Philip Glass: 'I think I'm built for this kind of life. I train like an athlete'

The world's most austere composer drove taxis until he was 42. He reveals how his fastidious life informs his music

When I told a friend I was interviewing Philip Glass, he gave me some advice. "Just ask him," he said, "the same question, again and again and again." It's a view that once gave rise to a New Yorker cartoon. Two men in pith helmets are standing in a jungle. "That," says one to the other, ear cocked to a distant rumble, "is either a dissonant, repetitive sound or a new Philip Glass piece."

After several weeks washing up to Philip Glass, and cooking to him, and going to sleep to him, I can testify that those repetitions do strange things to the brain. Famously hypnotic, the shimmering scales and arpeggios are also quietly relentless, veering between the beauty of a waterfall, or of waves crashing on a beach and – well, you wouldn't want to talk about water torture, but let's just say that sometimes you long for a nice little tune. The most prolific composer on the planet, and one of the most successful, creator of more than 20 operas (all with pretty weird titles), eight symphonies, numerous concertos for violin, piano and timpani, and more than 30 film scores (including, most famously, The Hours) sure as hell knows how to mess with your mind.

"So why do they send a poet, rather than a musician to meet me?" he asks, when I volunteer, perhaps unwisely, my woeful lack of musical knowledge. I'm not a poet, alas, but we've been talking about Rumi, one of a number of poets Glass has set to music. Others include Allen Ginsberg and his friend, and fellow Buddhist, Leonard Cohen. For a moment, I fear that I've unleashed some rather un-Buddhist irritation, but then Glass softens. "If someone's not interested in it academically," he says kindly, "you could be better off. People get distracted by all sorts of non-essential things. Schools of music and historical values. It doesn't really explain what you're listening to."

We're sitting in the basement bar of The Boundary, a super-hip new "project" in a Victorian warehouse in the East End. With its stripped brick walls, black and white photos and funky leather armchairs, it has something of the feel of a New York SoHo loft, the kind in which, you imagine, Philip Glass might have spent happy evenings knocking up genre-bending works with Laurie Anderson, say, or David Byrne, or Brian Eno. Because Glass, more than any other contemporary composer, has worked across the art-forms – in theatre, dance, opera, the visual artists and rock. He has pushed the boundaries of music, pushed the boundaries of cross-arts collaboration, pushed the boundaries of opera and, at 72, is still pushing boundaries now.

He has, as always, been up since six. Last night, as usual, he went to bed at one. And after our strict hour, he's dashing off to catch a train. How does he keep going? "Well, you know," he says, "I think I'm built for this kind of life. It doesn't bother me at all. I train," he adds, "like an athlete, in terms of exercise, diet and sleep. I do yoga. I also do Qigong. I've been doing it since I was 20." And is he, as I've read, a vegetarian? "Since I was 20." And does he drink? "Just a glass of wine, maybe three times a week."

Gosh. This friend of David Bowie and Lou Reed, who lived in Paris in the Swinging Sixties, and discovered Ravi Shankar before the Beatles, clearly lives like Gwyneth Paltrow. "You say I'm disciplined," he says, as I mentally tot up my own weekly tally of units, "but I think I'm not disciplined. My discipline is that I'm afraid of not being disciplined." Er, right.

Maybe it's an American thing. Americans, I say, are good at doing things like going to the gym before work. "My girlfriend does," he volunteers. "She runs and does pilates." Is his girlfriend Wendy Sutter? "Yeah," he says, "but she doesn't... she likes to be called my girlfriend, but she is also an artist in her own right." Wendy Sutter (whose date of birth is coyly absent from all her publicity material but who looks several decades younger than Glass) is indeed an artist in her own right. She is the cellist who inspired Glass's Songs and Poems for Solo Cello, some of which Glass will perform with her next week, in an evening of chamber music at the Barbican.

The Songs and Poems were hailed by The Washington Post as "not merely pleasant, but gripping" and by Bloomberg.com as "the first major solo cello work of the 21st century". And they are exquisite – plangent, fierce, passionate, full of yearning and aching with what could be joy or pain. They reminded the San Francisco Classical Voice (and me) of the Bach cello suites. Were they a conscious homage to Bach? "Oh yeah," says Glass. "The cello is often remarked as the instrument that's closest to the human voice, in that it's the instrument that mimics the range. It kind of plunges you into the interior of what an individual psyche must be like."

