Japanese-Peruvian composer Pauchi Sasaki finds a kindred soul in Philip Glass who opens up a lifetime of experience as an avant-garde composer whose music wells from a deep humanity.by Steven Thrasher — January 2018
In the first few months of her mentorship, Japanese-Peruvian composer Pauchi Sasaki rushed to keep up with Philip Glass, who – though entering his ninth decade – is not slowing down as a composer and performer. Sasaki first travelled from Peru to Japan, to see pianist Maki Namekawa perform Glass’s 20 Piano Etudes, and then to Amsterdam to observe the Philip Glass Ensemble perform his score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi at a live screening.
But it was in New York City, where Glass has been a fixture in the East Village for decades, that the mentorship flourished. “It’s often talking, or drinking tea, or him making a sandwich,” says Sasaki, “when some story will come up,” allowing her to learn about what it means to be a composer from one of the most influential in the world. Glass has written 11 symphonies, more than 20 operas, concertos, film soundtracks, string quartets and a body of work for solo piano and organ. Sasaki, who writes music for dance companies and films, and who also makes stunningly visual artwork that is both wearable and sonic, decided against entering a PhD programme in the US when offered the chance to work with him.
On a crisp autumn evening, Glass sat in the audience of The Kitchen, an important arts space where he has performed many times. The flautist Claire Chase played along with a variety of musicians she had commissioned; eventually, she stood onstage, in red light, in a most unusual dress, one created by Sasaki using 200 small white speakers.
Chase performed GAMA XV: Piece for Two Speaker Dresses, composed by Sasaki, who joined her on stage playing a processed violin and wearing a dress made of black speakers. The violin-flute duet, emitting ethereally through the two dresses, was otherworldly and mysterious. Both Sasaki’s and Glass’s music challenge listeners’ sense of time. But Glass’s messes with time using sophisticated, multi-layered and often sharp repeating structures, while Sasaki’s can be more free-flowing, languid and haunting.
A month later, Sasaki was able to see two of Glass’s premieres at his 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. Dennis Russell Davies conducted the New York premiere of Days and Nights in Rocinha (featuring Angélique Kidjo singing in Yoruba) and the world premiere of Symphony No. 11, a lush, full orchestral work with rhythms as staccato as those for his early ensemble works like Music in Twelve Parts. Seeing her mentor premiere new work at Carnegie Hall was a good preparation for Sasaki, whose GAMA XVI for Orchestra and Electronics premiered at the same venue in late 2017, thanks to Glass.
On a warm afternoon the following summer, Glass welcomes Sasaki into his Manhattan townhouse. After he serves spearmint tea in glass mugs at a long wooden table in his kitchen, Sasaki excitedly shows him incorporation papers for her own publishing company. Glass is pleased, as he always encourages composers to follow his lead and publish their own material.
This is supposed to be the last formal meeting of their Rolex mentorship but Glass has agreed to continue the mentorship informally.
Among the many topics they discuss are the pros and cons of life in Los Angeles or New York: Hollywood film composers are very nice to deal with, observes Glass.
“I’ll tell you why – I’ve had a few Oscar nominations [for The Hours, Notes on a Scandal and Kundun],” he says, “and every year, the night before the Oscars, there’s a party for all the nominees.” Glass was pleased when someone stood up in front of dozens of composers to toast: “We’re really happy for you, and guess what? We’ll be there next year.” And that’s the attitude, Glass explains: “This is your year, next year is my year. And the year after that? Who knows?”
Glass loves the camaraderie, and how film composers talk about directors they’re scoring for. “Woody Allen was a dream to work with [Cassandra’s Dream],” he says, and even though Martin Scorsese [Kundun] was demanding, “he was smart enough to show me what he was doing.” Glass could understand how the music interacted with lighting and characters.
Inexperienced directors, Glass warns, can be defensive. Sasaki, who has already scored 30 short and full-length films, concurs.
Music is really a transaction between you and another person – without the transaction, there’s nothing there.
