I had the chance to sit down with Philip Glass two weeks ago to discuss the upcoming release of his Complete Piano Etudes on album as well as printed sheet music on November 25th
Richard Guérin: When did you begin to play piano?
Philip Glass: Oh, probably around 6 or 7 years old. But I was just really taking flute lessons; my brother was taking piano lessons. And we weren’t aloud to have two instruments at home. My parents would only pay for one music lesson per week for each kid, but I wanted to do piano too. The teacher would come to the house, give my brother lessons and I would sit in the room. When the teacher would leave, I would run to the piano play the lesson. Then my brother would chase me around the house because he thought I had stolen his lesson. Which was true, I had. But I didn’t really begin practicing piano seriously until I was about fifteen.
R: What attracted you to it?
PG: Well, I could play a lot of music on the piano, whereas the flute was limited. The flute is a single line instrument, the range was limited, and the repertoire was limited. I couldn’t play enough music by myself that was satisfying; I could play some of the unaccompanied Bach Sonatas, but they’re not easy, and I was a kid. With the piano, I was attracted by the range of the instrument and the range of the music.
RG: Did you think that it would be a good thing to do if you were going to be a composer?
PG: Well I did it after I became a composer. I really started practicing at Juilliard where I was given an extra music teacher and I had time in the practice room. That’s where I put in hours a day, but I’ll never be able to play like Maki Namekawa can play. I think she practices five or six hours a day and she’s probably done that for thirty years. So when you hear people like Maki, they’re professional piano players. Most composers aren’t professional piano players. Gershwin could play well, but he had other people play his music. It’s nice to listen the piano roll versions because you can hear how he played it. Oscar Levant probably played Rhapsody and Blue far better than (Gerswhin) did. On the other hand, if you had a choice, which one would you want to go hear? If you could have heard Gershwin do it you would have. It’s not completely true with Rachmaninoff, who was a great pianist and a great composer. There are examples like that. There’s a story about Ravel who was playing, I think, his G major Piano Concerto once, he came off the stage, probably not having played it very well, he said “well fortunately the composer wasn’t in the house tonight!” So composers are forgiven to a certain degree. There have been some amazingly good ones, certainly Liszt must have been, and certainly Chopin probably was. We know that Rachmaninoff was, but it’s a short list really.
RG: It makes me think, of the piano music that you play, the repertory ranges from Mad Rush, from 1979, through these new pieces. What’s your relationship today to this music?
PG: The point of the etudes, originally, was to strengthen my piano playing and that actually worked. I actually got to be a better player by learning those pieces – that would be the first ten. Those are the ones I recorded for Orange Mountain. Then I wrote the second ten. The first ten I wrote in the 90’s through 2001. The second ten I wrote in 2004 to the present. So the second ten are more recent. In the second ten I did not put restrictions on the technique. So, for example, Maki she can play the second ten; I can play the first ten and maybe a couple from the second 10. I can play No.17 and maybe No.16… but here’s the point…If I wanted to take 6 months off and really practice piano I could learn them. But at the same time I could write a string quartet or a film score (in that time). If I ask my musician friends what you would you rather have do: have me write some more music or play the piano? they would say, “please write some more music!”
On the other hand I enjoy playing the piano. I can play the pieces in a way that other people don’t. So lets take the first ten that I play: In the first ten I play with much more rubato, I play the tempos slower, phrase it differently, it makes you think what it would be like if I played the second ten…but guess what your never going to find out! (laughs)
But then, I heard Maki play number 20, and said oh, “I’m not going to play it better than that.” That will always be true, there will always be certain things that I can do better and there will always be other people (to play them). This is the first body of work that I’m really welcoming the world of pianists into my world. We’re doing these concerts in Brooklyn in the beginning of December and they’ll be nine pianists besides myself. So everyone will play two pieces. In every city I go to, in Mexico or Poland, I get a young player they learn the new music. So the things I’m doing right now is that I’m meeting younger players and they’re learning the music and they all want to play the music. So what I’d like to see happen is that with this music, this piano music, a lot of people could play this music. I think that’s what we’re looking for.
RG: I started considering the roll of a piano in your music. Since you’re a composer that composes at the piano, unlike your other music – whether it’s orchestra or opera – you are writing for other people. In case of the etudes, at least the first book of etudes, you were writing for yourself. In terms of how you talk about your own music I’ve noticed things that certain pieces are very personally important to you. Now that you’re publishing the music is there a process of letting go?
PG: Well I was talking to Michael Reeseman this morning I asked him to look at the music before we print it and he had some suggestions he said well, “…Are you going to do the indications in English or Italian?” It could be “fast” or it could be “allegro.” In the end we are going to do a little bit of a mix, but a lot of it will be in English. There are a lot of questions like that that come up.
And then he said, “…Well this place here you have an accelerando that lasts for only two beats. I said if “I don’t put an accelerando no one will play it! (at all).” Riesman said, “That’s true. What about just saying something in English.” So we talked about how other people might play the music. I can’t tell people how to play it and surely people won’t play it 100% (as written). There will be some things that I wish they had done differently. It has to be that way. Tempos are like that, I wrote down very carefully the tempos that I play, but I doubt anyone will follow those tempos very strictly. That’s not the way pianists approach music and in a way their right. I was talking to a guy, very good player, I said, “I should give you a speeding ticket,” he was playing it much to fast and he said, “I can’t play it any slower.” I said, “why can’t you play it slower?” He said, “my heart beats that speed and I have to play with my heart beat.” He’s saying basically, physically the music has to fit his physical process. His physical process is different from mine. But then at the concert he played it even faster! and he said, “OK you can give me the speeding ticket now.”