The Times APRIL 25, 2019 - by Ben Hoyle


The composer was friends with Bowie, but says he never really knew him. He talks about finally finishing his symphonic tribute.

Preceded by timpani rolls, pile-driving organ and brass fanfares, the west African singer Angélique Kidjo steps up to the microphone and lets rip.

Dressed in a floor-length purple, white and yellow gown and matching headdress, she strikes a vivid visual contrast to the black-clad orchestra behind her, but it's something else that stands out about this world premiere performance of Philip Glass's twelfth symphony. The words that Kidjo sings are David Bowie lyrics.

"When you're a boy, other boys check you out, you get a girl! These are your favourite things, when you're a boy!" The lines swell in volume as she hits the chorus with a shrug and a delighted smile: "Boys! Boys! Boys keep swinging! Boys always work it out!"

History is being made at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times will declare that this symphony, which Glass and Kidjo are bringing to the Royal Festival Hall in London next month, goes "where no symphony has gone before" by taking as its foundation the lyrics from a rock album (in this case Bowie's 1979 LP Lodger), resulting in a "stupendous" artistic achievement.

When the audience rises for a standing ovation Glass and Kidjo hug on stage and my twelve-year-old daughter, who has no grounding in contemporary classical music but likes a good show, turns to me and says: "That was maybe the best concert I've ever seen."

The next morning I'm sitting in a meeting room in Disney Hall when Glass shuffles in. He is wearing a tweed Nehru jacket, a collarless denim shirt and grey cargo trousers. The eighty-two-year-old composer with his wire-rimmed spectacles looks weary after the adrenaline rush of the night before, but promises, in a quiet mumble that sounds almost New York Irish, even though he is actually of Jewish-Lithuanian stock, via Baltimore, to "talk fast and intelligently, I hope".

As soon as I mention my daughter's reaction he rocks back on the sofa he's sitting on, his hooded green eyes snap open and a big grin lights up his face. "I love it!" he says.

Over the past six decades Glass has carved a reputation as one of the most innovative, influential and divisive figures in music, at the vanguard of formal modern classical work, but also working on film scores (notching up three Oscar nominations and winning a Golden Globe for The Truman Show), and collaborating with artists ranging from Lou Reed to The Roots to Bowie.

His work has been called visionary and revolutionary, but also boring and repetitive. So is this thrilling symphony that can enchant a twelve-year-old the most accessible thing he has done? "Actually it's not," he says. "The funny thing is it's the most confrontational piece. Look what it's about: domestic violence, drugs, loneliness.

"When David wrote this he was about thirty. It was the late '70s, he was living in Berlin with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno - they were supposed to be making a movie of The Idiot by Dostoevsky [while Pop and Bowie tried to kick hard drugs]. No one spoke Russian. No one spoke German. And these are three of the smartest people I know."

Lodger was the final instalment of Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" of albums, the first two of which inspired Glass symphonies long ago (Low in 1992 and "Heroes" in 1996). So why a twenty-three-year delay?

"Well," he says. "As you may have noticed, I've written eleven other symphonies, twelve concertos, at least twenty-six operas. I mean, I got busy! But it wasn't just that. I did the first two and I didn't really know what to do with the third one. I put it off - until a point came when I realised I really had to do it."

Glass met Bowie in the early '70s at the Peppermint Lounge in New York. Bowie was already a star. Glass, not yet famous, was still working as a taxi driver, but it was Bowie who had got in touch, having seen Glass and his ensemble play at the Royal College of Art. At that first meeting he told Glass: "I was a painter and now my canvas is rock'n'roll." They were friends for the next forty years, until Bowie's death from liver cancer in 2016.

"I can truly say, I've known him a long time and I don't think I ever knew him. It's like looking at a multifaceted diamond. A lot of faces and they're all interesting and they all look authentic. Mostly when we met it was just him and me. They were pretty direct conversations. He wanted it that way. I don't feel free to even talk about it now." They talked about all sorts of things, not just work, Glass says. "He didn't say please don't talk about this. You simply didn't do it. He was too private."

Did he ever show you his pop star side?

"Oh sure." Glass takes off his jacket and leans forward. For thirty years the composer mounted charity concerts for Tibet at Carnegie Hall in New York, often with help from performers such as Reed, Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson.

Once he invited Bowie. "And he came, and the way these things happen you get the talent to come, you meet, you do a line-up, you do the concert. No one rehearses. David rehearsed." On the night Bowie prepared "as though it were one of his solo concerts in an arena or something. He was the only one there who was dressed for a real concert. He was astonishing. He had his hair done. He was wearing his elevator shoes. To him it was a performance. He did maybe three songs [with Glass on piano]. A couple of years later we did it again."

Each time the rehearsals were precise. "He knew what he wanted and wouldn't let us go on stage until it was right. I did it because I liked it a lot. We were friends."

