It’s a great time to be a Philip Glass fan—last year was the composer’s 75th birthday, and special performances were held worldwide. The Philip Glass ensemble performed Glass’s score for the 1931 silent film Dracula under the stars and redwoods at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library. And Glass’s five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach was performed for the first time in 20 years. Glass calls the trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten “Contemporary works about three people—Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten—who made social change by using words and ideas instead of weapons.”
Glass also established the biennial Days and Nights Music Festival in Carmel, California. Before his performance there with African kora master Foday Musa Suso, I spoke with Glass about creativity and his latest works.
“I wasn’t particularly gifted musically,” he says. “My whole experience in music has been a sense of learning. In music school with Nadia Boulanger, there were other people much more gifted; I was very well trained, and with that the barriers dropped away.”
Glass speaks about last year’s release of The Passion of Ramakrishna (see review) while he thumbed through a copy of The Gospel of Ramakrishna, written by the 19-century guru.
“I’ve read a lot of texts from different spiritual traditions, from different parts of the world,” says Glass. “I’ve known of Ramakrishna’s work for a long time, and I’ve been to the Kali temple at Dakshineswar (where Ramakrishna lived). He really represents the beginning of the modern swami movement. You have to remember that by the 1880s, India had been ruled for 400 years, first by the Moguls and then the British. They’d almost forgotten that they had a great culture of their own. In fact, they’d been told that they didn’t.”
“Then Paramahamsa Ramakrishna comes along,” continues Glass. “He had no formal education but understood the puranas and texts perfectly. He single-handedly began the revival of a modern Hindu culture. Not only by invigorating the swami movement with people like Vivekananda and the yoga movement with people like Shivananda, but also with people like Gandhi who went back to the Bhagavad Gita and used that as a form of social change.”
Glass’s own innovative compositional style was influenced by the music of India and collaborations with sitar genius Ravi Shankar, who died last year.
At 76, Glass doesn’t seem to have slowed down a bit, with opportunities abounding worldwide to experience the prolific composer’s music.