Glass & Glass on creativity

Ira Glass, of This American Life, interviewed his cousin, the famous composer Phillip Glass. Here are some excerpts on creativity and process I transcribed (full interview):

Ira: In 1964 you moved to Paris and studied with [famed composer] Nadia Boulanger. Could I ask you to talk about what she was like?

Phillip: I always get into trouble when I talk about her because she wasn’t a very nice person. She was a wonderful teacher. She was the great master of music technique. Of counterpoint, of harmony. And she was extremely… demanding. From the first moment you walked in. For example if you arrived at her class and were a minute late it was better just to go home. Because if you came in late you got such an abuse, you were critcized on every level of your being and character and basically if the Metro were slow that day, you just went home”

I: Do you believe there is a pedagoical efficiency to terror?

P: It was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. I realized she was teaching the relationship between technique and style. Lets put the question another way. If you listen to a measure of Rachmonanov and measure of Bach you know which is which. You know immediately. The question is why do you know that? They both are following the same rules… but you have in the course of your listening you have recognized that Rachmononv will always solve a certain problem in specific way. You may not say that to yourself but your ear will tell you that… you’re hearing the prediciction of the composer to resolve certain problems in a highly personal way.

How hard is to define your personal way of resolving problems?

In order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique — you have to have a place to make the choices from. If you don’t have a basis on which to make the choice, then you don’t have a style at all. You have a series of accidents.

Looking at your career, one thing that’s striking is the # of colalborators you’ve worked with. 

When you find yourself in a place of total ignorance, that’s where you can begin again. Learn again. The difficulty with anybody in any ordinary life is how you continue to learn. Everybody has this problem. We get what we call our training and education at a certain point and we spend the rest of our life changing our gears in the same way… The real issue isn’t finding your voice, it’s how to get rid of it. It’s getting rid of the damn thing. Because once you’ve got the voice you’re kind of stuck with it.

You said to Terry Gross, she asked do you ever try to compose to not sound like you…

I do it all the tme and I fail all the time. I learned that the only hope of shaking free of your own description of music was to place yourself in such an untenable situation that you had to figure out something new. That happened with Ravi Shankar in 1964. And I repeated that experience. I do it whenever I can. It means  constantly finding new people to work with. The humbling thing is despite how often I’ve tried to do it, how rarely I’ve actually suceeded. It’s very humbling actually when you realize how hard it is to break out of your own training. It’s very very difficult.

How do you feel about that?

If I look at the body of work, over the last 30 years about 30 CDs… it takes about 10 years because the changes are so incremental.

One of the things that strikes me as a listener about the newer pieces is they seem much more romantic and melodic.

Exactly. It depends where you start. Had I stared with romantic music, I’d end up writing minimalist music. But I started writing romatinc music. Basically what point I started from, I left that point.

You can listen to the full interview here.

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