Philip Glass now creates an entirely new and unexpected voice, that of a born storyteller and an acutely insightful chronicler, whose behind-the-scenes recollections allow readers to experience those moments of creative fusion when life so magically merged with art
Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir, Liveright Publishing/Faber & Faber, 2015.
The long-awaited memoir by “the most prolific and popular of all contemporary composers” - New York Times
A world-renowned composer of symphonies, operas, and film scores, Philip Glass has, almost single-handedly, crafted the dominant sound of late-twentieth-century classical music. Yet here in Words Without Music, he creates an entirely new and unexpected voice, that of a born storyteller and an acutely insightful chronicler, whose behind-the-scenes recollections allow readers to experience those moments of creative fusion when life so magically merged with art.
"If you go to New York City to study music, you'll end up like your uncle Henry," Glass's mother warned her incautious and curious nineteen-year-old son. It was the early summer of 1956, and Ida Glass was concerned that her precocious Philip, already a graduate of the University of Chicago, would end up an itinerant musician, playing in vaudeville houses and dance halls all over the country, just like his cigar-smoking, bantamweight uncle. One could hardly blame Mrs. Glass for worrying that her teenage son would end up as a musical vagabond after initially failing to get into Juilliard. Yet, the transformation of a young man from budding musical prodigy to world-renowned composer is the story of this commanding memoir.
From his childhood in post–World War II Baltimore to his student days in Chicago, at Juilliard, and his first journey to Paris, where he studied under the formidable Nadia Boulanger, Glass movingly recalls his early mentors, while reconstructing the places that helped shape his artistic consciousness. From a life-changing trip to India, where he met with gurus and first learned of Gandhi’s Salt March, to the gritty streets of New York in the 1970s, where the composer returned, working day jobs as a furniture mover, cabbie, and an unlicensed plumber, Glass leads the life of a Parisian bohemian artist, only now transported to late-twentieth-century America.
Yet even after Glass’s talent was first widely recognized with the sensational premiere of Einstein on the Beach in 1976, even after he stopped renewing his hack license and gained international recognition for operatic works like Satyagraha, Orphée, and Akhnaten, the son of a Baltimore record store owner never abandoned his earliest universal ideals throughout his memorable collaborations with Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar, Robert Wilson, Doris Lessing, Martin Scorsese, and many others, all of the highest artistic order.
Few major composers are celebrated as writers, but Philip Glass, in this loving and slyly humorous autobiography, breaks across genres and re-creates, here in words, the thrill that results from artistic creation. Words Without Music ultimately affirms the power of music to change the world.
32 pages of photographs.
Given that all the events of a long, rich and full artistic life can scarcely be squeezed into a moderate-size book, how does one choose, at age 78, what to put into a memoir and what to leave out? The Promethean composer Philip Glass provokes this question in his lively and colorful new book, “Words Without Music,” in which he offers stories from his life in varyingly detailed magnification. Whatever you think of him as a composer — self-imitator or icon of postmodern symphony and opera — Glass is one of the most articulate composers around. Insight and practical common sense pervade his new book, and reading it reminded me of hearing him speak: He’s ever thoughtful and loquacious, but he doesn’t answer any questions he doesn’t want to.
In one early emblematic story, young Philip is bullied for playing the flute. His older brother sets up a fight between Philip and his tormentor — which Glass wins handily. “I wasn’t especially brave,” he writes, “and I didn’t like fights, but I felt that I had been corralled into it. The kid could have been six feet tall and I still would have beaten him, it didn’t matter. After that, no one bothered me about the flute.”
It’s part of a pattern: Glass came from a “struggling middle-class family”; was discouraged from pursuing a career in music; studied with the formidable music teacher Nadia Boulanger; worked day jobs, some grueling, until he was 41; but in his telling, he never saw a challenge that he couldn’t lick. “I have a wonderful gene — the I-don’t-care-what-you-think gene,” he writes.
