Beck & Philip Glass

How a discussion about the art world led Beck and Philip Glass to collaborate on the year's most mind-expanding remix project

Music Head to Head
Illustration by Beck

This autumn, a long-awaited collaboration by two greats of American music finally sees the light of day. The Beck-coordinated Rework: Philip Glass Remixed consists of Philip Glass pieces remixed by contemporary pop and dance producers like Cornelius, Pantha du Prince, Tyondai Braxton and Nosaj Thing (Beck himself contributes the 20-minute “NYC 73-78”, below, constructed from fragments of over 80 pieces by the 75-year-old composer). Separately, Beck continues his life’s work exploring American folk’s outer limits with the publication of a book of sheet-music: that is to say, an album inaudible until performed at an instrument. Both releases are emblematic of the two artist’s personalities: Glass the eternal modernist, ever enthused by the culture of the young; Beck the career aesthete, mining the culture of yesteryear to create his singular worldview.

Suzanne Vega once asked the famously workaholic Philip Glass if he ever took his critics’ harsh words to heart. He replied, seriously, “Oh yes, terribly. Once it was so bad I couldn’t write for an hour.” Despite visual collaborations with theatrical producer Robert Wilson and film director Godfrey Reggio, the defining image of the composer is as elbows deep in manuscripts, and in homage to Beck’s exquisitely presented Song Reader (published by McSweeney’s in the US and illustrated chiefly by Marcel Dzama, who art-directed Beck’s ninth album, Guero), we present here some authentic Philip Glass sheet music, alongside skeletal sketches of the pair by Beck, commissioned exclusively for this issue.

Dazed spoke to these two friends recently. Glass, who drove cabs to fund his early career, has been described as having the taxi driver’s natural sociability. Beck is as curious, but with a Californian slant, speaking fluidly, formally and respectfully to his elder in pop radicalism.

Philip Glass: Initially, I contacted Beck about this project, but we forgot why we had met, and barely talked about it for a while. We spoke about the art world and culture instead, which turned out to be the best way to do it – by the time it came to the record, it was far easier to think about.

Beck: A lot of the first conversation was about New York, people we knew in common, and Arthur Russell, who had performed one of his pieces, but in performing had rewritten it.

PG: He changed it more radically than I could imagine. Which brings us to Rework – I was impressed by the novelty and freshness of a lot of the ideas. I didn’t know what people would do, and some people took the pieces literally, some as a point of departure. Yours was very interesting.

B: Thank you. I can’t remember when the subject of Arthur Russell came up, but I was working with various bands that were listening to Arthur, and I mentioned him to you, who told me Arthur had actually worked in your studio. You have a bunch of his tapes lying around, don’t you?

PG: Yes. What happened was I had a studio in New York, and at night he would come in and use it. He made dozens and dozens of tapes that ended up going into storage. Years later, some people put them out. He was never well-known but always assured me he would be one day, and it turned out to be true. It was a very interesting relationship – he was younger than me at that time, and I’ve always liked working with people younger than myself. Arthur (who died in 1992) was only about ten years younger, and I was in my 40s. I’m in my 70s now, and the young people have stayed the same age!

Dazed: How does it feel to hear your music reinterpreted by younger people?

PG: Well, I’d rather hear it while I’m alive. It will happen after I’m gone, and it’s good to see the parts that are important to other people. My training is in classical music, of course, but I’m very alive to the other interests that people may have, from pop or whatever you may call it. These walls are crashing down, which you can even see in the writing on John Cage’s centenary, who had such a big influence on people, myself included.

B: We should talk about John Cage, actually. My grandfather (Al Hansen) was an artist, but he worked with John Cage in the early 50s.

PG: it’s the same for me – Cage was the older generation. Not much older, but enough to be very present. He’s so important for how we look at the world, and music as a whole, which is so much closer to how musicians think now! Don’t you think that’s true?

B: Going back to that idea of prescience – when we were looking for people to contribute to the project, I became really conscious of how much your influence is already there, almost to the point where it’s a little takenfor- granted. Whether in indie musicians of the last ten years or even a car-commercial soundtrack, your music is there. It’s one of those things that once you start noticing it or looking for it, it pops up everywhere.

