirty years ago.
Philip Glass: You start out pursuing the exotic, and it brings you around to the most basic daily activities. Also, the music world encourages such an exhausting and compulsive way of living that it is important to balance your life against the demands of that kind of career.
Tricycle: It took a generation to discover that it’s about how you put your shoes on in the morning.
Philip Glass: But that’s what turns out to be the most interesting thing. That’s why I de-emphasize the impact on the actual music itself.
Tricycle: Even though certain aspects of the Buddhist path may have unexpectedly routed you from the exotic to the mundane, other aspects of Buddhist meditation practice complement the classical training of a Western musician: discipline, rigor, the relationship between formal structure and personal creativity, between discipline and playfulness.
Philip Glass: That’s what you learned from a teacher like Nadia Boulanger. Though actually, I was already pretty disciplined by the time I got to her. Ane Pema Chodron (from Gampo Abbey) gave me a pin with the abbey’s motto, which is the Tibetan word for “discipline.” And I said, “Pema, this is the pin I don’t need!”
Tricycle: The late Zen teacher Maurine Stuart studied piano with Boulanger some fifteen years before you did, and she often spoke of Boulanger in the same terms that one might speak of a spiritual teacher.
Philip Glass: I can understand that. Before I went to Paris I had acquired very good work habits, which in itself is a discipline. But Boulanger carried the idea of discipline to another level. She added something that I became familiar with later through Tibetan practice, something that I can only describe as a devotional aspect of music study, and anyone who studied with her could talk about that.
Tricycle: Were you inspired by Boulanger’s devotion?
Philip Glass: Boulanger set herself up as an incomparable model of discipline and dedication, and she expected you to be just like her. And that was almost impossible, because she seemed beyond what any human being could really hope to be. Yet, she did it in a very simple way—I would not say gracious, no one ever said that Boulanger was gracious—but she did it in a simple, dear way. When I studied with her, for example, the only way to live up to her standards and to turn out the amount of work she expected every week was to get up between 6 and 7 in the morning and work all day long. And if I did that every day, I would turn up at my lesson and Boulanger gave me the impression that I had done just about the very minimum.
Tricycle: You have also referred to Boulanger as a monster.
Philip Glass: In the sense that she was a relentless, unwavering example that she expected you to follow. One day I came to a harmony lesson. She saw an error in something called “hidden parallel fifths.” She studied the page in silence and then turned toward me. With a look of understanding and compassion she asked how I was feeling. I said, “I’m feeling fine, Mademoiselle.” She asked, “Do you have a fever? Do you have a headache?” And I didn’t get what was going on. “I know of a good psychiatrist. Seeing a therapist can be very confidential, and one need not be embarrassed at all.” I explained that I didn’t need that kind of help.
Finally, she said, “Well I don’t understand.” And I said, “You don’t understand what?” And she said. “This!” Then she wheeled around and pointed at the mistake I had made. “How else do you explain the state of mind that produced this error? You’re so distracted, so out of touch with reality; if you were really conscious of what you were doing, this could not have happened. How can you live such a distracted, unconscious life that you would bring this in here?” That was Mademoiselle Boulanger.
Tricycle: What effect did that have?
Philip Glass: I decided to find a way of guaranteeing without fail that the lessons would be perfect. I devised a system that entailed a mathematical analysis for each notation so that visually the page took on a completely different look. For the next year and a half every exercise that I brought to her had that analysis, and she never made any comment about it. Amazing.
Tricycle: What were the aspects of her teaching that became more clear to you through Buddhist practice?
Philip Glass: Her insistence on conscious living, on what you might call “self-remembering,” though she certainly did not use that term. Her conviction that attention to detail was not just an exercise but a state of mind that reflected the quality of your life.
Tricycle: Were there aspects of meditation practice that were familiar to you through music practice?
Philip Glass: Boulanger concentrated on three things, and they were, in a way, a preparation for working with dharma teachers: first, the basics, the fundamentals of harmony and counterpoint; the second was paying attention, and this was her hardest lesson (and, of course, so much of meditation practice is about paying attention); the third point, which she never stopped talking about, was “making an effort.” And that’s something else that we hear from our dharma teachers. At the beginning, middle, and end of every lesson, her mantra was, “You must make an effort!”
Paying attention, making an effort, and always the basics—I did that for two years. If you learn only that, you can go a long way. In dharma, too, the first lessons are the best lessons.
What you can learn from both kinds of practice is patience. You learn that what we want to accomplish is going to take time and demand patience. You do the same thing over and over again. Maybe you get a little better at it—slowly. And then, also, the revelation that the teaching is in the practice. You practice the piano not in order to perform but for the sake of practicing the piano. With music, you don’t practice and then one day become a concert pianist. You are that. Practice is as much an expression of that as of practice itself. There’s another thing that happens to me now, too. I’ve been doing a piano recital for the last year and a half, the same recital, and I’ve done it about forty times. And people say, “How can you keep doing it? Doesn’t it get boring?” Part of the practice is learning how to play the same recital and find it interesting every time.
Tricycle: Can you apply that to your meditation also? Meditation, too, can become boring.
Philip Glass: You have to figure out how it isn’t boring. Right now I’m practicing for a concert that I won’t even do for two months. In a certain way, I’m playing the concert. It won’t be different.
Tricycle: With enough attention, you can eliminate the gap between the present and the future?
Philip Glass: But you don’t postpone life, with the result that your practice for life and your real life are the same. Rubinstein was playing Chopin at the end of his life as if he had just discovered him. Bernstein played the music of Mahler as if it had just been written. This happens to musicians all the time, and if it doesn’t, you have nothing to give. You have to play each piece as if it were new. I do that now with music I wrote twelve years ago. I’m not pretending it’s new. It has to be new. You can’t fake it. To Boulanger, Mozart was a contemporary composer; Bach was totally alive.