The “making” of a composer is the real subject of “Words Without Music.” Glass outlines his years before the successes of his operas “Satyagraha” (1980) and “Akhnaten” (1983) in loving detail; his life and work since then — including his film scores for Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Errol Morris and others — is skimmed through, with all-too-quick descriptions of the remarkable (and mostly nonfamous) people he has known.
One struggles to imagine how any human could have kept his schedule in the late ’50s and early ’60s: composing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., loading trucks in the evenings, practicing piano several hours a day, attending classes, taking music and yoga lessons, going to movies and art exhibitions with friends, driving a motorcycle cross-country. Side stories feature cameos by figures one might not associate with Glass. He shared an apartment with the blind composer Moondog, who dressed as a Viking and played his compositions on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. And he recounts inventing the “Hardart,” a keyboard of toy instruments, for the fictional P. D. Q. Bach’s Concerto for Horn and Hardart, written by his Juilliard chum Peter Schickele — and making it a transposing instrument in the key of E so Schickele would have an added challenge.
No fewer than three chapters are devoted to a 1966 trip Glass and his wife at the time, the theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, made to Nepal to study with masters of Tibetan meditation. But we never find out what spiritual needs, beyond a kind of fervent curiosity, drove him to all that trouble and self-discipline. He refers in passing to nine years he spent in psychoanalysis after his father died — without delving into the issues he was looking to resolve. And his conclusion to a long digression on his Buddhist practice leaves us hanging: “It’s hard to say what I have learned from all this, but I have noticed a certain ease I have begun to experience in my daily life. This extends not only to living but to the subject of dying as well. More than that I am unable to say.”
The truth is that Glass never really fitted into any set grouping of composers, notwithstanding the mania of critics ever in search of a rounded label with which to class artists and musicians together and to define schools of thinking. In fact, most attempts to define “minimalism” as a style have fallen short of adequately encompassing more than any one composer—Terry Riley, say, or Steve Reich, or Michael Nyman, etc. If there was anything that linked Glass to these other composers, aside from the fact that they all came from the English-speaking world, it was that the focal point of their music was structure. Beyond that, each composer’s philosophy of musical structure was, and still is, very different. In this respect, it would be fairer to call Glass a “structuralist” composer and steer clear of anything having to do with minimalism. Either way, the point is that his style is more than just a question of arithmetical equations, and that there is a deeper level of emotion present in his work that any generic label will always be powerless to encompass.
Given his very considerable following, it is refreshing to find Glass so modest and relaxed, intimate and self-reflective, about his life and career. His humility is disarming—he does not flaunt his successes, merely acknowledging his achievements, about which he still seems a bit disbelieving. As he reiterates throughout the book, Glass never expected “fame,” nor did he ever search for it. In this respect, Glass hopes to teach the reader something, though without any patronizing. Perhaps the message is to teach us to be untaught; to draw creatively from all aspects of life; not to listen to what other people say or to try to please others, but to draw from the influences around you in a spirit of self-actualization. In our modern world where so much time and energy is spent trying to please and to engage, Glass gives us hope that this individualism will come on its own, whether we will it or not. The more time creative people spend worrying, the less time they spend creating.
Despite being very well read and highly educated, Glass talks more in his memoir about his impactful experiences from real life, of meeting interesting people from different cultures who had a direct effect on his music. A lifetime spent absorbing various philosophies from individuals beyond the small Baltimore society in which he grew up provided a more substantial education than any books could. Perhaps something of all this made it into his operatic “Portrait Trilogy” of Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1979), and Akhnaten (1983). Yoga and meditation became a part of Glass’s life in this way, both during and after a formative trip to India during the 1960s. For Glass, it is only when the mind is free and open that it is truly able to create. Even today, he still practices yoga, and he has been an early riser since his days studying at the Julliard School, following a strict daily routine whereby he devotes certain hours exclusively to compositional work, no matter the circumstances. He talks in his autobiography about finding it almost impossible to do anything, at first, when confronted with the blank page. Surmounting this challenge involved clearing away a space for creativity, and dedicating time to that one single pursuit. This is only to say that routine is not always a negative.
