Time Cycles

Philip Glass
Words Without Music: A Memoir
(Liveright, 2015)

Philip Glass’s new memoir, Words Without Music, is an absorbing, graceful, and humane window into the interior life of one of our most important and arguably most famous composers. It also reads—and this is in no way Glass’s intention or fault—as a sad, even despair-inducing silhouette of an economic and social environment, and the room within it for a deeply committed life of creative work, that no longer exists in New York City, and probably not anywhere in the United States.

Words Without Music is not autobiography, though it is necessarily full of stories of Glass’s life, and for about the first half follows a relatively sequential flow of family background, childhood, Glass’s first independent steps out into the world as a teenager, his formative studies as a composer at Juilliard and in Paris, and his personal journey of self-discovery and meaning. Glass is one of the rare few composers in the classical tradition who have a broad appeal with listeners who usually favor more popular genres, and he’s also one of an essential group of post-WWII composers whose work was accepted by the art and theater worlds long before he was embraced by his own tradition—he writes how the classical world considered him a “musical dunce” in the early 1970s.

For everyone who has been fascinated and moved by his music, the book will be full of deep insights into how Glass the man became Glass the composer. If you came to his work through the gallery performances of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, or via his production of the 1980s echt new wave band Polyrock, you will discover the consuming, exhausting dedication to basic musicianship and craft it takes to be a composer. If you did indeed think that Glass was a dunce, but were gradually swayed by the skill, effect, and power of Einstein on the Beach and other operas, you will find that he has been studying and working seriously in the classical tradition since he was a teenager, and that he knows as much about counterpoint and modulation as anyone. He is, and has been, the epitome of a composer.

Born in 1937, raised in Baltimore in a secular Jewish family that, economically and socially, fit into blue-collar, lower-middle-class American society, Glass went on to the Great Books program at the University of Chicago when he was 15—he passed the entrance exam—studied at Juilliard, spent some time as the resident composer of the Pittsburgh public school system (is there any such job anymore?), then earned a fellowship to study with Nadia Boulanger (the most important composition teacher of the 20th century), in Paris. He traveled, then returned to New York in the late 1960s to work day jobs, write music, form his ensemble, and create his great works of absolute and dramatic music.

Work is at the core of his story. There is the work of becoming a composer, the years of writing lessons in counterpoint and harmony, analyzing and playing Bach and Mozart, learning to sight-sing and play figured bass on the keyboard. At one point, Glass decides to copy, by hand, the score to Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 so that he can better understand how to use detail in his notation.

There is also the work of living. Glass earned the money he needed for Juilliard by working in the Bethlehem Steel plant, and while in New York he did manual labor loading trucks. It was relatively easy to live cheap, and he did so in un-renovated post-industrial lofts, heated via wood- and coal-burning stoves. Later, when married and raising a family, he worked as an unlicensed plumber and spent several years driving a cab, which, despite the real and considerable danger of that job in the mid-1970s, he enjoyed: drivers took home 49% of their fares, plus tips; garages covered gas, insurance, and tires; and he could take time to tour with his ensemble.

Now, standardized tests and the immoral costs of higher education are the tools of a phony and self-preserving meritocracy, and someone born into Glass’s circumstances would not only be forced to take on onerous debt but would have to specialize in an economically viable career. SoHo is a shopping mall, the once-desolate warehouses of Dumbo now anchor one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City, and it is not only impossible to live cheap but also to find the type of jobs that Glass, and John Cage before him, could pick up when they needed work. At one point, Glass puts up Moondog at his own home for a year, and it is both inconceivable that someone in Glass’s circumstances could afford to do that now, and that someone like Moondog would ever have the opportunity to make music in the first place.

The book is tantalizing for what is not quite there. In a revealing passage, Glass relates how, through her rigorous discipline about the basic structures and techniques of composing in the Western classical tradition, Boulanger nudged him from the state of studying composition to the state of being a composer:

There were countless times when she brought me to a deeper understanding of music. And, besides, she kept one more surprise for me, which came at the end of my second year. One afternoon in the late spring of 1966, I brought her a fairly long and complicated harmony exercise. She paused at the end of her usual reading and told me that the resolution of the soprano part on the tonic (or root) of the chord was incorrect. By then I knew the rules of harmony top to bottom (or, rather, bottom to top). I insisted it was correct. She reiterated that it was wrong. I persisted. Then, before my eyes, she performed an amazing feat of musical erudition. She reached behind the music rack of the piano, picked up an edition of Mozart’s piano music (which just “happened” to be there). She turned to a middle movement of one of the piano sonatas and pointed to an upper note in the right hand. “Mozart, in the same circumstances, resolved the upper note on the third, not the tonic.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After two years of solid application to the rules, they had suddenly been set aside. Well, not exactly. There was actually nothing wrong with my solution. It was just that Mozart’s was better.

