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‘The music wars are over,’ says Philip Glass

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Philip Glass celebrated his 80th birthday on Jan. 31 with the premiere of his Eleventh Symphony, a lengthy Carnegie Hall ovation greeting the onetime maverick. For anyone who remembers just how much of a pariah Glass’s minimalism once made him — audience members yelling or throwing eggs during concerts were not unheard-of — the flood of mainstream acceptance is astonishing.

Yet few composers of Glass’s age seem to enjoy so secure a stature. He has been fabulously well recorded: Some of his own performances of early works can be heard to bracing effect in a 24-CD box set from Sony, while many of his recent creations (including the first 10 symphonies) are available on his own Orange Mountain Music label. The author of well over 200 works, he remains a deeply engaged composer — a few years ago he rewrote his Civil War opera “Appomattox” in response to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act — and an active performer with the Philip Glass Ensemble.


Boston has not always been the most welcoming arena for Glass’s music, but the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is celebrating his birthday with “Glass Works,” a Feb. 18 concert at Jordan Hall that includes his Second Symphony and “Tirol Concerto” for piano and orchestra. Glass is also composing a new piano concerto to be premiered by Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry in September.

Glass spoke to the Globe by phone from North Carolina during a busy stretch of birthday-related events.

Q. Congratulations on tuning 80.

A. Yeah, it’s an accomplishment in itself.

Q. How does it feel?


A. I feel fine. I’m working away. I don’t seem to be slowing down, I have a lot of stamina. I’m pretending I’m 60.

Q. How are you able to remain so productive at this stage of what’s already been a very prolific career?

A. I just have so many things I want to do. I got to the point where I had done the 10th symphony and I thought maybe I wasn’t going to do that anymore. Then I had some new ideas about what I could do in a new symphony. Then I was anxious to do it. So now there’s talk of a 12th symphony. I’m still very much involved with new ideas and new collaborators. There are at least two more operas I’d like to write. I hope I have time to do all this stuff. The other thing is I’m working with younger people, and that’s always good. I love the new music that people are doing. It doesn’t sound like me, I don’t sound like them. And we get along fine. The music wars are over, and we’re not starting them up again.

Q. That wasn’t the case when you came up. There were bitter divisions. And it’s very different now.

A. It’s also an attitude that I’ve cultivated in myself and that I find in others; I don’t feel like I own the music. I don’t have to defend it, I don’t have to put walls around it. All I have to do is do what I like to do. I don’t go into the art world in a combative frame of mind. I’m interested in other interpretations of what I do. I don’t insist on my pieces being done in a certain way at all. I know what I do, but if I expected people to play the piece the way I do, well, what’s the point of that? What’s interesting is when I hear other people playing my music, it changes the way I hear it [and] the way I play it.

Q. So it’s a creative exchange, rather than a one-way street.

A. Oh, for sure. And I don’t predetermine the interpretation for people. Once you give that up, all sorts of wonderful things happen.

Q. You wrote your first symphony in 1992. Why did you turn to it at that late stage?

A. I didn’t turn to it. They were commissioned pieces, almost all of them by one conductor, Dennis Russell Davies. He was playing with different orchestras. . . . I asked him, “Dennis, what’s this about, why do you keep asking for these symphonies?” And he said, “I’m not going to let you be one of those opera composers who never wrote a symphony.” So I wasn’t planning on it at all. People just asked for music, and I wrote it.

Q. How important are social issues in your music?

A. I’ve done a lot of work in terms of political and social justice as themes. “Appomattox” is an opera about 1865 and 1965. It’s about Abraham Lincoln; it’s also about Lyndon Johnson. There’s a great spirit in the young people who are making music and theater today. And it comes about in the same way that, 60 years ago, we were tormented by the McCarthy period. I saw that, and when I see what’s going on today and I’m talking to my children, I say, “You guys, let me tell you, we’ve had some real stinkers in this country. And we’re still here.” I tell them, “Democracy’s expensive. It doesn’t just happen. And we’re paying for it now.”

Q. You’ve said that the minimalism label no longer describes your music accurately. Is there a better description?

A. When people ask me what I do, I say I write theater music. It has the virtue of being true. The elements of text, image, movement, and music are present in almost everything I do. Not the symphonies, and I guess 11 symphonies can’t be ignored. But 20 or 30 ballets, a couple dozen operas, innumerable pieces for theater, film scores. . .

Q. But there are also symphonies, string quartets, piano etudes, concertos. . .

A. And I don’t ignore that, because I’ve done that as well. But my first pieces were theater pieces. I wrote music for a play when I was 20 years old, I wrote dance music for the kids at Juilliard who were dancers. I began working in the performing arts in that way. I can’t ignore the instrumental music, but when people ask what I do, that’s not what I say.

Q. What about your early minimalist works, the ones that made your reputation?

A. We play them all the time [in the ensemble]. People like them. We were in Holland last year and we did [the film score for] “Koyaanisqatsi” from 1980 or something like that. Five thousand people came to hear it. The next day, in another part of Holland, 6,000 people came to hear it. What do you think of that?

Q. I think that’s more than when it was first written.

A. Oh, a lot more. And people want to hear them. I don’t mind playing hits. Some people don’t do it; they only want you to hear their new music. We’ve been talking about this in the ensemble, that we should be playing more now, the music from the ’70s and ’80s. Because people want to hear it.

Q. What do you tell the many young composers who come to you for advice?

A. I say, “I’ll give you one word: independence. If you stay with that, you’ll be fine. That means you don’t depend on foundations or people giving you money. Do it yourself.” I say that, and that ends the conversation.

Glass Works

Presented by Boston Modern Orchestra Project. At Jordan Hall, Feb. 18, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-$50. 781-324-0396,

Interview was edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassical
. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

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