Looking into Philip Glass...

The first thing I noticed were his hands. He has seriously lovely hands and I am mesmerized by them. Their shape; strong, lean, long, long fingers, well-worn, a little craggy, very expressive; and then he begins to talk about music...

Philip Glass is having a conversation with Daniel Cavicchi, Dean of Liberal Arts at Rhode Island School of Design presented at RISD by First Works as part of their 2015 Artistic Icons series. And the first question Dr. Cavicchi asks is the one we really want to know. "What is it like to be Philip Glass, the artist?"

  Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

With engaging candor and humility he speaks about his journey; how he spent most of his time between the ages of 8-23 "learning", as he phrased it, "the language of music." He glosses over those fifteen years of dedicated practice, acquiring mastery, articulation and precision with a wave of that elegant hand as if they were no more than a moment. And then he tells us what makes him tick as an artist; "Inventiveness is my way of being creative." he says. "I've had to create strategies all of my life to put myself in situations where I didn't know what to do. And then I find a way out."  

And there you have it. Fear. This accords, by the way, with something scientists studying the brain have begun to discover; that when we experience fear around a new undertaking but do it anyway, our brains become very calm, very focused and very creative. Intuitively, extremely successful people have known this all along and athletes regularly cultivate this state; and here it is again from the mouth of a consummate and prolific artist.  

I don't mean to suggest that fear is the only thing that makes Philip Glass great. There are, after all, those fifteen years and a lifetime of learning; and of course that elusive thing that we refer to as talent. Fear is just one of the components in the magical convergence of a person who spends his life in creative communion with the gift that he was born to express.

The other thing that becomes very clear during this during the hour-long conversation - all of which is fascinating; is that he is completely open to the dynamic nature and experience of life as an artist. Although he is 78, he still expresses himself in the terms of a young person. There is no sense of yearning for the past; no resentment, no sense of entitlement. He feels 'called' to write opera because the composer can make the decisions while in film, commercial decisions frequently get in the way of artistic ones. He has been fired from films perhaps a dozen times and tells us that "Hollywood is like a wonderful business in a terrible neighborhood". Is he resentful of this? Not at all. He tells us he has also worked on films after other composers have been fired.  "Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't. After all," he says, "you can make very good art with people you don't like and in situations that are not exactly as you would like". As he puts it, "If the work is intriguing, you can put up with 'stuff'. Who cares if the situation is not perfect or if that person is a jerk?" Very refreshing!

On the effect of the internet on art; he is intrigued by its potential for emerging artists and expresses no resistance; "A new environment can be threatening, but it can also be liberating" and he refers again to language; "The internet has its own language and we merely need to master a new language". 

Asked about the differences between the creative culture in the 60's and 70's when he was coming of age as an artist, he tells us that artists were more commonly idealistically motivated rather than commercially. Although there has been strong emphasis on commercial achievement in art during the past couple of decades, he believes however, that idealism is returning to the arts in young artists today; that they feel development as an artist -- the transformative quality of art -- is more important than commercial concerns.    

Philip Glass has traversed the landscape of art; though some today will label his music as highly commercial, he has explored many new and experimental territories during his career; Two PagesMusic In FifthsContrary Motion, Music In similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts and his beautifully evocative score for the fascinating and controversial 1982 film Koyaaniqatsi....

In the end he leaves us with this rumination on the relationship between art and artist: "In the process of creating art the most interesting question is; who is the artist at the end of the piece?"

Yes, that may also be our favorite question...