We sat quietly for only a moment and I understood, suddenly, that somewhere along the way, she had changed the point of the exercise. I had thought she was teaching technique—the how you “do” or “not do” in music. But that was over. She had raised the ante. Now we were talking about style. In other words, there could be many correct solutions to a musical problem. However, the particular way a composer solved the problem, or (to put it another way) his or her predilections for one solution over several others, became the audible style of the composer. Almost like a fingerprint. […] So we know without doubt or hesitation the difference between Bach and Bartók, Schubert and Shostakovich. Style is a special case of technique. […] An authentic personal style cannot be achieved without a solid technique at its base. That in a nutshell is what Madame Boulanger was teaching. Not as a theory, because theory can be debated and superseded. She taught it as a practice, a “doing.” The realization came through the work. Her personal method was to just bang it into your head, until one day, you got it. That’s how, in the end, I understood my work with her.

While in Paris studying with Boulanger, Glass was already writing his first mature works, four early string quartets and music for Samuel Beckett’s Play—he has always considered himself a theater composer—but the transition from pieces like his expressionistic String Quartet No. 1 (1966) to the exhilarating avant-garde music of Strung Out (1967), Piece in the Shape of a Square (1968), and the early masterpieces Music in Similar Motion and Music in Contrary Motion (both 1969), is mysterious. The String Quartet No. 1 is based around repeating patterns and shifting rhythms, but the drama of its sound is close kin to the Late Romantic era, while the resonant tonality and fluid counterpoint of the works that would follow transformed the classical tradition.

So much so that his music upset a lot of listeners, even learned ones. Glass’s style used technique to solve musical problems in new ways. Instead of the historically common linear development through time, and the structured repetition of regular segments (e.g. Haydn’s eight bar segments), Glass used constant repetition and constant change to develop his pieces through a process of adding notes until the first phrase was transformed into something related but quite different. His large-scale sense of structure has always been more closely related to his beloved Bruckner than any other composer, and Bruckner was another composer who was considered by many to be a “musical dunce,” both during his time and after.

The implication in the memoir is that Glass found his style, without theoretical considerations, through work and through his small epiphany with Boulanger, one of a series of such events that shaped his values and the direction of his life. One was a realization about the structure of Indian music that came to him while supervising a film scoring session in Paris with Ravi Shankar and tabla master Alla Rakha. The most important one seems to have been when, at a friend’s apartment in London in the winter of ’65 – ’66, he randomly pulled a book off the shelf: The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. Inside Glass found an illustration that had such an effect on him that it led him on a long, personally important journey across Europe and India to the town of Kalimpong and into a devotion to Tibetan Buddhism (he had already begun to practice yoga while at Juilliard). This strikes me as the key to his discovery of his voice as a composer, a way to synthesize his personal practice and values, his interest in Indian music, and the classical tradition: reverse engineer Philip Glass and you get a combination of Western counterpoint and an Eastern view of cyclical time.

The counterpart to all this work is money, an important issue in a time when we, astonishingly, have to argue over whether or not people doing creative work deserve to be paid for it. Quality work is no guarantee of economic success, and Einstein on the Beach is an upsetting example. The massively popular initial tour of Europe and the triumphal sellout at the Metropolitan Opera House (the Met had to add a performance) left Glass and Robert Wilson $100,000 in debt. They spent years selling everything they could to retire that. Glass made no money when he was commissioned to write Akhnaten:

I had already used up all the commission money to pay for the preparation of the conductor’s score and the piano reduction used by the singers for rehearsals. In addition, I had to pay for copying the parts from which the musicians in the orchestra would play, and for that I needed about $15,000.

There is no better depiction of how composing is economic suicide.

But the operas made Glass’s reputation, and made it possible for him to become a full-time composer in his 40s. “In a sense I was saved, quite literally, by opera,” he writes. “It was the end of my day jobs, which had begun in 1957. […] I even consider myself lucky.”

Around this point, the book’s structure changes, with chapters surveying the context, genesis, and fruition of large blocks of his work, including Music in Twelve Parts, his first film scores for Godfrey Reggio, and his theatrical interpretations of Jean Cocteau’s films. Through all this, Glass is a gentle and engrossing narrator, writing in a fluid style that balances companionably plain language with an underlying, formal presentation—something close to his music. He explores some painful subjects, like the ultimately bizarre way his marriage to writer and theater director Joanne Akalaitis (with whom he and others founded Mabou Mines) led to the loss of his relationship with his father, but keeps a cool, almost objective tone, giving us more observation than personal revelation. He is subtle and discreet on the breakup of his first marriage—his infidelity was the cause. He is more open about his relationship with artist Candy Jernigan, which came to an end with her tragic early death in 1991, and the understatement with which he relates her end has enormous effect.

Glass also tries the impossible: to explain in written language the internal experience of composing music, the objective meaning and process of how one thinks in sound and translates that into structure via notes on the page. Here the book bogs down, exactly as in The Confessions of St. Augustine, when Augustine tries to explain his interior meditations on the mystery of time. But again, this is an impossible task. Or, rather, Glass’s own music eloquently explains what his words cannot.


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.