INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian JUNE 25, 2016 - by Philip Glass
PHILIP GLASS ON DAVID BOWIE: "HE WAS A MASTER UNTO HIMSELF"
In a spectacular tribute to David Bowie, the US composer's Heroes symphony is being performed at midnight on Saturday at Glastonbury's Park stage. Ahead of the set, he discusses his longstanding friendship with the late musician.
I first met David when I was in my mid-thirties and he was in his early twenties, just a kid out of art school turning from being a painter into being a composer. We lived close to each other in New York. There were periods when we saw each other a lot and other periods when we didn't - I never knew exactly where he was or where he was going to be and sometimes we didn't see each other for years, but we were always in touch and talked about how things were going . He was an extremely gifted and interesting person and musician. We had both a friendship and a working relationship. We did several concerts and projects together, and of course I wrote two symphonies based on his work, No. 1 (the Low Symphony) in 1992 and No. 4 ("Heroes") in 1996.
David liked the idea that I was doing the symphonies. And he was very pleased with them, as was Brian Eno. They even had their pictures taken to feature alongside mine on the first edition of the Low symphony album cover.
Of the two works, David preferred No. 4 ("Heroes") because he thought it was more original. But I had to disagree with him: I thought No. 1 (Low) was! Soon after its composition he began using the "Heroes" Symphony for his walk-in music for some of his concerts. And, even more surprising, is that there's a version around in which he superimposed his voice singing Heroes on to the symphonic recording. Somewhere in his archive there's that recording - of David Bowie singing his own version of "Heroes" over my symphony. It would be amazing to find it.
I don't think I could name my favourite Bowie album, or track. Changes? I don't know. Like everybody else, I like the hits!
He and Brian had an amazing creative partnership. I actually never knew who did what. Both were so gifted in their ability to write lyrical music. They told me though that they never worked together at the same time. They worked in the same studio, but one of them had the day hours, the other the evening hours. I don't even know how well they knew each other - I never actually saw them together! But there was always a lot of mystery around David as to what was going on. You never knew what he was up to. No one told him what to do, and he did what he wanted.
Within days of his death there were performances of my two symphonies among many other tributes. In fact I was kind of surprised there are so few full orchestrated versions of David's compositions - given what an admired and talented composer he was. But I seem to have been the only person who's ever written symphonies based on his work.
The two symphonies were of course originally intended to be part of a trilogy, just as Bowie and Eno's Berlin albums are. We talked, years ago, about doing the third symphony based on Lodger, and the idea has not totally disappeared.
The Glastonbury performance of "Heroes" on Saturday night was [conductor] Charles Hazlewood's idea. I'm just so sorry I can't be there myself. It's one of those crazy scheduling things - I wish I could be in two places at one time. Although I confess I'm not really much of a festival-goer myself. I tend to end up seeing most performances from the backstage point of view - sometimes I never get to see the front of theatres or halls. But, rain or shine, it will be an event. A huge one. It's such an honour that this music is the first classical work to headline Glastonbury. Musical borders are melting away today. I've worked with all kinds of people, from Bowie, to Ravi Shankar, to Paul Simon, to griots from west Africa, and everything I've done has always expanded my own personal musical language and has always been enjoyable and interesting. You don't need to have been to a conservatoire to be a composer today. You don't even necessarily need to be able to read or write music. Things feel very open. I like that.
As to what David would have made of the Glastonbury tribute, I really have no idea! He might have showed up and not even told you he was coming, or he might have enjoyed it from afar but not come. You never knew with David. He was a master unto himself.