Stranger Things, Love Island and The Manchester International Festival – those are three places where Philip Glass’s music can currently be heard.
The 82-year-old American is regarded as one of the most influential composers of the end of the 20th Century, with everyone from David Bowie to Radiohead having cited his minimalist music as a major inspiration.
Glass is in Manchester for the world premiere of Tao of Glass, a collaboration with director-performer Phelim McDermott. The production uses puppets, reams of gigantic sheet music and 10 new compositions by Glass. All that helps tell the tale of when the duo attempted to create a show with Maurice Sendak, the author of Where The Wild Things Are. His death in 2012 brought that to an end.
In his dressing room in Manchester, Glass speaks about the time he had Salvador Dali in the back of his cab, why he wishes more people fell asleep in his concerts, and gives his reaction to the news that Protest from his opera Satyagraha soundtracked Amy and Curtis’s break-up on Love Island.
How much joy do you get from still playing the piano?
Well, I like to play the piano. What I’m finding out now is that there’s a big audience for the early piano music I’ve done, so I’ve gone back and learnt the pieces I played in the 70s and 80s and I liked it.
There are some performers that only like to do the new work. I like that too. But I don’t mind playing the old pieces. Like in this show [Tao of Glass], The Opening from Glassworks is played twice. And that’s from 1981.
An element of this show is Phelim McDermott’s love of your music. He says in 1985 he followed you down the street and was too shy to say hello. Have you ever had a moment where you were starstruck?
Oh yes. In my early days as a composer, I had day jobs as most people do. For a period of time I was driving taxis and Salvador Dali got in my cab. Can you believe that? With the moustaches and everything. And I was dying to talk to him.
But it was a very short ride. I took him from a restaurant back to his hotel, only about six blocks. And I was thinking, I’ve gotta say something. I never could think of anything to say to him. Better that, because I’m afraid that if I said something, whatever it was, it would have been probably very stupid. In the end I can say I missed meeting him by very little.
Were you a good cab driver?
I was as bad as the rest of them. You learned to drive in a particular way.
It’s also interesting to see your music appearing in perhaps unexpected places. In the new series of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Confrontation and Rescue from your opera Satyagraha is used for the dramatic climax to episode six. Have you been told about this?
No, I haven’t heard about that yet. But there’s a lot going on. I mean, I don’t try to keep track of that kind of thing. You get into second-hand and third-hand uses of the music. In some cases, if it was a dance company or film company, there will be payments made and so forth. But often, it’s just people using it casually. And that’s the way music gets around isn’t?
A reality TV show in the UK called Love Island used your music last week to start an episode. It was possibly the least likely place to hear Philip Glass; people in bikinis and swim shorts all trying to cop off with each other.
The commercial ones are the ones that are very careful to make their payments. I’m actually delighted to see the music turning up in unexpected places.
Because it introduces it to a whole new audience?
Yes, but it also introduces me to a whole new way of using the music, which I hadn’t thought of.
I don’t think you would ever think of Love Island.
It’s not likely I’ll see it.
In this MIF show they do make fun of you, saying you are the composer that most people have fallen asleep to in concert halls around the world. How did you think when you heard that?
I wish that that were true. But I’m afraid that there are other winners than me. How about all the people that fall asleep listening to The Ring of Wagner? I mean, really? First of all, it’s long enough so you can easily fall asleep. And it’s done all the time. So I think that it’s me is unfortunately an exaggeration.