PG: The academic music world had steadily ignored us (Glass and his peers) for a long time, and our music had to find a home outside of that. It was considered quite a scandal at the time and many people still do not accept us! It was a big relief when I could start earning a living writing music, because for many people it doesn’t happen – for Arthur, it never happened – and people can spend their entire career without widespread acclaim. It’s the way the music world is – we just got around somehow. We played a lot and turned almost nothing down. I could always find a kid who ran an all-night radio station at a state university, and some of these guys turned into music professors and critics themselves. One such person did a show at Columbia University – he now lectures at UCLA and spent years as a critic for The New York Times. Some people, I’ve played music with their fathers, and then played music with their sons. That’s kind of the story of my life!

B: People now are such an evolved, switched-on group that if anything, I’m taking cues from them. When I was coming up, you created your own little world without any idea that it could grow into anything, whereas now it’s much more about a scene and connections. People will find it: you don’t have to worry about giving it to people.

PG: It really reminds me of the late 60s – we had no support from anyone. B: The institutions of the time pretty much ignored you.

PG: Oh yes – I didn’t play a real concert hall for 15 years. But I agree that the musicians coming through have a tremendous confidence about their own music, it’s fabulous. And the whole gender thing is not a barrier any more. When I was young there were only a handful of women composers but now it’s not anything to notice. Unfortunately, the issue of race is still there. But we live in a very multicultural country, and within your generation, white people will be in the minority, and it will switch from a still very Anglo- Saxon culture to something more reflective of the world we’re talking about.

Dazed: Your sheet-music project is interesting, Beck. It literally doesn’t sound like anything until another musician plays it.

B: Yes! The idea came from when my first or second album came out in the early 90s, when the publisher sent me a version sold as a songbook. The original album was more of a construction of sonic ideas than traditional songs for piano, so when I got the book, it was very abstract. And while it was interesting seeing how they tried to write it down, it really didn’t work. You know, Philip, it’s funny – the last time I saw you at home there were manuscripts on the shelves and the piano, and I saw you spent your whole musicmaking life notating music. It’s such a different experience from people like me who have spent their lives in front of a microphone in a recording studio.

PG: Yes. Although I’ve spent time in a studio, writing is at the core of what I do: I have an idea, I write it down, and I rewrite it, and I write it again. I’m fascinated by how other people work, though sometimes it is completely mystifying to me.

B: The last seven or eight months, I’ve just spent with my face in a pile of sheet music. There’s something to be said for the idea of a song played at someone’s piano that still works – it’s an older and more honest idea.

PG: How did you find it?

B: It’s such a different discipline! I found it much more timeconsuming and challenging than just recording it. You really pull the music down to a skeletal level – it gets very microscopic. It’s not about atmosphere, it’s about abstractions that can work when reanimated. One thing that occurred to me was that there is a human element that you can’t notate. You can give a little direction, but that’s something there’s no way to write.

PG: When I actually play my piano music, I don’t play it the way I wrote it, I play it the way I heard it when I wrote it, which is a little different.

B: Do you think about the composers that were born before recorded music, what their original music sounded like then?

PG: I think about that a lot. We have recordings of Gershwin playing Gershwin, for example, and no one plays it the way he played it.

B: And how does there become a consensus about how something should be played, whether it’s Chopin or Bach?

PG: It changes by generation. Twenty years ago, someone played Chopin or Beethoven or Bach very differently to the way it’s played today.

B: I wonder if it becomes more genteel, like how when you listen to someone cover Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it sounds like hotel-lobby music. Are these ideas so entrenched now that you can’t break out of these prescribed ways of playing?

PG: There’s a sensational example of that in Glenn Gould – when he first performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations, people nearly passed out. Bob Dylan, of course, performs his old songs differently now. While you recognise the words, the song itself is somewhere else.

B: Which is where remix culture is so interesting. What started out as repurposing and stretching-out music for the dancefloor is now an engagement and conversation with the composition. In the 80s Dylan recorded reggae versions of his songs, and you know what? I actually prefer that version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’ to the original. There needs to be more of that.

Illustrations by Beck

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