“Throwback Thursday”? Is that a thing now? I’m informed so. In which case (and despite it being Friday), since simply everyone seems to be interviewing Philip Glass at the moment, here’s an interview I did with him for Metro back in 2009 prior to Manchester’s Futuresonic Festival. Whatever your views on his music (and mine seem to swing from one extreme to another with almost every new piece of his that I hear), there’s no denying that he’s an engaging, generous and endlessly intriguing interviewee.
No-one’s likely to mistake Futuresonic for a festival of contemporary classical music. But if you’re going to throw a token classical gig into your genre-bending celebration of dubstep, deep house and italo disco, you might as well think big. And in Philip Glass, Futuresonic’s bagged pretty much the most famous classical composer on the planet.
It’s hard to overstate Glass’s influence. His haunting, pulsing film scores – from cult documentaries to blockbusters like The Truman Show and Candyman – are instantly recognisable and widely imitated. Brian Eno, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Pet Shop Boys and Aphex Twin have all listened to, and learned from, Philip Glass. He’s on the soundtrack of Watchmen…and Grand Theft Auto IV. He’s been mocked on South Park. Unsurprisingly, then, he’s not unduly troubled by his status as Futuresonic’s solitary “classical” presence:
“I’ve been called a lot of things over the years and they don’t mean very much to me. As long as I’m not being described as ‘atonal’ or ‘minimal’. Whether it’s called popular or classical music, the interesting thing today is that the barriers are coming down. After 20 or 30 years of battering away at these labels, younger composers are feeling able to work in whatever way they like, and I’m very glad to be part of that.”
So Glass finds nothing strange in being part of a line-up that includes DJ Kode 9, Anti-Pop Consortium and a team of Last.FM DJs.
“That they’re interested in popular music, digital music – I’m very glad to be included in that. The Ensemble that I made my name with in the 1970s is still working – the synthesizer sounds have improved a lot – but we’ve kept up to date with digital technology. My company has always tried to do that. We were amongst the first to put concerts online.”
All the more surprising then, that Glass isn’t appearing with his legendary, synth-led Ensemble, but instead performing an evening of solo piano music without a mike or mixing desk in sight. A good, old-fashioned solo piano recital in a digital festival: it’s a vintage Glass paradox. But for a composer who’s increasingly turned to classical concertos and symphonies (he’s about to begin his Ninth) while the rest of the world has been catching up with his early electronica, the problem is nonexistent.
“In my solo piano concerts I don’t have an intermission; and there’s no Chopin, no Schubert – it’s all me! I play music from over 30 years, going back to 1979. But because of the fact that it’s someone playing a piano, it’s automatically viewed as a classical ‘recital’. Yet when I perform my amplified music, it’s viewed differently. I do play in concert halls, but I write dance music and film music also. The range of things that interests me is much wider. But the other day, someone told me one of my Etudes for solo piano reminded them of a Schubert Impromptu, and I thought, ‘what a compliment’!”
And Glass’s readiness to take that compliment is surely the most important message he brings to Futuresonic. “Here’s a question: are we at a point in the history of music when we can look back and not feel embarrassed? Art isn’t like science. I’ll be playing on a concert grand piano that was built no more than 20 years ago in New York or Hamburg; the result of 300 years of continual improvement. Technology does that. But art doesn’t. Music doesn’t always go forward – it goes sideways, and sometimes backwards.” Five decades in, Glass’s extraordinary career continues to prove a universal point: it’s not the technology that matters, it’s the music.