Well, if all that aching beauty has anything to do with spirituality, or personal pain, or his feelings about Sutter, Glass (who has been married four times) is clearly not about to give anything away. So I ask about his father, who set the whole thing off, in his radio repair and record shop in Baltimore in the Forties. "Some paper in England said my father was an immigrant," says Glass. "He'd have been shocked. He never left the country. His parents did come from Russia or Belarus, or some place like that." "Some place like that"? If his parents were, as Glass says, "totally Americanised", so, it seems, is their son, who appears not to have bothered even to find out where his grandparents came from.

Still. At the age of eight, inspired by his father's love of music, Glass started learning the violin and the flute. "I had to take a streetcar across town by myself," he says, "and I had to walk home in the dark. But I was the youngest one at the conservatoire and they looked after me." At home with his parents, he listened to music "all the time. "One of the great things about my father," he says, "was that he had to know all about music because his customers liked all different kinds. He preferred chamber music, central European and he liked modern music: Bartók, Shostakovich. He never told me that one was better than another. In fact, there was a kind of enforced democracy."

High, low, classical, modern, chamber, orchestral – he sounds like a bit of an early postmodernist. He sounds, in fact, like someone whose son might also end up embracing an astonishing range of musical genres, and art-forms, and producing work (operas, symphonies, songs for cello) that might be classified as high art and work (film scores, jingles for commercials) that might be classified as low art. Does he have this father to thank for this? "Yeah," he says. "He didn't know much about world music, but no one did. On the other hand, I learned a lot about jazz when I was a kid, and I was going to school in Chicago by the time I was 15. The Fifties in Chicago was a great time for jazz."

At 15, Glass fails to mention, he was actually an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, studying mathematics and philosophy. It was there he started learning the piano and there, too, that he started composing, because he wanted to find out "where music came from". At 20, he went to study composition at the Juilliard School of Music (where Steve Reich was a fellow student) and then enrolled in a composer-in-residence scheme for two years in Pittsburgh schools. In 1964, he moved to Paris to study with the composer Nadia Boulanger and in 1967 moved back to New York where he founded the Philip Glass Ensemble. Looking at his CV from this time on, it would be tempting to say that the rest is history, but artistic output, as so often in life, did not automatically translate into money.

Glass didn't earn a living from his music, in fact, until he was 42. Until then, he drove cabs, shifted furniture and worked as a plumber. "I was careful," he explains, "to take a job that couldn't have any possible meaning for me." Stories of famous-composer-actually-working-man-shock from that period abound. The art critic Robert Hughes was astonished to find the avant garde composer mending his dishwasher. On another occasion, a woman tapped on the side of his cab and told him that he had the same name as a "very famous composer".

Gradually, the commissions trickled in and, by the time Glass was 44, he realised that the cab driver's licence that he'd renewed as a precaution might not be needed. Einstein on the Beach, his music theatre collaboration with Robert Wilson, performed at the Met in 1976, was followed by Satyagraha, an opera which drew on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, and then by Akhnaten, a vocal and orchestral composition sung in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Egyptian. Clearly, we are not talking populist. On the other hand, Glass was soon reaching a mass audience with his film scores. His first, for Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, is still regarded as one of his best. Others include Kundun, The Truman Show and Notes on a Scandal.

What effect has the film work had on him? "It has made me very happy," says Glass with a rare burst of laughter. "The high-art music and commercial, they're different metiers, they're different languages. I'm like the painter," he adds with a grin, "who does abstract painting at home but likes to go to the sidewalk and do sketches of people in the street."

Among the many artists Glass has worked with – ranging from Doris Lessing to Patti Smith and Woody Allen – it's one he didn't actually meet who has, perhaps, had the greatest influence on his work. In 1963, when he was living in Paris, Samuel Beckett was "in the neighbourhood". Glass "didn't have the pleasure of knowing him" but wrote music for his work. "To me," he says, "he represented the quintessential postmodernist. He took away the meaning of a work and made it meaningful. It's a perfect John Cage strategy, in that he denied the independent, inherent existence of the artwork. It had no existence independent of the person that listened to it. The idea that artwork consisted of a transaction, that's the essence of postmodernism. Before that, we thought of string quartets as existing in some sort of platonic realm."

"It was extremely encouraging for me," adds this super-disciplined, super-serious, super-productive model of can-do Americanism, "because it meant that the community of critics and historians, it left them out of the picture. I knew from the beginning that what they had to say would have very little impact on what I did." And then Philip Glass, high priest of postmodernism, looks at his watch. "Now," he says, "I have to catch my train."

Philip Glass: Chamber Music is at the Barbican, London EC2, on 26 May at 8pm (www.barbican.org.uk). The first Prom devoted to his work is on 12 August

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin