A longtime supporter of Tibetan independence, Philip Glass helped form the Tibet House (alongside Richard Gere and Columbia professor Robert Thurman) in New York City in 1987 at the behest of the Dalai Lama. Now, with an estimated 150,000 Tibetans living in exile more than 60 years after China invaded Tibet, the center’s work to preserve and further Tibetan culture and identity remains as important as ever.
Almost as old as the Tibet House itself is the annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, a fundraiser that’s tapped a diverse array of musicians — Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and David Bowie, among others — over the years and resulted in some unlikely onstage pairings (Miley Cyrus sang backup to Smith’s “People Have the Power” just last year).
In addition to a rotating cast of Tibetan musicians and lauded Western artists — this year’s lineup features returning acts like Iggy Pop and Gogol Bordello as well as first-timers like FKA Twigs and Sharon Jones — the legendary composer’s Philip Glass Ensemble performs each year at the Carnegie Hall event.
Ahead of the Feb. 22 benefit — tickets for the concert and benefit gala are available here; aside from benefiting Tibet House, a percentage of this year’s total will go toward the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey — Glass spoke to Billboard about the unique challenges of pulling together a charity concert in its 26th year. The avant garde maestro and Oscar-nominated composer also teases the likelihood of a tribute to Tibet House alum David Bowie on Feb. 22, and gives his thoughts on the widely-publicized story of Adele composing a pop song on one of his pianos.
You’ve been putting on these concerts since the late ’80s. How has it changed over the years?
Yes, it’s been a while. The first four to five years were experimentation, where we were figuring out how to do it. The first time it was Laurie Anderson, myself, then I think Allen Ginsberg came next year… the next year we went to Beacon Theater and I played with my Ensemble there. The next two years were at Town Hall and that’s when it began to take on the format of a variety evening — eventually, we settled into having about nine different acts. After that it was smooth sailing, and many people who played it came back numerous times.
For instance, Gogol Bordello, who are playing this year, it’s their third time; Iggy Pop is playing this year, it’s his third time; Debbie Harry played twice; Michael Stipe played at least twice; Patti Smith has played a dozen times. What happens is that people meet for the first time and start collaborating, and things that would never happen any other place happen here.
FKA Twigs is one of the new ones.
Yes, FKA Twigs, it’s her first time. I saw her in the spring and was very taken with her performance and I invited her to come and she said yes. She’s young and I think she’s quite well known. There’s a good age range [playing the concert], from late 20s to up until 60s. I’m one of the oldest ones there now — Iggy must be 10 years younger than me, he’s 68. There’s a big range of multi-cultural people, too. We have Lavinia Meijer, a harp player from Holland, Foday Musa Suso from Africa, and a Tibetan performer, Dechen Shak-Dagsay.
What I don’t know is the shape of the playlist — who the opening act is, who the closing act is. We have one rehearsal the day before, and a full rehearsal the day of the show. And that’s the most important thing — we put the show together in one day. It works because the stage manager and backstage people are the same every year — it’s been the same stage managers for maybe 20 years. One of the great things about the show is that there’s very little time in between performers. It’s very smooth. We get nine people in in a little under two hours.
How do you choose who performs?
Each year, what happens is that there’s a few people at the Hall, and there’s six or eight of us who come up with the artist list. We get together and talk about our wish list, and who from past years wants to come back. And I write letters to maybe 30 people. And that’s the hardest part. I’ve gotten good at it — we’ve discovered that people respond more to handwritten letters than not. Sometimes I’ll call and then write a letter.
But I never know exactly who will perform. Like Gogol Bordello came on just two weeks ago. The other frustrating thing is that because it’s a benefit concert, a well-paying gig might take precedent [and force a cancelation]. We understand, you know, when someone says, “My manager insists I do [a higher-paying gig] and I have to do it.” And it always happens and it has to happen. The way pop music works, it all happens fairly late. It’s not like a classical concert where people book shows two years in advance. People say they’ll pencil it in, but we always know that by November and December we’ll lose two people, and then have a month to fill it in. And that’s what it is.
That sounds unpredictable.
What is predictable about it is the quality of performance. It’s always very good. David Bowie did it twice. He actually changed his schedule to have a rehearsal before the regular rehearsal — he’s the only one who did that. It’s gotten to be a big responsibility but it’s also a lot of fun.
So Bowie has played in the past and his frequent collaborator Iggy Pop is playing this year. Is a tribute to him in the works for Feb. 22?
You know, I think people expect something like that. He was an alumni of ours, Bowie, he played twice. We knew him. Let me put it this way, it would be surprising if we didn’t do something but I don’t want to say what it is. But part of the fun is not knowing what it is, and if I tell you, I give it away. But I think people are expecting we’ll do something and they won’t be disappointed.
Have you thought of reaching out to Adele for next year? She told a story about writing one of her new songs on a piano of yours and seemed very excited by the connection.
It wasn’t my piano actually. It’s a funny story because I have very good friends in Los Angeles and when I go there, I stay with them. And maybe 15, 16 years ago they got a piano for me so when I go there I have a piano. And I’m not always there but when I am, that is the piano I use, and I don’t think many other people have used it. And they told me, “Oh yeah, did you read about that in Rolling Stone or something like that?” But yes, it’s true story. I haven’t met her and of course I’d be delighted if she came, we’re always looking for new people.