Glass and the Griot

Somewhere in the world tonight, the music of Philip Glass will be playing.

Maybe it's The Light, performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra this week in Hungary; or String Quartet no. 2 on Monday in Linz, Austria, by the Anton Bruckner String Quartet; or the String Quartet no. 3's "Mishima," set to the ballet Flux et Reflux in Rome; or Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in Plauen, Germany; or the Heroes Symphony, performed by the North Idaho College Symphony Orchestra in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; or, perhaps, Philip Glass himself performing music from The Screens, Friday and Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre on Miami Beach.

"I read somewhere that I was the most widely performed, living opera composer," the prolific Glass once told New Times. "And I remember saying to myself: That can't be true. But then I counted up everything and, yes, it is. That's what happened, because I made it happen."

With an eclectic assortment of eight symphonies, sixteen operas, five string quartets, music for dance, and endless film scores to his name, it's not difficult to understand how Glass's music could reach such a wide audience. His minimalist style has become an easily recognizable cultural standard and is something of a soundtrack to modern life; the music's repeating rhythms, basic harmonies, and hypnotic effect (the trademark of his compositions) cycle in time to the turning wheels of the machinery of the everyday. It is fitting that Glass scored the music to The Truman Show, a film about life as the ultimate reality TV.

Despite his success Glass has endured his share of barbs from critics who dismiss his music as too simple and repetitive. As the standard Glass joke goes: "A friend of mine gave me a Philip Glass record. I listened to it for five hours before I realized it had a scratch on it." Even so, since the 1976 premiere of his seminal opera Einstein on the Beach, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, he has borne the torch of new music in the United States that was ignited by Charles Ives and handed off to Glass by John Cage.

And like Cage and the many pop stars with whom Glass has collaborated throughout his career -- Brian Eno, David Byrne, Paul Simon, Ray Manzarek of the Doors -- he believes in taking his music to the people, opposing the academic style of most contemporary composers whose only contact with an audience is a bio in a program. He tours extensively (70 to 80 concerts per year) and prefers to perform his own compositions, either with the Philip Glass Ensemble or with groups such as the quartet in the present tour of The Screens.

"I think it's a very crucial part of my activities as a composer," says Glass from his hotel room in La Jolla, California, on the opening stretch of the current tour. "The constant encounter with the audience has been truly illuminating and stimulating. In a funny way, it guides my music in a certain way."

Besides the creative control that comes with performing, and allowing the audience to put a human face to the music, Glass believes he gets back as much as he gives.

"I've always thought that writing for an audience wasn't a bad thing at all," Glass says in well-rehearsed response to another common criticism of his music. "Writing to an audience doesn't mean you're always writing commercial crappy music. Verdi wrote for an audience, and I believe Bach and Stravinsky did as well. So I believe in the tradition of acknowledging the audience and seeing music as a quintessential social transaction, where the music doesn't really exist alone but exists as something that passes between people. When you work as a performer, that becomes evident on a daily basis. And as I said, it almost guides you in your development."

This approach has allowed Glass to eschew the typical route of a composer, leading him down a path that meant years of day jobs but freed him to explore music according to his own desires. His collaboration with sitarist Ravi Shankar as a student in Sixties Paris opened his ears to a non-Western and cyclical process of composition that has become his signature and spurred him on a lifelong journey into distinct musical traditions.

"Ravi opened the world-music subject for me at a very early time, in 1964, when not many people were doing that," recalls Glass. "It was twenty years later, in '84, that I became involved in African music in that way."

It also was in 1984 that Glass first met Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso. He traveled to the mother continent to study local music for the soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio's nonnarrative film Powaqqatsi, a followup to the 1982 cult classic Koyaanisquatsi. "I had to have people -- musical guides and mentors in a way -- in each of the places I went. Foday was my one in Africa, and we became very good friends," Glass says.

As a griot Suso carries on a West African tradition (passed from father to son) of chronicling village life in song to the accompaniment of the kora, a sixteen-string hollow gourd that sounds like a cross between a harp and guitar. Four years after Glass first met the virtuoso griot, JoAnne Akalaitis tapped the composer to counterbalance Suso's contributions to the score of Jean Genet's The Screens, a play about French colonial life in Algiers in the Fifties.

"The director had the idea to have the score written by an African and a Western-based composer," explains Glass. "So there would be a musical encounter that would reflect the encounters on stage. The way it worked is we sat in the studio together and the director described a scene, and either Foday would begin or I would begin."

Although the controversial play caused riots outside the Paris theater at the time of its release in 1964, Glass promises the music is not politically charged. "The music isn't confrontational that way," he laughs. "And actually the play isn't really, either. The music is much more a collaboration, because Foday and I know each other."

Glass maintains that his collaboration with Suso has transcended the original theater score, which now stands merely as a starting point to their current work. "I was talking with friends about it, you know, and [the work] doesn't really reference the play that much anymore. I think at this point we should be talking about The Screens as a concert piece," he says. "What's more interesting is to talk about Foday and his development and formation as a griot. That's much more interesting than a play that no one's seen and no one really cares about right now." Genet's play provides a convenient title. "We have an ongoing project together that we call The Screens," Glass adds. "The Screens simply is all the music that we perform and write and develop together."