What happens when you mix a modernistic piano virtuoso, a computer genius playing a host of exotic east-Asian instruments, a string quartet, a theoretical physicist, an abstract environmental moviemaker, two poets, dancers, a radio host and the incomparable setting of coastal Big Sur under a starry night sky? This is precisely what world-renowned pianist and composer Philip Glass was wondering when he conceived the Days and Nights Festival, which has been showcased annually since 2011.
“The festival was conceived during Philip’s first show at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur,” says Ghan Patel, the festival’s marketing director. This was in 2008, though 77-year-old Glass’ love for Big Sur started when he went on a motorcycle trip to Big Sur as a young man.
From Sept. 25-28, the festival experienced its fourth annual showcase.
“Once a year, we [pull] the curtain back on whatever it is we’ve been working on throughout the year and show it to the world, and that would be a festival,” adds Jim Woodard, the Festival’s producer and Glass’s road manager, in an interview on “Simple Life Radio.”
This year, the curtain was pulled back on a wide variety of innovative musical collaborations.
The festival’s first show, on a Thursday night, was at the Henry Miller Memorial Library and consisted of a screening of experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s latest creation, “Visitors,” set to a live score of music composed by Glass.
Friday night continued the festivities at Henry Miller Memorial Library under a clear starry night. Glass joined forces with renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz, violinist Tim Fain and virtual reality computer scientist Jaron Lanier (playing an array of rare woodwind and string instruments) to perform some of his own compositions. After a brief classical interlude from a Beethoven string trio, these musicians were joined by acclaimed spoken word poet Jerry Quickley for the act’s finale.
However impressive it may be, the Days and Nights Festival is really just a small component of Glass’s larger plan: to create the nonprofit “Philip Glass Center for the Arts, Science and the Environment,” a long-term process with year-long commitments.
“Philip ultimately envisions a laboratory for artists, scientists and conservationists called the Glass Center in Big Sur. The festival is really the live performance arm of that idea,” Patel explains. “Our ultimate goal in everything is the Glass Center—whatever the festival can do to bring the right people together to make the center a reality.”
The scientific and environmental portions of the festival were implemented on Saturday night, when the festival transitioned to the more civilized locale of the Sunset Center. After a screening of Reggio’s environmental-awareness film “Anima Mundi” (also with a score composed by Glass), string theorist and astrophysicist Brian Greene took to the stage. Famous for his ability to simplify abstract concepts, Greene gave a brief science lecture before screening a film based off his children’s novel, “Icarus on the Edge of Time,” set to a live score composed by—you guessed it—Glass.
Glass has been a prolific composer over the course of his lengthy career, which has included composing the scores for countless films, including a long-lasting partnership with Reggio. Glass has also been nominated for three Academy Awards for his original scores.
The final night, Sunday, took a quite different—and jovial—turn from the previous shows. “This American Life” host Ira Glass, Philip’s cousin, teamed up with a professional dancing duo in a blend of “two art forms that have no business being together: dance and radio,” as Ira claimed at the start of the show. The ensuing three acts were a humorous mix of radio interviews and dance, relating life lessons in novel fashion.
Overall, the Days and Nights Festival was an intensely creative display of Glass’ abstract contemporary music, set to seemingly unrelated forms of expression over the course of the four nights.
“All through his career, [Glass] has done things in unorthodox ways,” Woodard says.
Audiences have responded generally well to the festival over its four-year run.
“Reception has been good, people in the Central Coast respond well to new art,” Patel says. “Being our fourth year, our operations have reached a level of competency. Our brand awareness has finally hit critical mass, and frankly, our programming this year was a grand slam.”