Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Philip Glass

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Feb 10, '12 6:20 PM EST

    Hi Archinect,

    We're back in full Piper, eagerly awaiting Philip Glass. I'm not sure what will happen. Our website says that "Mr. Glass will speak on the theme of collaboration and the creative process and, through brief performances, share selections from his oeuvre."

    [Photo by Fernando Aceves, from GSD website.]

    6:43: Mohsen is making introductions. 75th anniversary for Philip Glass and the GSD. Mr. Glass will be talking about structure and repetition, the relationship between architecture and music, and other topics.

    6:48: Mr. Glass sits down at the front and speaks. Mohsen, he says, was talking about architects' interest in music, but musicians have also always been interested in architecture. "I ponder that in many ways. ...I asked Dean Mohsen to join me, because we had a conversation this afternoon and sometimes we were talking about the same thing in different words, and sometimes a different thing in the same words. So he can be a bit of an interpreter."

    "These are informal remarks."

    "The first thing is space and time: two fundamental concepts." We could say that music and architecture take place in space and time, but it's not really true. If anything, space is more fundamental, unchangeable. Time is more fluid, subject to perception. But "empty space" is like an empty canvas. Musicians "don't actually start from silence. We start from rhythm or a sound...then figure out where it's going to go."

    "When I was a kid, I used to wonder where music came from. It occurred to me that I didn't I decided when I was 15 that I would write music, because when I wrote music I would know where it came from. ...But I never did find out. And in my 40s and 50s I still wondered. Then I thought I was obviously asking the wrong question; the real question is the meaning.

    "I said that music is a place, as real as Detroit or Cincinnati...I don’t know if that answers your question. I don’t even know if you care about this question." [laughter]

    Glass took a trip around various parts in the world (I think he mentions India and the Middle East) and he noticed how much repetition there was. There is a prohibition of images in the Muslim world, and a use of text, with a structural use of repetition.

    “One thing I was thinking about is the relation between form and content. Does that come up in architecture? It comes up in music. …I was teaching a complicated rhythmic passage..." They thought you have to know a lot about mathematics. No, I said, you just need to know how to count to 8 in different ways.

    One day [Robert Wilson was looking at the numbers] and said “Is that the text?” And Mr. Glass said “yes,” and realized that the form and content were the same. This is what we find in Jasper Johns’ Flag paintings. "Why was it interesting for Jasper to do that? For Sol LeWitt to do that?”

    "We were removing the narrative from the work. You’ll have to explain to me where narrative appears in architecture—it must. And how there are changes in architecture when the subject matter was redefined; it happened in music, in art, in writing.”

    “By making a new relationship between form and content, we had an opportunity to form a different kind of subject; we were working with attention.” When looking at a painting, I’m paying attention less to the subject of the image [than to something else that is happening, to the nature of attention itself].

    He talks a bit about repetition.

    “The pieces I’m playing tonight have little melodic content; they have rhythmic content.” Not that he's in a trance—couldn’t do that if he were in a trance. That is a difference between music and architecture; I can perform music with other musicians in real time. Does that happen in architecture, Dean Mohsen? [Mohsen nods]. OK, you’ll have to tell me about that later.

    Glass was living with Richard Serra, making music and helping Richard in the evenings, pushing things up against the wall. Glass was working as a plumber for $200/week; a lot of money in 1969-70. Serra asked Glass to work for him, and he did for three years. Serra would take him to museums and whatnot, training him.

    Glass had asked Serra if he could teach him to draw, and Serra said he could; he would teach him to see and that if you can see, you can draw. Drawing is about seeing, dance is about moving, music is about hearing, poetry is about speaking.  “I began to see that it was like earth, air, fire, and water.”

    He's been working on a traveling concert hall with a GSD options studio. Glass was working with a group of young musicians who liked to go to places where people didn’t go to concerts because they didn’t have concert halls. "That’s where your institution came in," because I spoke with Prof. [Toshiko] Mori and spent a year and a half of this. It was about architecture and music. We’ve come to a resolution of the idea. Everything was always beautiful to look at, but the issue was whether it was going to work for us. Doors and getting in, and a wheelchair.

