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Philip Glass Looks Back on his Life

. 2 min read

To celebrate his 75th birthday The Village Voice interviewed Philip Glass, a long-time resident of New York's East Village. Like many artists early in his career Philip Glass did some odd jobs to make ends meet. He started a removals company and worked as a cab driver. It turns out that Glass drove a cab till he was 41.

When I read this I made a quick mental calculation. If this year marks his 75th birthday and if he drove a cab till he was 41 then he quit his job as a cab driver in 1978. Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976 so until two years later he continued working as a cab driver! As he says in the interview it was only when he received a commission from Dutch National Opera that he felt confident to devote himself entirely to the arts. Incidentally, this shows that the Dutch system of arts subsidies, which is now being dismantled in a misplaced austerity drive, has effects beyond Dutch borders.

As Glass says, he held on to his job as an insurance in order to continue being able to make a living. This is also how I like to view my job in finance (apart from the fact that financial markets are in fact quite interesting). A job is a hedge against bad times. I also like what he says about applying for grants, which he considered a waste of time. As he says "Those prizes were for other people, people I guess [who] didn't know how to make it on their own." Working in finance also gives me the freedom to do what I want to do. I also believe that if it is your own money that is at stake you try harder.

Glass also underscores the argument made by authors such as Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida that cities are a magnet for talent and a harbour of new ideas. The reason all New Yorkers became New Yorkers, Glass says, is: "You came to New York because that's where the energy was. That's where the best work was happening, no matter who you are and what you did. It could be medicine or psychiatry or media or sculpture. You wanted to go where the best work was being done because they would set the standards for you."

Unfortunately, as Glass points out, because rents across Manhattan and Brooklyn have risen enormously over the past 10 to 20 years it has become increasingly difficult for artists to make a living in New York. Nowadays many artists move to Berlin because rents are low there. However, Berlin lacks the equivalent of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, so there is little money, except subsidies, to sustain the arts.

The interview is interesting throughout as Glass also comments on his own work, the reality of online piracy and the changing landscape of the arts.