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From Dashboard to Keyboard

Philip Glass Doesn't Drive a Taxicab Anymore but Still, Some Nights It's Just Him at the Wheel

March 07, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time, more than 20 years ago, when someone hailing a cab in New York City might have been picked up by a certain aspiring composer, namely Philip Glass. Before his innovative theater piece "Einstein on the Beach," the collaboration with Robert Wilson in 1976 that made him a celebrity, Glass often manned a cab by day. In his off hours, he invented his soon-to-be-popular mode of minimalism.

The cab-driving is now a romantic footnote in his personal history. From such a humble beginning, Glass has risen to an almost unprecedented height, becoming one of the most, if not the most, recognizable and successful composers alive. While his reputation among critics wavers wildly, his faithful following and steady flow of commissions keep him busy and in the public eye.

He has written for a variety of instrumental settings and idioms, including ambitious opera and multimedia projects. But when he arrives at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Monday, it will be in the spartan, stripped-down format of a solo piano concert.

In addition to his other activities, Glass has performed his music solo for 25 years.

"I get a lot out of it," he said last week, on the phone from his home in Manhattan. "For one thing, financially, the only time a composer makes any money is when he plays the piano. But more than that, the activity of playing the music brings the cycle of creativity to a completion. . . . I find no other way that is as satisfying."

As a composer who necessarily spends much of his creative life in solitude, Glass also appreciates interaction with a crowd. "The presence of the audience affirms the dialogue, which I imagine that I'm in with the public."

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Glass returned recently from Brazil, where he finished writing music for a collaboration with Wilson called "Monsters of Grace," a piece for "projected three-dimensional computer images, four singers and my ensemble. Nice description, huh?" Glass asked, laughing.

Can it be described as musical theater? "Yes, sure. I don't know what else to call it."

Redefining musical conventions is nothing new for Glass, who has collaborated with and based his work on other artistic sources including existing works by Jean Cocteau and David Bowie. Glass' latest release is an orchestral revision of music from "Heroes," Bowie and Brian Eno's experimental album from the late '70s.

Bowie and Eno also applied their unique instrumental approach to the album "Low," from which Glass created his "Low Symphony" four years ago. Glass sees his involvement with Bowie's music extending to one more piece, based on the 1979 Bowie album "Lodger."

"I suggested to [Bowie] that maybe he write original material based on 'Lodger' and that I work from that" to complete the trilogy, Glass said. "We may find another process. I've got a few years to think about it."

Bowie, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, has suggested that he may create music based on Glass' score for the film "Mishima."

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While Glass and Bowie come from different musical worlds, both have been rebels and both became very successful.

Through his shifting personae and experimentalism, Bowie has lampooned and embraced rock traditions. Glass chafed against the intellectuality of serialism--the traditional 12-tone system of composition--and instead has written music with repeating arpeggios and a steady pulse, which attracted a new, young audience and fueled detractors.

Is rebellion a point of kinship?

"I didn't start making a living at music until 1979, when I was 41," Glass replied. "During the time that I first met David, I still had day jobs. By the time I first met him, he was doing the [Ziggy Stardust] stuff, so he was already a personality, if I could use that word.

"I think the commonality is a somewhat different one, and I think it's an authentic one. He comes out of the world of art and ideas. Here's a man who's not coming out of a New Jersey garage band. He's a very sophisticated person, and the world of art is something he's very knowledgeable about. This is also my background. I was first supported and presented in galleries and museums in New York.

"I came out of that community, much as he did. When I first met him in the early '70s, he told me he was a 'painter using rock 'n' roll as the canvas.' "

In a similar way, Glass continues to use old and new musical settings as his canvases.

Underlying almost all of his music is a broad sense of theater.

" 'Poetry' is a general word, not just about words," Glass said. "In the same way, 'theater' is, for me, a general description of a process of creation rather than what you see on the stage."

And that goes for a stage equipped only with a piano.

* The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presents Philip Glass on Monday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $15-$25. (714) 854-4646.

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