Composer Philip Glass gave a lecture at Northern Kentucky University in Greaves Hall on Sept. 29 as part of a two-day event celebrating his musical works. Glass came to Cincinnati to perform with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
Glass, age 74, is a Grammy and Golden Globe award-winning composer as well as a three-time Academy Award nominee with a career spanning six decades. Glass was joined on the stage by host Richard Jensen, a veteran Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra member and NKU faculty member.
The event preceded the performances of Glass’ “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” and focused on his colorful and illustrious career. The event is also a part of a yearlong celebration, leading up to his 75th birthday.
After introductions by Sander, Glass took the stage with Jensen as the sound of roaring applause filled the theater air. Jensen started the lecture with a brief performance of a section of Glass’ composition, which is based solely on timpani.
Glass spoke candidly about his life, training and musical works from the perspective of a performer. He began with describing his relationship with percussion instruments, which started when he was a child.
“I’ve always had an affinity for percussion and wind instruments,” Glass said.
Glass went on to the Julliard School of Music in his teens and traveled to Paris, France, in 1962 under the guidance of prominent composition instructor Nadia Boulanger.
“When I finished at Julliard I had different kinds of degrees,” Glass said, “but I felt I didn’t have the basic technique of composition.”
Under Boulanger’s instruction, Glass studied the works of Bach and Mozart. At this point, he began to understand the purpose of his studies on musical composition. “She was teaching me how to hear,” Glass said.
Glass accentuated the importance of this period to his musical instruction and how it altered his perception of music theory.
Glass told a story of a day job he had as a sculptor when he was young. His employer opened his eyes to a similar concept taught to him by Boulanger.
Glass’ sculptor employer said, “I’ll teach you how to see; then you’ll be able to draw.” What the sculptor told him stuck with him.
“It then occurred to me that drawing is about seeing, dancing is about moving, poetry is about speaking, and music is about listening,” Glass said. “The better I listen, the better the performance.”
“We have to talk about this, because sometimes the most obvious thing is the most important thing. Listening is the golden key to open the door,” Glass said.
Jensen shifted focus to the music majors in the audience. Glass mused that when you get your degree, you’re not done.
“You go through stages of training in life,” Glass said. “A music degree is the initiation to the practice of music.”
Another topic that came up was Glass’ work with musicians, including David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Paul Simon. After an audience member asked Glass about his work with songwriters in the mid-80s, he shared a humorous story of how Paul Simon had written lyrics for a composition Glass wrote and then called, wanting the song back for his own personal use. The song turned out to be one of Simon’s biggest songs, “The Boy in the Bubble.”
Glass’ visit to NKU brought a more informative understanding for the arts. Now in a reflective stage of his life, he is revisiting elements of his past and applying his life experience to the training he acquired as a young man.