“Here’s another story,” Glass says with a broad smile. “I’m walking down the street in LA and I run into someone who was upset because he’d just been fired from a movie.” Glass comforted him saying, “Oh, I get fired all the time, just forget about it.”
He advises Sasaki not to take it personally should it ever happen to her. “Let’s say something is going wrong in editing. The first thing they do is fire the composer because it’s the cheapest thing to fix – it’s cheaper than to go back and reshoot the scene.”
When the subject of organizing one’s time as a composer comes up, Glass observes that, “Generally speaking, you’re hearing music all the time.” When he was younger, he worked at set times in four-hour periods. “Sometimes I’d get an idea at night and I’d say, 'I am not going to get up. Morning is when I write. The muse will come when I am ready.”
“But lately, this has changed. If I can’t sleep, I’ll get up and go downstairs and write for a while. And when I was 75, I thought, ‘I can write whenever I want to.’ Be prepared for your habits to change, because they can change and you don’t know why. Something happens and you start to work in another way. You’re not betraying yourself.”
“Did you have a eureka moment as a composer,” asks Sasaki, “when you said to yourself, ‘This is me, this is Philip Glass music?”
Glass harks back to his Fulbright scholarship in Paris in the 1960s. By chance, Samuel Beckett lived in the same neighbourhood and Glass’s group of artists began making music for Beckett’s plays. “I wrote nine different pieces for him over the next few years. And it was during the time I was writing music for Beckett that I knew it was my music.”
“That’s why you’re so good at writing music for films, Philip, because your sound was born in theatre with dialogue!” Sasaki says, lighting up as if she were having her own eureka moment. “That makes so much sense.”
Glass further explains that Beckett used “something which we call ‘the cut up’”, in which characters’ stories were split and told in non-linear ways. This meant that the “epiphany” of characters didn’t happen at predictable moments, as they would in Shakespeare, for example.
“I was listening to a piece of Beckett’s, and the epiphany was in different places. And I thought, ‘Oh, what is this? What’s going on?’ And I realized the epiphany came according to my interaction with the play, which was different every night.” This reminds Glass of the composer John Cage, who said: “The audience completes the music.” “I never really knew what that meant,” he adds, “until I worked with the Beckett piece and I realized, ‘Oh, I am completing it. My emotion is completing it.’”
“That’s why your music has a very different emotional quality to your peers,” notes Sasaki. “Maybe they just approach music as music. But I am more like you, that we approach music through...”
“...other things,” says Glass, completing her sentence.
“Other things.” she repeats.
“After writing music for Beckett’s plays and Jean Cocteau’s films – when he began to write pieces just to listen to them” – Glass says he “didn’t dictate what you were supposed to feel. I assumed the [listener] would complete the job of meaning... I thought the music didn’t mean anything, it was just meaningful. Meaningful means full of meaning but doesn’t tell you what that meaning has to be.”
The audience completes the music.
“I want to show you my map,” says Sasaki, producing a highly visual score for her work GAMA XVI, in the form of drawings of what the performance will eventually look like.
“This is a good map. I think this is a good way to start,” Glass comments as he studies the drawings intently with his deep-set eyes. “Bob Wilson and I worked that way” [when they made Einstein on the Beach].
Before leaving, Sasaki asks if she can take a photo of their hands together, and he places his large, octogenarian hand next to her much smaller one on the wood table. “I love the hands, because they show a lot of the lifeline. And to see my hand and compare yours with mine, that’s what you’re teaching me. That’s a symbol for me to remember,” she says, as she thanks him for his year of mentorship.
“But we’re not going to stop seeing each other,” he replies with a laugh, adding: “There is nothing more intensely social than the life of a musician. We are always involved with people. Music is really a transaction between you and another person – without the transaction, there’s nothing there.”
As for mentorship, he says, “This is the job of the older composers.”
”I will do that when I am older,” Sasaki tells him. “I promise you.”
“I know you will.”
Steven Thrasher is a writer-at-large for the Guardian US. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone amongst others.