The interplay between routine and reiteration is also, of course, an important feature of Glass’s music, where despite seemingly always repeating itself, it is in fact almost always developing. But separating one’s work from one’s life, and then reconnecting the two together, emotionally and holistically, is no easy feat for any artist. More often than not, composers today start off with one or more “non-creative” day jobs, which provide a steady income, whilst constantly struggling to free up enough time on the side to create. In his youth Glass himself worked various odd jobs, including as a cement factory laborer, as a furniture mover, and as a taxi driver. The mistake that creative people often make is switching their brain off when doing these “mindless” jobs. But for Glass, it was all grist for his mill (no matter how mundane it may have seemed at the time), providing learning opportunities and valuable inputs. This broad-minded philosophy of learning had roots in Glass’s studies at the University of Chicago, where, instead of specializing in a specific subject, he received a liberal arts education in the broadest sense, studying literature, art, history, and the classics. It was an all-embracing approach to knowledge that Glass would continue to endorse from that moment forward.
Learning to listen was another philosophy that Glass learnt, this time under the indefatigable Parisian pianist, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger, for decades the tutor for anyone who really wanted to succeed as a composer. Her influence on Glass’s life encompassed instilling the traditional values of music as an art form. A fascinating character in her own right, Boulanger was of the mindset that it was only once you had truly mastered the art of analytical listening, of being able to understand a piece of music segment by segment, that you could even begin to put pen to paper and start to write music for yourself. Without this regimen of tough love, Glass may have very well turned out to be just another composer. In the whole chapters Glass dedicates to Boulanger and his Parisian vie boheme, we learn that it wasn’t all as glamorous as the history books might lead us to believe. Just as young artists presently struggle to forge a career, worrying constantly about how their life is going to pan out, many transplanted to a strange city far away from familiar surroundings, so was Glass once in exactly the same situation. Instead of constantly applying for arts grants, he had to be more concerned with heating the attic room in which he lived. These basic survival skills provided a sort of “Zen” comfort that everything would work out. In this sense the autobiography should make for an inspiring read for today’s generation of composers and artists, especially with regard to the now-mythical image of the 1960s as some sort of artistic utopia. The idealistic lifestyle that supposedly prevailed is only half the story and the truth is that people did experience hardships. Philip Glass’s life offers a moral lesson—to pursue one’s dreams in a world where everything comes at a cost.
Inhabiting a tiny attic in Paris turned out to be valuable preparation for life back in New York, where he obtained a large loft space in the center of Manhattan for pennies. During this period Glass formed his eponymous ensemble and wrote, amongst other pieces, his seminal Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74). As he modestly states now, the secret to this music’s success was the basic fact that the title led people to expect twelve separate pieces, rather than one single piece scored for twelve instrumental parts. When they heard “only” the one piece at the first performance, this set up the expectation of another performance, and so Glass wrote another eleven pieces, which brought the audience back a further eleven times. It is arguable that this sort of coincidental concert would no longer be possible now, and that may be true as far as it goes, but it is also a fact today that art spaces are constantly cropping up in disused buildings and unusual spaces, and that this spirit of spontaneity may once more be on the rise. Whatever the case, Glass states in his memoir that the official, institutionally-affiliated concert halls of the time refused to play his amplified brand of music, so that many of his early performances were by necessity put on in alternative spaces such as art galleries, which gave his music a certain aura of easy accessibility.
After developing a following from his loft concert days, Glass’s next big move was to write a big stage piece with his friend, the avant-garde artist and director Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach. This operatic work revealed the true scope of what Glass could achieve, given freedom from idle boundaries and conventions. One of the very first plotless operas, this operatic abstraction (as the work could be reasonably described) was to become, arguably, a starting point for a new approach to the form as a whole. Glass and Wilson’s portrait of Albert Einstein was premiered in the summer of 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon and went on to tour around Europe and the U.S. A documentary made for U.S. public television in the Eighties called Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera still gives the viewer in 2015 an idea of the revolutionary impact of that production.