    I was doing a concert in a new concert hall outside of Rome. The dressing room was half a kilometer to the concert hall. It took ten minutes, if you walk fast. So people make mistakes. Nothing like that happened here [at the GSD], but if you think about buildings with specific functions: acoustics, light, movement on and off the stage. Where do you go before you play; is there a room, a bathroom? We’re talking about something where we can go to Africa and have a concert.

    One of the things that happened at the beginning [of the collaboration with GSD students] was putting the performer in the center and the audience around. I pointed out that this was the most awkward because you have your back to half the audience. It’s common but as a performer you don’t really like that.

    It took 18 months, and someone who will build a prototype for us. "The beauty is that when it’s done, we’ll be able to play for people who’ve never heard this kind of music before." We were talking about the people after the tsunami. The three things they wanted there were food, water, and music. That was great! Because there was a silence after the tsunami there.

    Glass will play three pieces called Metamorphosis: II, III, and IV. Have been used in theater and dance. Then a real performance piece. Then we’ll have our talk.

    [performance of Metamorphosis.] [Here is a link to someone performing part two of Metamorphosis.]

    The next performance will be from a collaboration with poet Alan Ginsberg, based on one of his poems.. It was for the Vietnam War Veterans theater company. Later, an opera: Hydrogen Jukebox.

    Early 1970s. He was in Kansas which is flat; not much to see there. It begins with my imagining Alan in Kansas, driving; maybe it’s not completely empty, but there’s a church and say you could hear the music from the church, and then he begins speaking. This is how I make up music. Then he starts traveling…and getting obsessed about the war. He was talking about the man who released the bomb—Truman. And then he declares the end of the war. Then realizes that it is still going, he is still driving in his car. We performed it for a long time together; he died in 1997. So this is Wichita Vortex Sutra, and it will be just like I described to you. I hope.

    [performance, with Ginsberg’s voice on the speakers] [Here is a link to this being performed elsewhere.]

    Dean Mostafavi joins Mr. Glass at the front.

    MM: [We're going to] talk about space and time, and form and content. The conversations about space and time are coming more from planning and geography these days than from architecture. Whether space is something that is fixed or whether it incorporates time. So there are issues of spatiality, a version of discussing time that already has an implication of how space works.

    So this is part of how we discuss buildings, but also larger scale territories. I’m interested in that in terms of the last piece in terms of how you imagine, which seems to be important. And in Metamorphosis, which seems like a very visual piece.

    PG: I think that space is pre-existing, the one immutable, pre-existing property. Time is a different matter. I did an opera about Gandhi; the opera takes 3h, covers 30(?) years, and draws on texts that are 3000 years old. Time is unfolding in the piece in four layers, and there is our perception.

    Time is plastic; I can stretch or shrink it. Our subjective experience of time, I don’t know if it’s any more “subjective” than the clocks of our quotidian time. We know that from Einstein as well. For me, because time is so malleable—

    --I’ll give you another example. …We are very sensitive to the feeling of the passing of time. I’m convinced that this is connected to our physical presence. We may subjectively feel like time is going faster or slower as we age. Though I know seven year olds who say that time is going faster this summer, last summer was slower. Then there’s [quantum physics, and time accelerating in that sense.] [And death.] The fact is we don’t know.

    But I don’t have these questions about space. Space is solid, time is a trickster.

    Stravinsky started composing by setting a metronome; he interrupted the emptiness of time with an organized measure of time. As performers we are extremely vigilant about measuring time. Practicing is often about playing together, in time. I had one fellow who had to stop playing with us because he couldn’t hear so well and couldn’t hear the beats. He could hear, but not well enough for this.

    MM: In talking about form and content, it seemed that you were also talking about the structuring of something…

    PG: …“You’ve heard this thing that someone said, that ‘architecture is frozen music.’ Very poetic but I don’t know what that means. When it comes to time, it seems to me to stand outside of our normal perception. We do it in our dreams, it’s the element in our daily life which will maintain mysterious. I have an envy of that element of architecture which begins with the beginning. Music begins after the beginning.

