How do you get to Carnegie Hall? One smart way is to play the annual Tibet House U.S. Benefit Concert, which composer Philip Glass has been curating at the iconic venue for the past 25 years, with an emphasis on surprising one-shot collaborations. The March 5th event will once again throw together some of Glass’s New York pals – including Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Debbie Harry – with hinterland visitors such as country rocker Sturgill Simpson, Tibetan singer Tenzin Choegyal, Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac and the Flaming Lips, the last of whom previously played the benefit in 2011. We recently spoke about the event with Glass and Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, and when the latter brought up the idea of playing David Bowie’s “Warszawa,” it led to an extended back-and-forth that touched on the Beatles, the Dalai Lama, Tibet House history, union rules at Carnegie Hall and David Bowie’s reaction to Glass’ adaptation of his work.
Wayne Coyne: We’ve been talking about doing David Bowie’s “Warszawa.” Philip, what do you think of that?
Philip Glass: I love that piece. It’s in the “Low” symphony [Symphony No. 1], which I did 20 years ago. I think it’s a brilliant piece of instrumental songwriting on Bowie and Eno’s part. We never played it in public, so I think it would be great.
Coyne: It’s an opportunity to do something we’ve only dreamed about.
Glass: Well, you picked a really good one. David says he likes “Heroes” [Symphony No. 4] better, because he thought I stuck too close to what he did in “Low.” Which is funny because I was trying not to be like him – and failed, evidently. Are you thinking of doing “She’s Leaving Home,” too?
Coyne: Yes. Earlier this year we released a reworking of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and we’ll have the fantastic singer Julianna Barwick with us. Then again, if these songs don’t work we can always do something else. You were very generous with both your time and attention to what we were playing in 2011.
Glass: You and I haven’t had a chance to talk about any of this yet, Wayne, but that’s how the concert works. It’s a nine-ring circus that takes about half a year to put together. I chair a committee that meets six or eight times, then I start writing letters to the people we want to invite and find out who’s available. Tibet House was founded in 1987 at the invitation of the Dalai Lama, who asked a bunch of people – including Robert Thurman, Richard Gere and myself – to start a New York cultural center to preserve the history of Tibet, whose government had been taken over by the Chinese. All the benefit proceeds go into a pool that assists the Tibetan community and whatever the current emergency is, such as Katrina. This is actually the 29th concert, but we’ve done 25 in a row at Carnegie Hall.
Coyne: I was so caught up in everything last time that I forgot we were at Carnegie Hall. It never entered my mind. We were rehearsing your changes to “Do You Realize??” up to the very last second before we played it.
Glass: Because of how the Carnegie Hall unions operate, it’s almost impossible to record there, so whatever we do is what we do. We have almost no archival record; we have memories. This is impermanence upfront and real, and an iPhone clip on YouTube isn’t the same thing at all. One of my great memories is seeing Caetano Veloso sing a duet with Laurie Anderson. It happened once and will probably never happen again. At a Tibet House benefit you’re living in the moment and you’re being nostalgic about the moment you’re living all at the same time. It’s very intense.
Coyne: I do it because of your close involvement. Benefit concerts can raise money and awareness and all that, but they’re not always that interesting or fun.
Glass: I agree. I’ve gotten to play piano with David Bowie twice, and where else in the world would I get a chance to do that? We never know exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t think you and I had even talked together the last time you played, Wayne. We met for the first time at rehearsal the day before the concert.
Coyne: You wouldn’t want to do this if you didn’t react well under panic and stress.
Glass: Flying by the seat of your pants is a way of life.
Coyne: I wouldn’t want to do something like this every day.
Glass: I think it works because we do it once a year.
Coyne: It never occurred to me that you play contemporary classical music and we do rock. It just seems like we’re all weirdos interested in music, art and ways of being.
Glass: Right. So if you had any inclination to, say, add Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac to the mix, he would do it in a second. He’s bringing down Maybelle Chisholm McQueen, his favorite piano player from Cape Breton. I really think he wanted to bring her down so she could play in Carnegie Hall. There are people who will be playing at Carnegie Hall for the first – and maybe the last – time in their lives.
Coyne: It looks amazing from the stage.
Glass: It really is an awesome experience, isn’t it? I’ve played there a lot but I’m always thrilled to be there. But this is a very broad show. I don’t know what Debbie Harry’s going to sing, but if it’s “Heart of Glass” I will be very, very happy. My cousin Ira is going to do a dance number with some people he works with. And don’t forget Patti Smith: She’s our closer, and “People Have the Power” has become something of a tradition.
Coyne: We did that last time, so I’m going to know it better now.
Glass: [Laughs] You almost can’t know it better, Wayne. It never gets any better than the first time you sing it because it’s always kind of great.