I could not miss the opportunity to be an auditor to a local event consisting of an hour's conversation with Philip Glass, could I? No, I could not.
The event was evidently intended to promote Glass's annual September arts festival down in Carmel Valley, the Days and Nights Festival. I'd heard of this, but had never gone. Maybe this year I will, especially as the organizers promised to send everyone in the audience a reminder e-mail.
Festival staff photographer Arturo Bejar interviewed Glass about the Festival and a lot of other things. And, luckily for us, Glass agreed to go to a handy piano and play a piece of his music. At one point Glass mildly balked on being asked to tell the audience a story he'd just recounted to Bejar in private. Bejar: "Objection to repetition? From you?" Glass: "Wise guy."
The story was one of many things that illustrated Glass's artistic principles, which amount to a curious, receptive spiritual/emotional response to art. He said to always ask composers or other music writers, "Where does the music come from?" You'll always get an answer, and it may not be what you expect. Glass practices a restless career of collaboration with musicians from a wide variety of traditions, taking sometimes days of work together to find a mutual groove, but it's always worthwhile. (He likes music different from his own, for why should he want to listen to someone else be him?) When he asks, he gets answers like, "My grandfather fire has no tongue, so when he wishes to speak, he does so through me." Ravi Shankar just pointed to the photo of his guru that he kept by his bedside. Glass's own answer? "Music is a place, like Chicago or Indianapolis. A good musician goes there, and can take you along."
Glass said that, whether in collaborating or composing a solo piece, "the best thing to do is not to know what to do." Because then what you end up doing will be new. If you know what to do, you'll just do what you've done before. "Does that make sense?" he asked anxiously. (Of course, there are those who'd say Glass himself has just done the same thing over and over for a half century, but those are the people who aren't listening very closely.)
But what he said that most resonated with me was: "The ground zero of music is the emotions." This ties in with what I call Keller's Law, which is what my friend DGK, and I in his footsteps, are always telling people who call us too analytical: Emotional response to music comes first; it's what music is for. Intellectual analysis comes afterwards, and there's no point in analyzing music you didn't respond to emotionally first. The opposite of Glass is Augenmusik, work that exists to be analyzed on the page by the eye and whose construction is undetectable by the ear.
Glass's approach is one that hasn't gotten much favor, and still attracts scorn in some quarters. He pointed out that, despite his sterling credentials - Juilliard graduate, student of Nadia Boulanger - he spent years earning his living as a plumber, driving a cab, moving furniture. "I was offered my first teaching job when I was 72. I turned it down. They said it's never too late. I said oh yes it is!"
He had to leave (for a red-eye back to New York, ugh), but the mutual friends (Chip and Janice) who'd alerted me to this event introduced me to Arturo, and the four of us went out for Chinese and a wide-ranging conversation over music, photography, computers. This is something I don't get to do very often. I'm usually at home listening to music by Philip Glass, as I am now.