    MM: What do you mean by that, architecture begins with the beginning?

    PG: Because you begin with space.

    MM: When you imagine space, are you imagining an interior? What is it?

    PG: I mean the space between stars. [Glass also refers to dark matter, but then says, "never mind that."]

    MM: We were talking earlier. And I mentioned that in architecture, constructed imagination is important; we imagine and think through certain drawings, models, projections—things through which, things which support the way we imagine. There is also a tension between us and the stars—

    PG: Mohsen, that’s a very good point, but it wasn’t what I was thinking about. Let’s get back to the elements you use to make architecture. We have those too. The discipline of music is learned through rhythm and harmony. I studied until 28 before I wrote anything significant. By the time I got done, I had almost a toolbox, I didn’t know what to build but had very sharp tools.

    MM: So you make a distinction between tools as formal constructs and space which is more cosmological?

    PG: …The first problem in music, see if this makes sense to you. The first problem is hearing the music and the other is writing down what you hear. I don’t know which is more difficult.

    MM: When I hear the Metamorphosis, I hear that music, I love that music, but I can also imagine the structure of the music. I’m aware of it as I enjoy the rhythm that it constructs. You seem to call that technique, but it’s not what I—

    --they are elements of a certain discipline.

    PG: Let’s talk about personal styles. Architects have personal styles.

    MM: The manner in which they make specific utilization of certain modes of practice. It’s not just technique. The formal qualities of a work itself…

    PG: I think architects must have this problem: when a young composer says to me that ‘I’m looking for my voice,’ they’re looking for something which is uniquely theirs.

    MM: But the structures I hear in your music, I think that is very much you.

    PG: There are all the elements of music: form, harmony, timbre. But why does one measure of Shostakovich sound so different than one measure of Mozart? I realized that the style is a special case of a very general technique. And I take a [small subset] and use that to make Metamorphosis. Michelangelo says that he took away the marble to make a sculpture. So in a way it’s what we leave out that makes the identity.

    When I see that young person, I tell him that’s no problem, you’ll have [your style] by the time you’re 30. But the problem is how do you get rid of it.

    MM: In music, you mention measure. We also have measure, ratio, scale. Let’s think about what those mean.

    PG: We can start with Pythagoras who took a string, divided it in half and found an octave; and divided that in half and found a fifth. We think we’re making this up and then we find it that it exists [in nature] and the Greeks had it.

    MM: A lot of the words you are mentioning are very much part of the discussion [in architecture, geography, etc. today]. How do you make a distinction between space and place?

    PG: A place is a very specific space, a version of it that occupies it in a certain way. I was talking to a man about my age, I was in my 30s or 40s. He had spent most of his life living in a cave thinking about these things. He said, you know this is not the only universe; there are 3000 other ones. I said, is one of them music? He said, oh yes. I said can I go there someday? He said, hopefully.

    There’s a lot of poetry there but it was something he was trying to tell me about…I saw at that moment a thought that didn’t have form; music is a place. Does it exist in space? Yes….space is always present.

    Are there things that we find, or event? Architecture, music, mathematics, do we find them or invent them? Are they constructions of the human mind, or do they have an independent existence? I think they have no independent existence.

    MM: Why do you relate these to utility, why is that important to you?

    PG: It’s how we make a living, that’s important. I was lucky that I had wonderful parents, but they didn’t have a lot of money. Until I was 41 I [had jobs to help support myself while I was making music]. I found nothing unpleasant about utility. We would like to say that abstract art is more beautiful than ‘music made for use.’ Architecture is made for use all the time. [Other musicians may see some shame in music for utility, but PG does not.]

    MM: When you were talking about architecture happening in real time, and I said yes: there is architecture that exists in real time, it is performing something, and has utility. But it also has an existence that is outside of utility. So it has [that dual].

    PG: What is the oldest piece of architecture that you know?

    MM: Something that is in ruins now, in a classical period, Greece or Rome.

    PG: I would have said the pyramids.

    MM: But the architecture that is lasting is not because of its utility….

    ...Let’s open it up.

