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Listen: Philip Glass - 'My aim is to be a populist'

The American composer tells BBC Radio 4 why audiences shouldn't worry about musical theory, and the importance of government funding.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

10 October 2014 at 12.29pm | Comment on this article

Composer Philip Glass spoke to BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning ahead of the premiere of his new Kafka-inspired opera The Trial.

Glass is one of the world's most popular living composers, writing for film and the stage as well as having collaborated with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, and Paul Simon over a long and distinguished career.

'My aim is to be a populist,' the composer told presenter John Humphrys. 'I looked around at my friends who are painters, film-makers and writers and they had large audiences, but not the composers. I couldn't figure that out. People didn't have their music in our consciousness, and I thought there was something absolutely wrong about that.

'My generation were the ones that rebelled so to speak. We rebelled at the restrictions that were put on us by academic music. When I came back from living in New York I was 30 years old and I began playing again and finding my audience. I didn't play in a concert hall for five years. My music wasn't considered important enough to do that. By '76 I had an opera - Einstein on the Beach. That happened in an extremely short period of time, which tells me there was a vacuum existing in the music world that was ready to be filled. That style of music has seeped into commercial music. You hear it in films, you hear it when you're watching ads on the television.'

Glass believes that artists should be given more assistance by the state: 'In my country and here as well, I don't think there's a lot of government support for artists; you may support institutions, but that's not the people who work in the place. I was able to give up my day job finally when I was 41, which I thought was great [but until then] I moved furniture, I did a lot of things. We need the music of younger people. The music I'm hearing of the kids that are in their 30s is fantastic music; it's full of imagination, it seems fresh and it's enchanting music. I'm seeing a generation of composers now who are idealists in that they're not worried about making a living because they won't. They pour their hearts and souls into this stuff.'

The composer doesn't believe that audiences should concern themselves with the theory-based inner workings of his compositions: 'It's like asking a doctor to explain how the medicine works that you're taking. It doesn't matter does it? If it works, it works. How I write the music is not your concern, the question is, "Does it have an emotional shape or appeal to you?", "Does it tell you about the world in some way?"'

'I sometimes call it a nervous habit,' says Glass of continuing to write prolifically, even in his late 70s. 'What my life has taught me is that if I write the music that I believe in and I hold onto that, I will do alright.'

Listen to the full interview

Music Theatre Wales performs Philip Glass's operatic adaptation of The Trial in the Linbury Studio Theatre 10–18 October 2014. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

The production is a co-commission and co-production between Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera, Theater Magdeburg and Scottish Opera.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

10 October 2014 at 12.29pm

This article has been categorised Music and tagged BBC Radio 4, by Michael McCarthy, funding, government, interview, John Humphrys, listen, musical theory, Philip Glass, Production, The Trial, Today

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