elainefineelainefine Elaine Fine
Constantly making assumptions about music
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Ira Glass Interviews His Cousin Philip

This interview on today's Fresh Air (it was actually recorded in 1999) threw me for a loop. Here's a section where Philip Glass (who celebrates his 75th birthday today) talks about studying with Nadia Boulanger:
GLASS: You know, I find, I tell you, I'd finally after I'd been there about two years I finally figured out why I was there. We were having a lesson and I had come in with my harmony. We came to a place in the music and she said, it's wrong here. And I said, Madame Boulanger, it's correct. I cited the rules of voice leading and said that all these things are correct and there's nothing wrong with this. And she said yes, she said, but if Mozart had done it he would have done it like this. And she plays it the correct version, which was that perhaps the soprano was in the - the third was in the soprano instead of the root of the chord was in - whatever I had done I'd done it wrong. And I looked at her and I said but look, the rules are right here. And she said yes, but it's still wrong. I was astonished. And I - it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. I realized that she was teaching the relationship between technique and style.

For example, now let's put the question another way. If you listen to let's say a measure of Rachmaninoff and then a measure of Bach, you know which is which without, you know immediately. And the question is well, why do you know that? They both are following basically the same rules of harmonic, of voice leading. But what happens is that you have in your, the course of your listening, you have taught yourself - you've recognized that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem in a certain way. You may not say that to yourself, but your ear will tell you that. And that Bach will do it in his way. And you say, oh, that sounds like Bach or that sounds like Rachmaninoff or that sounds like Stravinsky. And what you're hearing is let's put it this way: You're hearing the predilection of the composer to resolve a technical problem in a highly personal way.

So in other words, now let's...

GLASS: And from that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way to solve it?

GLASS: Well, this is the point. The point is - and this is the other thing which she didn't say in words that day, but which I understood totally, was that in order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique.

You have to have a place to make the choices from.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: If you don't have a basis on which to make to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all, you have a series of accidents.

GLASS: Looking at your career from the outside, one of the things that's striking is the number of different collaborators that you've worked with and I wonder if part of it is because you had the seminal experience of confronting somebody else's work.

GLASS: Well, that's exactly - that's exactly what happens when you find your place, yourself in a place of total ignorance of that kind. And that's the place where you can begin again, you can begin learning again. You know, the difficulty with any - well, it's not just artists or musicians but with anybody in any ordinary part of life - walk of life - the difficulty we have is how we continue to learn.

I mean, this is - everybody has this problem. Because you get what we call our training and education to a certain point and we spend the rest of our life changing gears in the same way. And the biggest - this is particularly true of composers, they pick up a style or way of working a certain way, but the real issue, I've always said to younger composers, it's not how do you find your voice but how to get rid of it.

Getting the voice isn't hard, it's getting rid of the damn thing. Because once you've got the voice then you're kind of stuck with it.

GLASS: You've said to Terry Gross - in fact, she's asked you - do you ever try to compose so it doesn't sound like Philip Glass?

GLASS: I do it all the time and I fail all the time.
You can listen to the interview (or read a transcript of it) here.
Link to the Original
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