Like many of those close to Bowie, Glass did not know that he was ill until after he was gone. But Glass had told him that he was finally doing Lodger. "He was happy."

The problem was that Glass didn't find the music in Lodger as interesting as on Low and "Heroes". He was also now eighty. So instead of listening to the album, he looked at the words and found that the lyrics grabbed him. "This was real poetry written by a young person who was teaching himself to write."

Glass has extensive experience of working with writers, including Samuel Beckett, Christopher Hampton (on operas inspired by the American Civil War, Franz Kafka and the South African novelist JM Coetzee) and his friend Allen Ginsberg (who would recite reams of poetry from memory after dinner, but always read his own from a book; Glass was at his bedside when he died). Yet he needed a big musical personality with the confidence to own the new work. The composer told Kidjo that if she took the job she must convince the audience that Bowie was a middle-aged black woman from Africa. And she said: "I'm there!"

"For anyone to try to recapture who David was at that moment is virtually impossible," Glass says. "It needs a new interpretation and I think that's what she gave it. I am convinced that David would have loved what she did. He liked authenticity. He would have liked her. But I'm bound to say that, aren't I?"

Glass was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where his mother was a teacher and librarian and his father owned a record shop. The tough ex-Marine and his son used to listen to the discs that didn't sell to work out what was wrong with them and, in this way, fell in love with modern composers such as Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Bartok. Glass went to the University of Chicago at fifteen (where he read Heidegger in the original and Darwin, and saw Charlie Parker play in the local jazz clubs). At nineteen he went to the Juilliard School in New York to study music. But he was also a teenage record buyer for his father.

"I never looked down on commerce. When I was at Juilliard I didn't think anything was wrong with writing film music. One thing I learnt quickly was that in order to write commercial music you need a very good technical background. You don't have any time. To write a piece overnight you'd better know your harmony, counterpoint, everything."

He went to Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger, who, he once said, taught him Bach and Mozart "until you actually could dream in that language". At the same time he was hired as an assistant by Ravi Shankar, who introduced him to a completely different Indian musical tradition.

Returning to New York, Glass embarked on a career as an ensemble leader, playing his own experimental compositions in front of audiences that were initially small and sometimes hostile. "If they threw an egg, that wasn't so bad, because the eggs would just break," he told American public radio in 2015. "There was no danger from egg throwing, unless they boiled the eggs first, which they sometimes did."

What did his father think of his son's work? "I never found out. Our parents leave us before we expect them to," he says. "He was killed in a car accident. It was very sudden and when I came back to Baltimore I went down to the store. I had a look through the contemporary music and I found my records there. I never had a chance to ask him what he thought of it."

Glass did not make a full-time living from music until he was forty-two. Until then he took parttime jobs, including working on building sites and in furniture-moving - "very bad for my hands". For five years he drove a New York cab because "it was the most genteel thing I could do". It was also dangerous, with "six or seven cabbies killed every year", but the money was good and he could work from 5pm to 2am, then "write music till dawn, take my kids to school and go to sleep. I loved driving around the city, but it was scary." After the success of his 1976 opera Einstein On The Beach and the commissioning of his next, Satyagraha, about Gandhi, Glass was able to step away from his cab for good.

Married four times, with four children, Glass continues to look forward rather than back. This year he will premiere a new work based on Taoism at the Manchester International Festival. It was conceived with the performer-director Phelim McDermott and involves puppets.

"At this point I'm intensely interested in the future: in my personal future as a composer, as long as I still have one," Glass says. "At my age I'm still thinking about pieces I'll do next year and the year after that. I don't care about the rest."

I ask what he thinks of the world of unlimited streaming music and he replies that he lives "in my own bubble". Does he use Spotify? "Do I do what? No. I don't. I'm not sure I know what it is. I know that I've music on Spotify and that there's income that comes from that music, but that's about what I know. I don't know how it's functioning in the world."

He remains hungry for "different sounds", he says. "I'm not interested in the great works of Mozart and Beethoven. I digested it a long time ago. I'm interested in things that I don't know." He is always looking for a sound he has not heard before, he says. "And I have found it many, many times."

The present turmoil in the world is good for creativity, he believes.

"In the '50s, when we had to deal with McCarthy, something similar to this stupidity that we have today, that was when Allen Ginsberg came up and the great jazz musicians. It seemed to be when society was going through a backward, recessive experience the arts just went nuts.

"When the body politic is in a mess the arts get very strong. People with the will and the stamina to take on big cultural questions will do so because it's needed. Arts aren't just decorative. They're survival. I think that's happening right now."

Philip Glass - The Bowie Symphonies performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE11 (020 3879 9555), on May 9. Tao Of Glass is at the Manchester International Festival ( from July 10-19