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Philip Glass, 'Icon' Of The Avant-Garde

Images of Philip Glass from <em>The Fader</em>'s<em> </em>Icon issue.
Courtesy of The Fader
Images of Philip Glass from The Fader's Icon issue.

As a general rule, if it's in The Fader, it's new. There's a good chance that you've never heard of many of the musicians who fill the magazine, which is based in New York and flaunts that city's bustling diversity and also its celebration of the cutting edge. But part of that celebration, every year, is the magazine's Icon issue, which takes a step back from the relentless forward motion to anoint an influential, already-celebrated figure. Past Fader Icons have included David Byrne, the singers Aaliyah and Nina Simone, reggae star Shabba Ranks and, last year, the rapper The Notorious B.I.G.

This year, the magazine will devote 34 of its glossy, full-color pages to the composer Philip Glass. Features, which you can read now online, include a timeline, an oral history of his career, a photo essay with images from performances of five Glass works around the globe in a month and interview with the composer himself as well as younger musicians who bear his influence.

I spoke with The Fader's editor-in-chief, Matthew Schnipper, about selecting Glass for the issue and why the composer, who celebrated his 75th birthday in January, isn't so different from the up-and-coming musicians on whom the magazine usually focuses.

Jacob Ganz: Philip Glass is better known than most of the musicians you cover. How did you decide to feature him in your Icon issue?

Matthew Schnipper: The idea behind the icon issue is sort of a pause. We're always trying, not even to catch up with what's happening now but to chase what's going to be happening soon. This idea of what will be the zeitgeist, trying to identify trends and see what sounds new.

I think the thing that someone has said to me, a writer I trust and really look up to, is, "If I hear something and I don't understand it, then I'm interested in it." That's the driving force in The Fader at all times. And once a year we say, "Who did this in such a huge way that we want to step back and celebrate it?"

We cover a lot of artists who are older, but often we're covering newer rappers, we're covering newer rock musiicans. Philip Glass is a career musician. He's a classical musician. But we said, "Look, if The Fader was around in 1971, we would have been writing about Einstein on the Beach. If The Fader was around when Music in 12 Parts came out, we would have written about it. This is music that actually doesn't sound that far away from Black Dice. It doesn't sound too far away from Clams Casino. The themes are pretty prevalent. And the way in which he looked at music, saying, "I want to play in art galleries. I want to play everywhere. I want to make everything, of all genres," is actually a really cool path for a bigger artist. He's a good example of what any of these young people that we're covering could become. He's a best-case scenario.

JG: Once you picked him, how did you decide how exactly to cover Glass?

MS: We've done this with all the people that we've covered. We ask what's made up their life and career? What are the big themes? What's important about them? So we looked at all the different kinds of music he's made. What's cool about him is not just that he's a composer, but the amount of stuff he's done. We had a running joke in the office that not only did he make the Candyman soundtrack, but he made the Candyman 2 soundtrack. Which is a little ridiculous. And then you listen to it and it's kind of good.

He's made operas. He's made minimalist pieces that I think are most in line with what we cover. But he's also been a guy who's been interested in the spiritual aspects of music. We talk about this a lot in the issue: he's a guy who's been interested in paying all the people who work for him. He's interested in visual arts, he's made friendships and he's stayed in New York. He's a guy who said,
"Where underground and avant-garde culture is rooted, that's where I want to be." Even if he's the most famous composer in the world, he still identifies with people who are not on that level.

I had gone to see a performance of Koyaanisqatsi at Lincoln Center last Fall and was pleasantly surprised to see how many different kinds of people were there. Young, old, couples, groups of kids who looked like they were there for a freshman class at Pratt, people who looked like they wore clothes cost 8,000 dollars, people who looked like they had never spent more than 97 cents on a pair of pants, whatever — everyone was there to see this music. I heard that music first at a fashion show and was like, "What is this?" It's so strange and exciting and ebullient and sad; it's a soundtrack to this wordless film that's talking about the monster that society is becoming that was made by a guy who used to be a monk who didn't speak. And it's for everyone. And everyone was there. And that was so cool to me. Because how often do you go see Black Dice and everyone is there? No, that doesn't happen. But you go to see Philip Glass and everyone is there and the music doesn't sound so different. Someone who can speak to such a broad array of people, and speak so powerfully, that's exciting.

So we said, hey, what's happening around the world in the next month? Are there that many different kinds of performances that he's having? And we realized yeah, just within a month, there's a dance performance in Australia; they're doing music from Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican in London; they're doing a big festival, he's playing with Patti Smith. And there's so much different music, completely internationally, we didn't get to cover all of it, just within the period of the month. We wanted to show the audience that went to see it, the different kinds of musicians that play it; even showing him at the premiere of one of his symphonies at Carnegie Hall versus showing him at the Armory with Patti Smith is so different. That's just a cab ride away, but it's a universe away. And that's what The Fader is about. It's saying, "All of this stuff is interconnected, even if it's completely disparate."

JG: Were you ever worried about The Fader's audience's familiarity with Glass?

MS: Yes and no. After the Grammys, when Paul McCartney played, there were a series of screen shots of tweets saying who is that guy? Which is sort of a terrifying thing. There's really that many people who don't know who Paul McCartney is? The same thing might be true with Philip Glass. He might be the most famous composer in the world ... so what? I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't know the Vice President's name. We want to feel like people look to The Fader because they trust us. I think that people who read The Fader who care about out-sounding music or new-sounding music and who have never heard of Philip Glass are going to see this issue and trust us, trust the musicians who are talking about him and be curious and go hear his music.

JG: You got so much of his life and the relevance of his life into what — even though it takes up a significant portion of the magazine — is still a relatively small space. But you don't attempt to describe his music much. The issue feels like it's more about his cultural importance. Was that a conscious choice?

MS: That's the way we make magazines, I suppose. One of the things I've internalized, even in the five years that I've worked at Fader is how simple it is to hear anything you want to at all times. If you're reading about a younger artist in our Gen F section, you'll read the same thing: What makes them make this music, what makes them like they are? You're not going to read, "and then this grindcore song, the drums got super-fast and it sounded powerful." You'll just hear why grindcore, why is it important that this person is making completely aggressive-sounding music. I realize that it's ridiculous that I'm starting to talk about grindcore while I was talking about Philip Glass.

If you want to hear Philip Glass, type it into Google. It will take you about three seconds to hear Philip Glass. We want to tell you about the world that these people live in. I would like you to be able to care about grindcore; I would like my dad to be able to care about grindcore. We're looking at all these things and saying, 'It's important. It may not be what you want to hear, but a lot of people do and it's important to us. Here is where it lives.' We'll make our case for it that way, rather than saying, 'Music in 12 Parts sounds crazy! It sounds insane! How did somebody make this music? Listen to the repetition!" I could say that to you, but I don't think that's going to sell you on it. And Philip Glass can sell you on it. If you want to hear it, it's very easy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacob Ganz
[Copyright 2024 NPR]