    Question: ….Repetition, is it a more primal force within the structure of music?...The other thing is, it seems like in your work, the repetition inaugurates a new phrase or moment of time, but in between the repetitions, space is being produced as an effect of the temporality.

    PG: Not to avoid the question, but, uh…first the question of repetition is different in different cultures. Those cultural differences are hard to pin down because they are full of flavor but we don’t know what that means. When I am performing, and can play a 90 minute concert without music in front of me; how do I remember? To a degree, your fingers remember—that is how you tie your shoe or sew. But if that were all, you’d be robbed of your ability to bring your attentiveness to bear on it, something that your fingers don’t have.

    Question about change. What does transformation mean to you in your music.

    PG: Some I can quantify; I can make a piece longer or shorter, faster or slower. But I think your question is leading to something else, an overview—if there’s some motivation. It comes down to ‘where does the music come from,’ that kind of question. I don’t know.

    This happens to me all the time, and a conductor asks if a note is an e or e flat, and I say I don’t know. …But the question is why don’t I know? …In order to visualize the music, I had to gather all my attention. But I still can’t hear it. The one part left is the part that sees myself doing it and I give that part of my attention over too. Only then I can hear the music. The attention that I’d need to monitor my activity I don’t have because I needed that for the music. It’s the damndest thing.

    Q from the audience. Saw the light on the wall reflecting off the keys, could see the register of the music because your fingers were blocking the light.

    PG: I think you know the answer which is that I wasn’t think that at all, but you had an excellent listening experience.

    Q. I noticed the idea of attention, and the way that Jasper John’s flag forms your attention. We talk a lot now about attentiveness and how that is changing historically.

    PG: I think of attentiveness because it’s something we do. Meditativeness we don’t know what it means, but attention seems to be free of some of that confusion and it seems simple. We day ‘pay attention’ to our children, our husband or wife if we’re driving, a conductor says that.

    Q. What is your favorite building and why?

    PG: I was mentioning this friend of mine who is traveling around the world filming buildings that are very old…in Syria or China. …monuments. I find them without exception, maybe because of that context of their isolation having survived countless centuries. They seem to be imbued with a human spirit that is so powerful, I almost can’t distinguish them. It’s almost like when you see an old person with a beautiful face and you think they must have had a beautiful life. It’s almost like that for me, I can’t distinguish the buildings.

    Went to go see Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandighargh. I had no idea…this great architecture was in Chicago—Sullivan and whatnot. Now in NYC where I live, I find beautiful buildings all around. But I see in buildings the same quality of spirit that I find in people; they seem to have acquired an extra level of humanity that might be more than what was in the people that built them. That’s just an expression, don’t take that personally.

    Q. If you think of space as different if it is coming from an instrument or a vocalist.

    PG: …When I’m setting words to music, it is only when I am setting words to music that I understand the words (whether it is Rumi or Galileo). What I usually do is create a musical setting for the voice. Then I have the text, then place the text into the music. Maybe I know I have half a measure to set two syllables. And I may try that in a few ways, I may go up a fourth or down a third…but once I set the word to music then I know what it means. If I set it to different notes then it would mean something different. So it is a very high art; the great operas are written by older people—not everybody [but often].

    This is very personal, but I was spending lots of time with Paul Simon when he was writing Graceland; he had the music but not the words. I heard the words before they were set to music. He had the music already, were easy, the words could take a year to set to music. To write a beautiful song to me is a very high art, I haven’t mastered that. I have to write a whole opera to get a few good measures, to tell you the truth.

    Q about time. You’re performing older works but also premiering new works. How is that?

    PG: I don’t remember writing the pieces. I could not write [the older pieces] today because my brain is wired differently. I’ve been writing music since I was 15. …What I feel is that boy, the guy who wrote that… I feel like by chance or fate, I am lucky to have the copyrights, but to be truthful I feel they are no more mine than they are yours.

    Q: My question is not so much to the two of you, but to the imaginary person in between you…builds on the question about light reflections on the ceiling. …What comes first? Does the music get transcribed, or does it get (changed) when it is written?

