Interview: Seven insights into success from Einstein composer Philip Glass

Who is this Philip Glass dude, anyway?

So many of us are intimidated by creativity, making it easy to imagine a dialogue with a great artist to be much like Dorothy’s initial encounter with the fearsome, gigantic, fire-spewing Wizard of Oz.

He, of course, turns out to be just an ordinary, slightly eccentric guy with a flair for drama.

The world’s Big Event festivals, like Luminato, make such a fuss over the Totally Awesome Transformative Experience and the artist as star, that it’s easy to overlook sheer, dogged, disciplined work as the single most important ingredient in creative success — the building of an artistic legacy that will survive its time and place.

As Toronto prepares for its turn to experience Einstein on the Beach at the Sony Centre tomorrow and over the weekend at this year’s Luminato festival, it might be time to pull the green-velvet curtain back on the now-75-year-old Philip Glass, the ordinary, slightly eccentric guy with a flair for drama.

I had the privilege of nearly 90 minutes of relaxed conversation with Glass last year.

The fruits of that interview went into a long appreciation of the man, his music and Einstein on the Beach in the current issue of Musicworks magazine.

The spark of creative thinking is essential to any successful work of art. But what Glass  conveyed most clearly in our interview was that great ideas are worth little without the means to execute them and an intense focus on the task at hand.

These are not vague concepts or ideals. They are as basic as washing dirty socks and scrubbing under one’s fingernails.

Joseph Haydn performed his daily duties of writing, performing and conducting sonatas, concerti, operas and masses in servant’s livery. Two centuries later, we idolize the Great Artist and given them a special pedestal to stand on. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any less slogging to do backstage or in the orchestra pit (where, not incidentally, Glass finds himself working during performances of Einstein).

Here are seven lessons about Glass’s success, from the mouth of the master himself:

1. Success is gradual.

I began writing in the theatre when I was 20. I didn’t write Einstein on the Beach until I was 37, so I’d been working in theatre for 18 years.

2. Success needs cooperation and a plan.

When I was student a Juilliard, I asked myself a very simple question: Who wants my music?

Well, dancers want it. Filmmakers want it. And I began by going to the dance department, and listened to people there. Before long, I was writing music for the dance classes.

I was in business! I couldn’t make any money, but I was a functioning composer.

Within that first year, I did music for a production of (Moliere’s) Les Fourberies de Scapin. I wouldn’t get paid for these things. Sometimes, I would get $25, which would barely pay for the recording. But that was part of my training.

Those kills I acquired very, very early, so when I had the (Philip Glass) Ensemble, I found that I was at home in that world.

3. Success depends on the right technical foundation.

After graduating from Juilliard, Glass went to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.

She didn’t teach composition, actually. She taught technique. In my years with her there were very long days, which consisted of harmony, counterpoint, analysis, score reading, ear training. Those days would begin at 7 in the morning and would end at 6 or 7 at night.

I went to her with a Masters degree from Juilliard, and she started me on harmony and counterpoint again. She insisted that I re-do my entire education very very quickly.

4. Success is simplicity.

Let’s say you’re writing an opera about Gandhi (Glass’s 33-year-old Satyagraha). This is a man who had a long and fascinating life, and you have to tell the story in three hours. It’s impossible. So what you do, is you develop a shorthand. You develop ways of setting the tone very quickly.

When I’m writing these pieces, especially operas, where the parts are especially complex, you have to develop a strategy.

Glass alludes to a street caricaturist who gets the portrait or cartoon right in a matter of seconds – “it may only be a pair of glasses, but it’s what you see.”

I’ve learned to do it by working in theatre  and film, especially in the theatre. You use whatever’s there to tell the story. You don’t have much time. You become very good at that.

5. Success is knowing when and what to edit.

Often, when I’ve finished writing a piece, I’ll go back over it and realize that I don’t need the first four pages, so I throw them out because it’s taken me four pages to get to the point.

The best thing you can do is begin anywhere and, when you’ve reached that point, you can go, ‘Ah, now I’ve got it.’

I usually realize late in the first act that I finally know what I’m doing… It has to happen, or you’re screwed. When It does happen, you can go back and say, ‘Okay, this is what the piece is.’

6. Success is being fearless.

Glass speaks about how he and many other composers coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s were looking for their own voices, separate from the atonalists.

We all came from different places, but none of us wanted to sound like those guys (Stockhausen, etc.). There was no payday in doing that – not that we could see.

As for what our teachers were doing? We were young enough and arrogant enough to believe that they didn’t know what they were talking about. And I think we were right.

The composer chuckles.

We were doing what nobody else was doing – and we got punished for it so shrilly that we became famous. The outrage of our elders was written up in the papers and was broadcast and, pretty soon, we had an audience.

We didn’t do anything; we were just being who we were.

7. Success is about relationships.

Music is a social art. It has a social context. It is a language. It is a transaction that takes place between people.


For more information about Luminato’s presentation of Einstein on the Beach, click here.


In a sillier vein, here is a short segment from Einstein on the Beach, reimagined with Lego characters:

John Terauds


2 thoughts on “Interview: Seven insights into success from Einstein composer Philip Glass

  1. “Let’s say you’re writing an opera about Gandhi (Glass’s 18-year-old Akhnaten)…”

    Satyagraha …

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