Glass’s more recent operas have also achieved substantial success, and though less revolutionary than the famous “Portrait Trilogy,” and with more traditional plotlines, they still confirm him as a true master of the stage. He is one of the few modern opera composers whose work is not only premiered, but re-performed and then subsequently taken up and adapted by different directors and presenters—something very rare amongst play-it-safe opera houses whose bread and butter is traditional productions of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, etc. It was in fact Glass’s knack for opera and the appeal of imagery and visual stimuli that eventually led him to begin to write for film. Few would consider him a professional “Hollywood composer” by any means, but his structured style of composition suited a wide variety of filmic aesthetics, and so in a sense he “slipped in” to the industry almost by accident. (Winning a Golden Globe in 1999, for The Truman Show, didn’t fundamentally change this fact.) As noted above, he still doesn’t call himself a film composer, which isn’t so much false modesty as Glass’s disinterest in trying to define himself. It is partly this reason that he has such a wide fan-base, because people from all sorts of backgrounds and various art forms can appreciate his work, each from different angles.
Glass doesn’t talk much in his book about his earlier performing career and the steady stream of concerts and premieres that continue to take up a significant portion of his time. His memoir is more about how he got to where he got to, than how he keeps going to wherever he’s going. Even so, it would have been nice to have more specific insights into how, during the 1970s and 1980s—back when he was still highly active as an instrumentalist—Glass found time to tour and play his own music while also creating new work. Listening to recordings of his own performances of his work, it is clear that he grasps the rhythms better than the majority of performers who have turned their attention to his work. He writes about how he was stunned to find that the incredibly intricate rhythms of Indian music are not notated, and perhaps this is where the structure in his works derives from. When repetitive structures are involved, new systems have to be created either by the performer or the composer to help the former learn and internalize the changes, which it can be all too easy to lose track of in the heat of the moment. A numerical system was something that Glass adopted from the principles of counting that he had learned in India, and it is much more organic than the rigid classical music technique of counting bars, more cyclical and making very complex rhythms much easier to remember. This could also be compared to Stravinsky’s work, another of Glass’s influences, which looks very complicated on the page, but is rather easier to understand upon hearing it. Again, it was a question of Glass learning to use all of his senses meticulously.
Glass writes about how his family, when he was growing up, viewed musicians as doomed to “living on the fringes of respectability”—a view that has since been belied many times over the course of his long, fruitful, and now decidedly “respectable” career. The moral that we can take from Words Without Music is that becoming a true artist requires one to master the arts in their entirety, to learn to absorb and apply all the information we are given throughout our lives, both good and bad, and to divert it to creative ends. Glass doesn’t mention any regrets in his memoir, and instead closes with a beautiful analogy comparing life and his ongoing search for new modes of expression with learning to ride a bike—“my feet looking for the ground, and sometimes touching the pedals.” - Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres
At Channel 4 in the 1980s, one of my first jobs, Philip Glass would sometimes “drop by” when over from New York. His visits caused small havoc. One normally bookish colleague would all but glue herself to her desk, primping her hair and giggling uncharacteristically, in hope of a glimpse of her hero. Soon, having seen what the fuss was about, we all succumbed to her addiction.
Glass’s downtown glamour preceded him like an aromatic whiff ahead of a pipe smoker. This bright boy from Baltimore, who could only afford to become a fully professional composer at the age of 41, always had a cult following, no doubt helped by his big hair, melancholy eyes and warm demeanour, mixed with innocent yet rampant self-belief.
Being of other musical persuasions, I had no real clue who he was. Contemporary music had a chasm down the middle at that time. On one side were Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, “American minimalists” who wrote pulsating rhythms and repetitive, slowly changing harmonies with long, overarching tunes. On the other, Pierre Boulez and composers of the European avant garde made gritty experiments in sound, shunned tunes and key signatures, and created mysteries with computers and electronics. I was of the Boulez persuasion.
