Interview: Going about as low as it is possible to go: What did Philip Glass take from David Bowie? Andy Gill met the composer to find out

RUMPLED of face but alert with the morning, Philip Glass sits in the bar of the Langham Hilton in London. He looks every inch the contemporary transatlantic artworld habitue, complete with one of those grey button-down shirts that Marks & Spencer calls 'Faders', cleverly designed to straddle the gulf between casual and formal. With his characteristic semi-frown, he could be an advert for Gap: 'Philip Glass, 56, Contemporary Classical Composer. Gap Oxford Shirt, dollars 40'.

He's in town to promote the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible series of releases that includes, at the last count, no fewer than 11 operas, at least one of five-hour duration, and a bulging curriculum vitae of film, dance and world music collaborations. This time, the collaboration is slightly one- sided, Glass having taken three pieces from David Bowie's landmark Low album from the late Seventies and used them as the springboard for his own 'Low' Symphony.

It's a record that is likely to come as something of a shock to fans and detractors alike, despite the composer's frequent contact with the pop world (his most commercially successful album, the quarter-million-selling Songs from Liquid Days, was a collection of collaborations with lyricists such as David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson and Suzanne Vega). As he takes pains to point out, the new record is not a Boston Pops-style orchestral arrangement of a few pop tunes; it's a full-blown symphony, and one of the least 'minimalist', most traditional pieces he's done. For, while Glass's earlier minimalist works sometimes required steel- willed powers of concentration and maybe a packed lunch to see the listener through, the 'Low' Symphony is so easy on the ear that it could slip in quite nicely alongside the Goreckis and Bachs of Classic FM.

Glass himself likens his adaptation to Bartok's treatment of traditional Hungarian folk dances, but with pop music acting as today's folk music equivalent. 'People who write concert music are actually doing this all the time,' he claims, 'finding a bit of music they like and transforming it into something else - Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith have all done it.'

The impetus for the project came as Glass was concluding a series of boundary-bridging world music collaborations with the likes of Ravi Shankar and Foday Musa Suso, though the idea had apparently been long in gestation.

'I remember hearing Low in 1977 and thinking, 'Gee, that's a really nice bit, I think I could do something with that' and putting it to the back of my mind,' he says. 'Then last year it seemed I could finally get around to doing it as a symphonic piece. I remember calling up David about a year ago and telling him about the idea. We had met in the Seventies and stayed in touch off and on over the years, and kept up with each other's music. He liked the idea, and suggested there was other music I might listen to, like Lodger and Heroes, but I really felt I should stick with Low - I also thought that if Low goes well, I could do another symphony based on Lodger. Why blow it all on one record?

'There was a lot of good material on Low: I concentrated on those instrumentals which were in those days on the second side; what I liked about them was that they were clearly experimental, going beyond the formulae of pop music. It was this funny world of art-rock, which has since disappeared, but which was a beautiful moment for a while: the people who were working in experimental concert music and those working in experimental pop music were looking over each other's shoulders at that time - we all knew each other's work.'

Glass first met Bowie and Brian Eno, the Thin White Duke's collaborator at the time, when the latter was working with Talking Heads and The B-52s in New York in the late Seventies, but the connections between them can be traced back even further, to the early Seventies, when the Glass Ensemble played one of its earliest London concerts.

'I did a concert at the Royal College of Art in 1971,' he recalls, 'and David told me some time later that both he and Brian were at that concert. I wasn't welcome in the concert halls in those days, so I played in art galleries and museums and art schools.

'As a result, a lot of people in the art world knew my music, and that's where my audience was. Nowadays, David's in and out all the time, he's always flying around: I remember seeing him at concerts of mine in the Eighties, and whenever he was there we'd get together, say hello and talk a little. We have an easy relationship in that way: I can pick up a phone and talk to him - if I can find out where he is, that is.'

The three pieces Glass chose from Bowie's album come from the second, 'difficult' side: 'Subterraneans', 'Warszawa', and 'Some Are', which wasn't released until the recent CD reissue of Low. It's this latter track that Glass takes the greatest liberties with, and which furnishes him with his greatest success.

'David was surprised by that, too,' he acknowledges. 'I said, David, I hope you didn't mind what I did with that - but he was delighted by it. The original 'Some Are' was very dreamy, with very modal harmony. I took that original melody and re- harmonised it. I found completely different harmonies, and by doing that I found that it seemed to go at a different tempo, about double the tempo of the original. So from being something very dreamy and laidback, it becomes kind of a footstomping Brucknerian scherzo. I took the first minute and a half of his music, then moved into my own: the trick was to move seamlessly from Bowie to Glass, so that you wouldn't know which was his and which mine.'

However seamless the transition from Bowie to Glass, however, the new symphony is a whole (new) world apart from the original recordings, which he acknowledges were very strange and dark pieces, befitting the time and place of their composition.

'But going back to it now, the darkness is gone in some ways,' he believes. 'The symphony has mellowed in the same way that everyone has: I also don't stay up till three in the morning any more. Life looks different when you're in your fifties than when you're in your thirties, and I think that looking back at that music 15 years later, it was bound to have a different emotional colour to it.'

In particular, compared to the bleak despondency of the original, there seems to be a peculiarly optimistic, American cast to the symphony.

'It does sound like that,' Glass agrees. 'Especially the end of the first movement; people say they can hear Copland and Bernstein in it, and I think that's true. Of course, it's bound to be like that in a way; after all, the 'Low' Symphony is a marriage - it's not just a portrait of them, it's a portrait of me too. It would have been strange not to have left my own mark on it. That's what you do when you're a composer and you like something - it's your way of saying, I wish I'd written that, and so you do the next best thing, you change it into something that you would have written, had it been yours.'

'Low' Symphony is available on Point Music / Philips 438 150-2

(Photograph omitted)

Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy