Philip Glass, the minimalist composer famous for his symphonies, film compositions, and operas, including Einstein on the Beach, composed an original work, Dancissimo, to commemorate the opening of the Milwaukee Art Museum. In an interview with RECORD, he discussed the process of composing for the new building, as well as the more theoretical connections between music and architecture.
Architectural Record What is it like to compose a piece for a work of architecture?
Philip Glass I’ve actually done this a couple of times. I did it once for a new museum in Bonn, Germany where I wrote a piece to fit into that building. You know, it’s interesting. There’s always been this talk about the connection between music and architecture, and today for example, I gave a talk at the University of Florida to a group of music students and architecture students. This coupling of architecture and music comes up in schools often. I know Frank Gehry. I know Philip Johnson. I’ve been in touch with the world of architecture a lot in my life, and yet I don’t know anything about architecture; I don’t really know anything about it.
There’s a feeling—the idea is something to do with the idea of the structure of architecture and the structure of music. In architecture the structure is overt. The structure and function: isn’t that the whole idea of modern architecture, that structure and function are very connected? That, of course, is the secret of music: that structure and function—what we call content and structure, which I guess is very similar—the emotional content and the structure of music are very close. So there’s always been that kind of funny bond between architecture and music to begin with.
So having said that, I’ve had a few occasions to write for places. There was another place in Germany, where there was a factory, and they built a museum next to the factory and they asked me to write a piece. I’m always happy to do it. I don’t see the building. I don’t have to look at the building, though it’s often described to me and people will tell me about it. Because I’m not actually writing for a specific building. It’s the idea of the building, not the actual building that’s an issue. It’s the idea that this architectural space and the music are complementing each other in some way.
And then, you have to remember that in my early days, before I played in concert halls, I also played in lofts and galleries and some very unconventional spaces, what we now call "alternative" performance spaces. Now it’s gotten a word, but in the old days, it was just playing wherever you could. And so the acoustics of the places were always very critical for us. I got used to playing in many museums and galleries in Europe and America. I got to be very cautious of buildings with a lot of glass and hard surfaces, because they never worked. They don’t ask acousticians to help them build buildings, because that’s generally not the issue. Anyway, I’ve had a lot of that kind of intercourse with playing in open spaces and non-conventional spaces.
When I’m asked to do such a work, I’m not surprised, because it has come up over the years. I have a feeling. I don’t try to write for the space; it’s rather impossible. Rather, I write out of a sense of kinship with the builders, that we work in similar languages in a certain way. Or that we work with similar strategies in rather different languages; I think that would be a better way to put it.
AR How has it compared with your other artistic collaborations?
PG Those can be quite a bit closer. When I’m working with a filmmaker, I’m looking at his visual material. The music articulates the structure of the film. We can’t say that the music articulates the structure of the building. That’s quite a bit too far. When I’m working with a dancer, clearly the movement of the dance and the space of the dance are interrelated with the music. So those are close associations. The associations with architecture, while very rich, are not so close.
AR In the case of the Milwaukee Art Museum, how did the commission come about?
PG I think somebody called us on the phone, and I agreed to do it. It wasn’t that complicated.
AR Did you see any of the drawings or the plans?
PG In this case I didn’t. They just simply didn’t send it. That often happens. The piece I did for the German museum, I never saw it until I got there. I would like to. I would like to have. I played at the inauguration of a new museum in Columbus, Ohio that was the Wexner Center that was designed by Peter Eisenman. No one sent me the plans for the place. I knew I was playing at the opening of the museum, along with some other people. It’s flattering. It’s nice to be in the company of the other people.
On the other hand, at the same place, I have done architectural-type pieces. I work with a sculptor, Richard Serra, where I have done things like that. We’ve done rooms together, where the music and the room fit together, but that was a very specific project. I’ve done that several times with Serra. In order to do that, the designer or the architect or the artist has to actually be willing to get into the complex business and the complex encounter of collaboration. And usually, you have to remember, by the time the inauguration of a building happens, the building is done, it’s up. So the only times I’ve been able to do those kinds of collaborations have been on either outdoor events or large rooms designed within a building.
AR What then did you use as your inspiration, or starting point?
PG Rhythm. Rhythm has within it the idea of structure. Rhythm is structure. It’s an articulated structure. And that’s why I called it Dancissimo. It means that this piece is about dance.
AR Was it intended to be performed with dancers?
PG It wasn’t, though I think that it might be. It occurred to me that some places might want to do that, but it wasn’t part of this deal. But rhythm is an articulated musical movement in the same way, and it’s often a repeated movement, and it corresponds well to the idea of contemporary sculpture. Don’t we even talk about structure in terms of the rhythm of the structure?
AR Very often, including in the case of Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
PG This was my sense, that rhythm was the way to go.
AR Have you seen the building since its completion?
PG They haven’t sent me the pictures. (Laughs) It’s funny how people do things. They’ll commission a piece, and then the things that you want to see, you don’t get to see. They’re busy, they’re doing other things, and I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. I’m not annoyed with them, I don’t mean to put it that way, but they didn’t. But it seemed to me that a piece about architecture should be a piece about rhythm, and that’s how I did it. And it should be a piece about ten minutes long. And they told me what it would be, and what the instruments would be, and that’s how I addressed it.
AR Were you working closely with the Milwaukee Symphony?
PG I know the conductor. I know the symphony. Apart from that, I wouldn’t say I worked closely with them. I spoke with the conductor about it. We talked about the instrumentation and the special needs that I had and what would be available. But those are technical things that musicians talk about.
AR You mentioned movement and rhythm. Were you aware that this building actually does move?
PG No, but that sounds good to me. I’m told that the piece was very warmly received, and I know that the conductor went on to perform it in Seattle a few weeks later.
AR Do you have any other thoughts about composing for architecture in general? It’s obviously something you’ve thought about.
PG It’s something that could be done more. The trouble is, by the time they think of the composer, the work is done. The only times I’ve been able to collaborate have been with artists in an earlier stage, like I’ve done with Richard Serra. Now I’m in this funny position where with Frank Gehry. I know Frank well, and with his turn towards designing concert halls, I’m going to be playing in halls that he built, and I knew him 20 years ago. It’ll be interesting. I know him and we could talk about it. The trouble is that real collaboration has to begin very early and by the time they think of the composer, it’s very late. So the opportunity hasn’t arisen. But I do think it could be done. It’s not a project that I’ve been able to achieve yet, but as I say, I’ve had close connections with architects.
I’ve kept up with architecture in a sort of amateurish way. Even the early modernists like Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe. And there are people who live in Chicago, which is where I first became aware of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose buildings are what you saw there. It’s an interest of mine, and architects like music, but to put them together hasn’t really happened for me yet. Unless you want to talk about theaters and installations, but there you’re talking about theater designers.
AR Is a collaboration with an architect something you’d like to do?
PG Absolutely. I would do it with Frank in a second, if he wanted to do it, or with almost anyone. All these things are interesting. These are all doors that can be opened.