Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

Composer Philip Glass talks about music, his inspiration and more

What first drew you to music?
I can hardly remember: I was playing by the time I was six, and performing by 10. There was no question about whether I would be a musician – I already was a musician. The only question was where I would study, and who I would study with.

What was your big breakthrough?
There isn’t one break, there’s a series of breaks, and they go on for a long time. At 20, I was writing music for dance and theatre companies (1); from there, things continued to happen. Eventually, all these dots line up and become a life in music.

I hear you dislike the term “minimalist” (2). Should composers resist such labels?
It’s not that I dislike the term – it was accurate for 10 years, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. But you have to realise that no one’s written “minimalist” music in 30 years: it’s like people talking about impressionism when nobody’s painting like that any more. Young composers are writing wonderful new music that we don’t even have a name for yet.

Where do you seek inspiration?
In stories, images, movement – if I’m working with a dance company, I actually go and watch the dancers; I don’t think many composers do that. And within the world of music, from a great master of another tradition. I was Ravi Shankar’s assistant in the 60s (3), and his ideas about the language of music had a tremendous effect on my writing.

Do you care about fame?
It’s a complete pain in the neck. Someone always says, “I don’t want to bother you, but …” and then the bothering begins. But it’s not as bad for me as for some. I’ve been walking down the street with Paul Simon (4)and almost been accosted by fans. And I have a very famous actor friend who can’t even leave her house.

You’ve collaborated with some huge artists (5). Who would you still like to work with?
I’ve been talking to Bill Viola, the video artist, for a year or two; and Ornette Coleman and I have had a project under discussion for 20 years. There’s just not enough time in the world to do everything you want to do.

You’re incredibly prolific (6): what’s your secret?
I’ve always just worked hard. I didn’t make a living until I was in my 40s – I did construction work, moved furniture, anything. Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist. We do it on our own, and we take our chances.

What’s the worst thing anyone ever said about you?
In the 1970s, a paper ran the headline “Glass invents new sonic torture”. I saved that one – I thought it was very funny.

What advice would you give a young composer?
I have one word for them: “independence”. When I was a kid, people threw things at me, or shouted and screamed, to disrupt my concerts. But I’ve always gone ahead and done what I wanted to do without paying much attention to anybody.