A rare Southern California appearance by Philip Glass, one of the founding fathers of minimalism, took place on October 26, 2017 at the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts in Whittier. A sell-out crowd filled the theater for this long-anticipated event.

The program opened with a solo piano performance of Mad Rush, an early piece that was originally written for pipe organ. Something of a Glass standard, Mad Rush began with a moderate but even tempo, good phrasing and was played entirely from memory. In the middle of a West Coast tour with the Kronos Quartet – and having recently returned from Europe – Glass could be forgiven for any small lapses in keyboard technique – but this never eventuated as Mad Rush unfurled in all its familiar transcendence.

The main business of the evening began when Shane Cadman, Manager of the Shannon Theater, invited Mr. Glass to sit down for a time of conversation. Asked about early influences, the stories of working in his father’s Baltimore record shop were recounted and provided new perspectives. When certain records did not sell, the elder Glass brought these home and listened to them during dinner, trying to determine why no one would buy them. These recordings, unsurprisingly, turned out to be twentieth century composers – Stravinsky, Bartok, etc – and became an important influence on young Philip. Glass also recalled that as a teen-age student at the University of Chicago he admired Schoenberg and Ives, and although these two wrote vastly different kinds of music Glass found that he understood them more completely together – a pattern that would inform his creative process throughout his career.

While studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, Glass recalled that he came into contact with classical Indian music and the European tradition simultaneously. He compared the interactions between rhythm and melody in Eastern music to the relationship of harmony and melody in the Western tradition, and this strongly influenced his creative thinking going forward. His compositions became an extended attempt to combine the elements of east and west, and this continued after his return to New York. Having found his artistic voice and after mounting his first major work – Einstein on the Beach – Glass confided that he did not want to continue in that style and offered some advice to the young composers in the audience. “Write music for 20 years and I guarantee that you will find your voice. But then the question will become: how do I change it?” The answer to that question for Glass was collaboration, and this became his engine for change. He purposely worked with a variety of other artists, often those he did not know, and widened his stylistic palette to include music for dance, film. ‘pocket’ operas and other forms.

All of this was described by Mr. Glass with great eloquence and a disarming manner that completely captured the attention of the audience. Shane Cadman proved to be a wisely economical interviewer, asking a question now and then and letting Mr. Glass reply in extended fashion, and while his stories wandered a bit, they were never boring. More early piano pieces followed, Metamorphosis 2, 3, & 4, and soon the wide-ranging conversation resumed. When asked about how some of the larger projects came about, Glass stated flatly that he does not accept a commission for an opera until the performance date is set – it is simply too much work to do on speculation. Koyaanisqatsi, however, came about in pieces – film maker Godfrey Reggio would complete a section every year or so, Glass would score it, and the finished reel would be used to raise more money so that the project could continue. Glass has also found himself attracted to science and the idea of scientists as poets with works about Einstein, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking. Ultimately Glass stated that he sees his work in film and opera focused on social issues, especially in these challenging times. Politics, fortunately, never darkened the mood of the conversation and at last Mr. Glass performed Etude #10 as his closing piano piece. The audience was generously appreciative of this most cordial evening; cheering and a warm standing ovation filled the Ruth B. Shannon Center for several minutes.

Photo courtesy of Jay Senese