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all words: James Wolff
all photos: Chris Svetlik

This past Thursday the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, presented a lecture by composer Phillip Glass to coincide with the portrait exhibit by Chuck Close; Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration, in which several prints featuring Closes’ iconic Phillip Glass images are on view. Phillip Glass is one of America’s most influential and renowned composers winning 3 academy award nominations, a 1999 golden globe for The Truman show, and in June of 2010 receiving a NEA Opera Honors award, the highest award the US can bestow upon influential Opera composers. Now 73, the composer has had an illustrious career with an astounding creative output including works for chamber music, sonatas, concertos, operas, symphonies, film soundtracks, and collaborations with a variety of figures including Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, Twyla Tharp, and David Bowie. Glass has become one of America’s most influential composers.

Phillip Glass and Chuck Close have shared a long and intertwined career spanning over four decades. It was through this shared interaction in New York and through dialogue with the greater arts community that a new movement in art and music developed and took shape. Giving concerts primarily in art museums and surrounding himself with an inner circle of artists, poets, and futurists, Glass had fine tuned his senses to internalize the dynamics and evolution in the art and painting which was happening around him. The Glass ensemble performed almost exclusively at Museums through 1976. It was ten years before the ensemble branched out with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, and later at Carnegie Music Hall in 1979.


The story behind the close partnership between Chuck Close and Phillip Glass dates back to the 1960’s, when both were living as artists in New York City. Glass, who had his own recording studio further uptown, was a studio assistant for the visual artist Richard Serra, the studio being in the same building where Chuck Close had his own photography and painting studio. Chuck Close was very interested in doing portraits of unknown people, and would often hunt around the halls at night for people to photograph. It was in this way Glass and Close first met. At the time Glass was experimenting with structural form and process phasing techniques in his early minimalist phase compositions (Music in Fifths, which premiered at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1970), while Chuck Close was experimenting with similar process as subject compositions in his own artwork. The exhibition event at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is a continuation of those early efforts, representing an extensive survey of prints and portraits which premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. The exhibit features more than 100 different works in various mediums, many of the iconic composer Phillip Glass featuring his trademark curly hair, which Chuck Close was fond of for its creative and aesthetic value.

In 2004 Phillip Glass composed a musical portrait of Chuck Close, a tribute to the profound influence Close has had on the collaborative efforts of the two which had spanned four decades. In 2007, the composition was expanded to include 3 movements to accompany ballet which was set designed by Close. This was indicative of the many collaborative efforts shared between the two over the four decades of creative output.


The similarity of stylistic process between Phillip Glass and Chuck Close began from frequent conversations over the form and content of painting and music. In the closing years of the great abstract expressionist movement, artists such as Jackson Pollock with his action painting technique, and Franz Kline, were concerned with the substance of their artwork. What would be put on canvas, in retrospect, was the last gasp of a romantic way of painting tracing back to 20th century. A central question emerged where if painting and art and music are not about representation, then what are they about?

This question reverberated throughout the subway cars and warehouse spaces of New York as artists searched for a means of new expression. The two would discuss the process of artwork over morning breakfast with friends like Robert Rauschenbe and John Cage. The dialogue between the artists focused on subject matter in which the subject became how the work would be painted or composed, process in this case a substitute for subject rather than changing the subject into the abstract. This was the underpinning of a new perspective which would lead Glass beyond the serialist compositions of his Julliard period into his study of Eastern Music while in Paris transcribing the music of Ravi Shanker into western notation.

Another musician involved in this experimentation was John Cage, the experimental composer which Glass spoke highly of at the Corcoran Museum lecture event. He describes a particularly interesting exchange between the two. They were fellow students at Julliard in New York City where they were discovering that when the technique of process and the image are identical, forming content could become the same too. In the process of their discussions and the dialogue within the larger social circle of New York art luminaries, they discovered that at the heart of their work was the exploration of process. When the process becomes the subject, then the changes become interesting. John Cage then went to develop this in the application of chance into his compositional process. When process becomes the subject, the scores the performers would play would be balance by a strict interpretation of the score while introducing the element of chance, the idea that the artist did not know what the work would sound like. In this way, the painting or composition is not a metaphor of reality, the reality is a metaphor of the painting. Chuck Close, however, always knew what the product would be and this becomes a distinction between John Cage and the larger New York process school of which Phillip Glass and Chuck Close ascribed. As with John Cage, in parallel to Glass and Close and their combined New York period output, the works did not have specific meanings but they could be meaningful in many different ways and it would require the participation of the audience to complete the work. The connection of the subject of the paintings, or in the case of Glass, the subject material of the composition, was circumstantial. In breaking with traditionalist concepts of their parent’s generation, where for example, Rembrandt van Rijn paintings held a certain finality of perspective, the spectator comes with a provisional interpretation of the work and this becomes the definition of the progressive modernist way of looking at painting or listening to a composition allowing the interpreter to become a part of the creative process. This becomes a shift in the way we value the work, that the finality of interpretation belongs to the viewer and does not reside in the work itself. In much the same way, Chuck Close paintings become a long and profound meditation on perception.


The process reminds Glass of the theoretical concepts developed by Charles Darwin with the overtones of mutation and natural selection. Both mutation and natural selection arrive through the same process that governed the creation of the minimalist compositions and the ground breaking portrait works done by Phillip Glass and Chuck Close. To Glass, however, this is the extent the parallel can reach before the distinctions between music and art become noticeable and the distinction between process and mutation begins to fade away. When Close was working there would be a totality, when working with music there is no totality due to the linear nature of the music. In this way, there are two kinds of structures; closed and linear open structures. This is not applicable to the painting world because there is a physical totality, the photographer is a metaphor for the work that he does.

In music, the harmonic and rhythmic changes of a process composition coalesce into form and structure and driven by the additive and subtractive sequences of rhythm elements and harmonic progression, the melody would be a resulting incidental element to be perceived uniquely by the listener (the Einstein on the Beach violin entrance serves as a great illustration of this concept). Similar to the perception of melody, the interpretation of process works does not invalidate the artwork as in other scientific disciplines, such as the way two opposing theories might in mathematics or biology. To Glass, the parallel can be reached through the differences/ differential between music and art. To relate this experience to Close who also works with the totality of a work “gesamtskunstwerk”, to music there is no comparison as there is no totality due to the linear nature of music.


The power of this modular structure, either in the process of painting or composition, is that it can be seen both as a unit and totality and this then leads to the question of which is the correct interpretation. A good listener like a good viewer becomes adept at this shift. It can be reasoned, Glass explains, that compositions of Close and Glass hold our attention because the gates of perception are fluid enough that the human brain can move and shift fluidly.


The idea of process and perception is further explored in the Corcoran Gallery of Art lecture by Phillip Glass in an encounter he describes with Carl Sagan. Glass made particular mention to a conversation he had over the decision to include the time capsule on the Voyager spacecraft and the intent and purpose of the decision. In this context, the interpretation of the viewer, this case being any alien likely to across the exploration vehicle and to be carrying a record player, or for that matter ears. Sagan explained to Glass, saying that indeed music is a language for human ears yet in the cold, dark and deafness of space, the connection to the subject of art is and always has been circumstantial, this is what the aliens would surely appreciate.