Philip Glass: Everyone was dead and I was a ‘musical idiot’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 05.08.2015

What originally got Philip Glass going as a composer was the realization that he was “living in a world where all the composers were dead. Even the living ones were dead.” He decided to do something about it.

Glass describes in his engrossing new memoir Words Without Music (Liveright Publishing Co.) how and why he writes his repetitive, controversial music, and how hard it was to get accepted by the public. Anyone working in New Music will immediately relate.

Philip Glass as drawn by the author Michael Johnson.

While studying in Paris in the 1960s, his French colleagues branded his compositions “nonsense,” he recalls. “I was widely considered a musical idiot.”

The humiliations were just beginning. He worked on counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, and stayed with her for two years despite her austere teaching methods, which he found to be somewhere between “intimidating and terrifying”. Later in life, feeling more charitable, he would say that every note he ever wrote was influenced by Ms. Boulanger.

And with all his intellectual and musical training (University of Chicago, Juilliard) his first public concert, at Queens College, New York, could hardly have been less promising. Six people turned up, one of whom was his mother. She had come up from Baltimore for the occasion. Her only comment after the concert, “Your hair is too long.” Eight years later he was doing his “opera” “Einstein At the Beach” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in front of almost 4,000 paying attendees. Even standing room was sold out on two consecutive nights. Mom turned up again but had no comment, not even about his hair.

This memoir is the story of blind determination and a jaunty sense of knowing where he wanted to be in the music world. He dreamed of an audience of thousands, he acknowledges, and he achieved it. Self-deprecation surfaces on almost every page but one might say he gets the last laugh. Glass today is the most frequently performed and widely appreciated living composer, with close to 30 operas, 11 concertos, 10 symphonies, about 30 film scores, compositions for theatrical and dance productions, solo works and chamber music. At age 78, and with four wives behind him, he is still at it.

One unnamed composer is quoted as describing Glass’s music: “…(T)ake a C-major chord and just play it over and over again – that’s what Philip Glass does.” Glass counters that “that’s exactly what I don’t do.” He argues that to make the music listenable “you have to change the face of the music – one-two one-two-three – so that the ear could never be sure of what it is going to hear.” His start was rocky because, as he recalls, a listener must grasp what the piece is actually doing. “Unfortunately, at first, not everyone was able to do that.”

He aimed to give the audience “an emotional buoyancy”. In the best of worlds, once the audience enters the flow of the music, the buoyancy “is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level”.

He covers most of his personal life in this book, including Eastern influences from Ravi Shankar and others, but one of the most absorbing chapters for the world of performers and concert-goers will be the 20-page blow-by-blow account of “Einstein on the Beach”, a redefinition of opera in collaboration with Robert Wilson. Rehearsals began in the spring of 1976. The collaboration seemed to excite Glass and Wilson equally. “Both of us had a keen appreciation of the power of music to lift up a work. Any good theater piece, even one from Shakespeare or Beckett that wouldn’t seem to need much lifting, would benefit from a good score.”

As it happened, the French government helped finance Einstein as its “official gift” in honor of the U.S. bicentennial. The good luck proceeded to take Einstein to the Avignon Festival of the same year, thence to productions in Paris, Venice, Belgrade, Hamburg, Brussels and Rotterdam – 33 performances in seven European venues.

Glass recalls, all these years later, that during the five-hour Einstein performance he was “probably out of my body most of the evening”. He says the audience “was out of their minds – there was an uproar. People couldn’t believe it. They were screaming and laughing – practically dancing. We were near exhaustion…It was like the euphoria of childbirth, followed by ecstatic relief, then deep fatigue”.

Ironically, critical reaction was mixed. “The French left-wing publications, Including Libération, loved it, while the right wing hated it. Just like today. Some things never change.”

Soon after, when the sold-out Met performance made him a household name, he was still in such deep debt that he had to continue his “day job”, driving a taxi in New York, for another two years.

Like many of the innovators in New Music in New York, Vienna, Darmstadt and Paris, Glass intentionally turned his back on 19th century structures, harmonies, rhythms and tonalities. His memoir is peppered with references, nods and debts to John Cage, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and others. But he was always an outsider. “What I’m interested in,” he writes, “are my own abilities to think of things, to express, to use a musical language, to make it listenable. I always felt that people would like this music, and over time, the audiences, so small in the beginning, have only gotten larger."

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Philip Glass, Glassworks:


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