    PG: This is very interesting, because we have the person playing and the spectator. What kind of transaction is taking place? Very important. This is my view: there is a metaphorical distance between the performer and the person who is listening (French spectateur). We travel that distance to the sound. It’s in that voyage when that music gains meaning. It may not be what was intended by the player, and that doesn’t really matter. ...I think the experience of the spectator is a very creative one; I put the listener ideally in the position of being in a creative relationship to the music.

    I’ve had people seriously throw things at me. It’s been some years since that happened but…some things weren’t working.

    ...There’s a consensual understanding of music that we learn from each other, and I’m not sure if that’s more persuasive than the experience when we first hear it. When I first saw Jackson Pollock’s paintings I thought it was doo-doo, but it didn’t take too long for me to like it. Of course a building doesn’t go away too quickly, you have to put it up for a long time.

    But…our voyage to the event…makes us [as spectators] co-authors of the event. These are very personal. Some people have told me that they would like to like my music, but they don’t get it, and they ask me what they should do. I tell them that they can listen to other music that they do like, there is lots of music out there. They don’t have to like mine. But [over time] more people have liked my music. That helps.

    End. Applause.

    Thanks for reading, Archinect. The performances were not taped to be posted on the internet, unfortunately, but if you have read this far, I hope you got something out of it nonetheless. Mr. Glass was very gracious and thoughtful, even if some of the specific questions about representation and the role of technique, form, and content didn't really get addressed head-on.


    P.S. It got very hot in Piper auditorium by the end, I suspect because the air handlers were turned off to reduce the noise. Just a reminder of how important quiet ventilation and cooling are for places where acoustics are important!

    P.P.S. I do my best to not misrepresent what is said, but as always in my live blogs, all of this is approximate and an interpretation.


    • thanks for this Lian! I would be interested in hearing more about your own interest in Phillip Glass?

      It seems as if the presentation was intended to be topical for an architecture audience and not just a cultural event...

      Thought he made a useful distinction between space and place.

      Feb 12, 12 6:58 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks, Nam!

      Before this concert I wasn't familiar with Glass' work beyond the broadest of strokes. So hearing him talk and perform was great. What stood out to me is how his work fits in with the work of modern artists in other fields with traditional media (like painting or architecture or poetry). He thinks about perception, the meaning of art, the nature of an encounter with art, and with breaking down his craft and medium into its components, which can then be interrogated. And his mode of practice seemed (this is just my atmospheric impression) sort of straight-forward--like our romantic or bohemian ideas of what it means to be an "artist," both in working in a solitary fashion and collaborating within a community of other artists.

      That's sort of different from the studios of installation artists (Chihuly comes to mind) who seem more like managers and charismatic leaders for their team of artists and craftsmen.

      The talk was charming, and had a variety of insights about music and the creative process and some of the connections between music and architecture, but it was not a scholarly talk. So some of the questions that Mohsen was trying to get at in much more specific terms were left hanging at the end of the evening.

      Not a bad way to head into a weekend.

      Feb 12, 12 10:32 pm  · 

      I like the music of Philip Glass. Most of my friends don't. At school we would play this 'wallpaper'  all night long and drive everyone else nuts. I would try and see Glass whenever I could, even when my wife would just get up and leave in the middle of the set, screaming.

      But to experience Glass' ensemble live in a small venue for me was an incredible experience. It was during his Photographer tour, at the Roxy on Sunset in West Hollywood. My friend Jan and I there after we finished videotaping Doreen Nelson sic ( Frank Gehry's sister) for a project 'City Building' she put together to teach kids about architecture. Afterwards we decided to meet and see Glass at the Roxy..

      The music was loud, relentless, and felt like wind. And the sudden stop-dead end -- wow.  In between sets Doreen introduced us to the acne'd Glass (his a bad case) and her friends the owners of Gemini Gallery who just hired her brother Gehry to design their gallery. I told him that his music was the 'house sound' at SCI-Arc which he thought was interesting for an architecture school. We stayed for the second set. Fantastic.

      eric chavkin


      Feb 13, 12 12:59 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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