Tricycle: Have there ever been conflicts between Tibetan practice and making music?
Philip Glass: My Tibetan friends have always encouraged my music practice. I’ve been encouraged to devote myself entirely to music. There is some kind of recognition on their part, I think, that music is a kind of “practice,” too—that this is practice in their terms. This is a practice of a kind that need not be profane or self-cherishing.
Tricycle: And then, too, you did a series of operas with overt social themes.
Philip Glass: I did three operas about social change through nonviolence. It started with Einstein on the Beach, which I did with Bob Wilson, though at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing and would not have seen it that way. But with the next one, Satyagraha (in which Mahatma Gandhi was the main character), I was consciously thinking about a religious revolutionary. Again withAhknaten and with his impact on the social order—in terms of the society as a whole or the individual in society. In my own work, those polarities went from The Making of Another from Planet Eight by Doris Lessing, which is about the transcendence of a whole society, to a personal hallucination such as Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. That’s the range, and the concern reflects Buddhist practice.
Tricycle: How deliberately did that enter your music?
Philip Glass: At a certain point, I wanted the music to reflect my feelings of social responsibility. Take the image of the artist as someone cut off from society. We learn from dharma teachers that this separateness is an illusion, and things begin to shift—we begin to see ourselves as connected.
Tricycle: In the opera trilogy Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Ahknaten (about the Egyptian king), the agents of these revolutions (of physics, of politics, of religion) were all individual great men. The movements that followed would have been impossible without these three individuals, and yet all three of them ended in some kind of disaster or failure along with great triumph. From Einstein, we get Hiroshima. . . .
Philip Glass: Not only Hiroshima, but also the paradox of quantum mechanics, which was a terrible failure that Einstein himself never recovered from. Gandhi lived to see the India that he had fought for torn apart by religious war and division. And Ahknaten, after seventeen years of reign, was almost forgotten. He was eliminated from the list of kings.
Tricycle: Still, there is a deified dimension to these heroes as you present them here.
Philip Glass: Is that a paradox? In Buddhism, we see the deification of the teachers all the time, although the teachings themselves point us in a different direction.
Tricycle: In both your version of Gandhi and in Richard Attenborough’s film, we see an exclusively deified portrait of Gandhi—air-brushed in terms of what we know about his personal life.
Philip Glass: I did not idealize Gandhi. That is, I never worked with the real Gandhi, and I took poetic license or artistic liberty to do that. As long as we are going to read every day about wars and rapes and mayhem, let’s read about that, too. It was just a tiny bit of balancing. The Satyagraha movement and Gandhi himself have been kept alive by politicians, particularly by Martin Luther King, Jr., but also by artists. There is scarcely a political movement of the twentieth century that doesn’t go back to Gandhi.
Nothing that Gandhi wanted to do worked. Not one thing he tried succeeded. For a monumental failure, he is definitely one of the great men of our time. It’s easy to be an idealist when you’re twenty. Try being one when you’re fifty. Or when you’re seventy, as he was. I never went to the “real” man as a source for the opera. I idealized the existing myth.
Tricycle: So addressing the illusion of a separate self for example, or taking on a social issue for the benefit of society, justifies liberal artistic interpretation?
Philip Glass: The artist who does that, in being a purveyor of the idea, becomes partly the teacher. I was not that ambitious. I never felt that I knew that much. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and interesting and wonderful about Gandhi. And I really didn’t try to explicate it anymore than that.
Tricycle: In the Glass opera Satyagraha, there is an Indian subject and an Indian story line about a great secular saint of our times. The sets are very distilled and stylized, and everything, from linguistic content, to sound—voices, pitch, rhythm—to the sets, communicates great holiness.
Philip Glass: The music does not sound Indian.
Tricycle: No. But there is an overt transcendence to the music that we had been hearing for several years before Satyagraha.
Philip Glass: But it’s also true that Satyagraha makes a very big statement. I think that the occasion of an opera about Gandhi inspired that “transcendent” quality to go to another level.
Tricycle: And are we still getting it all wrong to make associations between this music and a personal spiritual evolution?
Philip Glass: In 1979, when I wrote Satyagraha, I was forty-two, just entering my middle age, so to speak. And that’s what we have come to expect from artists, with or without a spiritual practice. The late works of Beethoven are transcendent, and so are the late works of Shostakovich. You can see that with some visual artists, too. There are changes, I think, that you can find in the work of any artist who has seriously plied his trade for a solid twenty years and where the intention of the work has been honorable. So this is not personal to me. But you know, the most beautiful part of Satyagraha, to me, is in the very last scene, when Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “I have known many a birth and you have not; and I have come to be reborn to move and act with men and to set virtue on her seat again.” That’s what he’s saying. That is the Bodhisattva Vow: “I’ve come back on earth to move with men and to place virtue on her seat again.” I’m not certain, but I wouldn’t want to deny that the music is inspired by the text. Because of my interests, I do use texts and materials that inspire transcendence in some pieces. But not in others. But still, I would have to say, Buddhism has affected my life more directly than my work.
Tricycle: How you put on your shoes?
Philip Glass: There is a kind of ordinariness, a kind of ordinary thinking—is there such as thing as high ordinary?—I mean, there is a way of thinking about ordinary life in a distinctly Buddhist way; and I think that’s the real practice. Funny, isn’t it? It turns out that the pie in the sky is the same pie that’s in your refrigerator….
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.