"We were taught that modern music has to follow a certain pattern," says Philip Glass, one of the most important composers of the past century, as we sit down at Hollywood's Loews Regency Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. "But," continues the 80-year-old, whose score for Jane, Brett Morgen's new documentary feature about primatologist Jane Goodall, would be performed live later that night at the Hollywood Bowl, "my generation said, 'You know what? We don't think so.' And we changed the argument." And, he adds in reference to "minimalism," the groundbreaking style of music he pioneered, which features similar patterns of music played over long stretches of time, "I changed it by using a radically different structure."
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Glass grew up around music as the son of a Baltimore record shop owner/radio repairman. A prodigious talent, initially on the flute, he enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory at the age of eight (making him its youngest student ever) and the University of Chicago at 15 before heading to Juilliard. After graduating, he went to Paris, where he studied under two masters who changed his life: Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar. "That period," he says, "it seemed like I had two angels on my shoulders." Inspired by Shankar, he traveled to India, the music of which greatly influenced his own in the ensuing years.
In 1967, Glass returned to New York, where he formed The Philip Glass Ensemble in 1968 and developed a following in the East Village. He didn't want to teach, and therefore had to find side jobs to enable him to both pay his rent and make music. "That went on until I was maybe 41 or 42," he says, noting that he was driving cabs even after the 1976 unveiling of his groundbreaking first opera, the five-hour Einstein on the Beach, which many now regard as his masterpiece. Not everyone did at the time, though: the American music establishment shunned him for years, dismissing the style that he introduced with Einstein — now known as "minimalism" — as dull repetition. "It was actually never repetition, it was mutation," Glass insists, likening it to computers' "binary language" and adding, "It was so radical that very well-educated, smart people couldn't hear it."
After Glass' second opera, Satyagraha, was commissioned in 1979, he finally was able to focus full-time on making music. ("I would like Satyagraha to be the piece that people remember," he says, "but I'm not sure that that will be true.") He soon expanded beyond operas into ballets, symphonies, plays and film scores, in partnership with everyone from David Bowie to Martin Scorsese, earning him the appellation, from one journalist, of "most collaborative composer since [Igor] Stravinsky." He emphasizes, "I wasn't interested in writing the same music over and over again," adding, "I never work with the same person twice in a row."
While opera is hands-down Glass' favorite medium in which to work, he, somewhat unexpectedly, suggests that film — "an intensely collaborative form" — isn't far behind. He's been scoring films for 35 years, dating back to Koyaanisqatsi (1982), and has picked up three best original score Oscar nominations along the way, for Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002) and Notes on a Scandal (2006); he easily could have landed others for The Truman Show (1998) and The Illusionist (2006). But he is perhaps best known for his work within the documentary genre, having scored virtually all of Juilliard-trained filmmaker Errol Morris' most important docs, dating back to 1988's The Thin Blue Line, and others, as well.
Consequently, when Morgen decided he wanted "a cinematic opera" score for Jane, he didn't have to think long before realizing which composer would be the best for the job. Glass, for his part, signed on because he was amazed at the high-quality, raw, never-before-seen footage of the early work of Goodall that National Geographic had unearthed in its archives and turned over to Morgen for the film, seeing in it both the intimate [Goodall's personal life] and the epic [her endeavors in the jungle]. "I was very intrigued by this young woman that I saw," he says. Only later did it occur to him that the reason for that might be that he related to Goodall, who is roughly the same age (she's three years older) and, like Glass, spent — and continues to spend — her life doing what she loves.