A few more sightings and I was soon an avid Glass fan too. (Not yet being a music critic, actually hearing the music hadn’t come into the equation.) My first proper encounter with his unmistakable soundworld was Akhnaten, a critical disaster in New York but a triumph at English National Opera – which last week announced a new staging of the opera next season. It was beguiling and, in its sudden bursts into ravishing melody, rather shocking and wonderful. Hardcore musician friends were askance. Why chew bubble-gum music when you could grind your teeth on Stockhausen or Ligeti?
This aesthetic sectarianism was not as straightforward as now appears. Many composers crossed the barbed wire more than once trying to find their voice. Glass himself, as this lively, readable memoir shows, explored every kind of terrain before establishing his style in epics such as Einstein on the Beach and Music in Twelve Parts. As a boy helping out in his father’s record shop, he was so enthusiastic about Schoenberg that he over-ordered a new set of the string quartets – to his father’s chagrin. Surely, young Philip assumed, other folks in Baltimore would be as keen as he to sample Viennese atonality. The four sets took seven years to sell.
At the Juilliard conservatoire, living in unheated lofts in Lower Manhattan, Glass studied little but established the work routine that would sustain him for the next 40 years. Every day, unfailingly, from 10am to 1pm, he sat at his piano, whether he wrote a note or not. To pay his rent he worked as a builder, in a steel works, as a self-taught plumber (a worrying concept) and as a New York taxi driver (on one occasion he was nearly murdered. On another, asked by Martin Scorsese if he had seen his film Taxi Driver, he said no, he was out there being one).
Born in 1937, Glass was a child of the Beat generation. When eventually he had written enough music to win awards, he spent the funds on a BMW motorbike, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s recently published On the Road. John Cage was an influence, a key to the art of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra then current in the New York of the late 1950s and early 1960s. So too were the writings of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Hermann Hesse.
Glass grew up to follow the hippy trail to Kathmandu, complete with ashram, yoga and yogis, Buddhism and much chanting of “om”. Whereas fellow travellers soon traded bells and beads for suits and ties, he remained dedicated to his studies. He worked with Ravi Shankar and educated himself in classical Indian dance (kathakali). For more than a decade he travelled to India every other year, steeping himself in the culture as well as the politics of peace. This would surface in his operas, notably Satyagraha (another ENO hit, revived many times), which pays tribute to Gandhi.
Though never a prodigy, Glass always knew he could achieve what he set out to do. Rigorous studies in Paris with the great French guru, Nadia Boulanger, exposed him to European styles and disciplines. His vivid account of those sessions is one of the best sections of the book. It was 1964. The 60s proper were about to ignite. He lived in a tiny studio in Montparnasse just around the corner from Samuel Beckett, with whom he would work. Truffaut had just made Jules et Jim. The Nouvelle Vague was in vogue. Glass was in his element.
This memoir, while hardly no-holds-barred, fills in many gaps, especially about his childhood and family in postwar east coast America. His grandparents spoke Yiddish. His librarian mother was the self-improver, urging her two sons and one daughter towards fulfilment through education. His father was steady in support. Little is said about the rift between father and son in later years, but the wound remains deep. Only two of his four wives feature: JoAnne Akalaitis, mother of his first two children, and Candy Jernigan, the love of his life, who died young. Two more children, born much later, are mentioned briefly. Friendships are celebrated, losses mourned, privacies respected. Aids, Woodstock, Vietnam, the film world, the art world, the jazz era of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker: all spring to life in these pages. Philip Glass is a deft, quietly witty writer. Finding his own music – how to make it, where it comes from – is his first priority. “What does your music sound like?” he is often asked. “It sounds like New York City,” this generous-hearted, all-American composer replies. - Fiona Maddocks