"Words Without Music" by Philip Glass

by Glen Roven Emmy-award winning composer, Artistic Director of RovenRecords 04.08.2015

WHEN I TOLD a snarky friend I was writing about the new Philip Glass autobiography, Words Without Music, she asked, “Does it go like this: I, I, I, I, I, I, was, was, was, was, was, born, born, born, born …?” Snarky.

I get it, of course, which is more than I have been able to say, over the years, about Glass’s music. Much as I hate to say anything negative about a fellow musician, and despite his monumental output — 28 operas, 10 symphonies, countless film scores, and many incidental pieces — I have never gone out of my way to hear his music live. I picked up his autobiography having heard maybe a tenth of his work; the only piece that I actually know well is the ballet Glass Pieces, which I’ve seen at least 15 times. But other than that one piece, no matter how much I hear about the theory behind his practice and how important his work is, I have just never found the there, there.


Thus I started the sensationally titled Words Without Music with trepidation. My anxiety dissipated quickly, though. The opening sentence quotes his mother: “If you go to New York to study music, you’ll end up like your Uncle Henry, spending your life traveling from city to city, and living in hotels.” My mother said the same thing to me, practically verbatim. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked.

The next rollicking 300 pages detail, in masterful prose, the rise of Glass as a musician/composer/entrepreneur and simultaneously the avant-garde art scene that exploded in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s, where Glass was the red-hot epicenter of the music world. His friends and colleagues are a who’s who of that generation: Samuel Beckett, Ornette Coleman, Robert Wilson, Conrad Susa, José Límon, Peter Schickele, Richard Serra, Leo Castelli, Chuck Close, Lucinda Childs, Laurie Anderson, Julian Beck, and more. “There was a huge explosion going on in New York in the 1960s,” he writes, “when the art world, the theater world, the dance world, and the music world all came together. It was a party that never stopped, and I felt like I was in the middle of it.”

Although his story is pretty much the standard portrait of a soon-to-be very famous artist as a young man, what sets this book apart is the charm of the narrative and the complete innocence and naivety he projects. He betrays no burning ambition or desire for riches, fame, and their accoutrements. He is one of the only artists I’ve read about — or know personally for that matter — who actually seemed to enjoy his journey, both spiritual and musical. Plus, he seemed to learn something profound with each step of his way, until completely formed as an artist. He was ready for success by the time it happened.

Glass, his older brother, and sister grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s, his mother a school librarian. The children spent their weekends in his father’s record shop, where Glass was first exposed to classical music. Intellectually curious, he quickly discovered, in addition to the Schubert and Beethoven, the music written in his own time: Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and, his particular favorite, Bartok. He also discovered something early on at the record store that held him in good stead: music should be paid for. You want music, you pay for it. (If the Millennials felt the same way, my label would be making money!)

Glass studied flute at the extension program of Peabody Conservatory as a high school student and was admitted to the University of Chicago before his senior year. On the night train to college, he describes a seminal moment:

The wheels on the track made endless patterns, and I was caught up in it almost at once. Years later, studying with Alla Rahka, Ravi Shankar’s great tabla player and music partner […] I learned the tools by which apparent chaos could be heard as an unending array of shifting beats and patterns.

This certainly feels like the inevitable scene in every showbiz movie where the lead character’s internal lightbulb goes off and she exclaims, “Wait a minute! This could work.” And yet I bought it completely. True or not, it’s great storytelling. And it caused me to have a “wait a minute” moment of my own — “an unending array of shifting beats and patterns,” — I realized I need to listen to some more of Glass’s music.

I play his Sonata III. It is gorgeous.

Glass was successful in college and particularly taken with what has since fallen out of favor: great books by white European men. His first three operas, Einstein on the BeachSatyagraha, and Akhnaten, were all based on required reading.

In Chicago he also discovered progressive jazz. “What I learned from that music became part of my own language,” he writes:

I’ve become very comfortable combining melodic material with harmonic material that does not at first seem to be supported. The melodies may not be part of the harmony, but the ear accepts them as alternate notes. They’re extensions of the harmony and can even sound as if the music is in two keys at once. That way of hearing melodies certainly comes out of listening to jazz, and I hear that in my music when I’m writing symphonies and especially operas.

Wait a minute, I thought. I really have to start listening to this guy.

After a quick trip to Paris — where, on his first night, he was swept into a piece of performance art that lasted 24 hours — he arrived in New York City to attend Juilliard, which didn’t accept him immediately and asked him to reaudition the next year, after more private study. Unphased, Glass rented a one-room cold water flat and took a job unloading trucks, and later an unheated loft downtown — living like Schaunard, the musician in La Bohème.

I learned how to stack the coal so it could burn eight to ten hours without having to touch it. […] I kept a pail of water on the stove at all times and that was my hot water for washing and cleaning up. […] If you got it right, the stove could go all night.

After Juilliard, he met his first wife, director JoAnne Akalaitis, seducing her with the perfect pickup line, “Do you want to ride on my bike?” (His motorcycle.) With Akalaitis he met his first collaborator, another kindred soul. Although he writes about the relationship with a certain sense of detachment, it becomes quite clear why later in the book. (No spoiler here, but it’s a tearjerker.)

Glass soon moved to Paris thanks to a Fulbright scholarship to study with the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Paris was another scene out of Puccini: he lived in a garrett, started a three-person theater company, ate at cafés, and wrote music. And he had another seminal moment of discovery.

Glass got a job working on a film that Indian musician Ravi Shankar was scoring. Glass’s job was to write down what Shankar improvised on his sitar in Western music notation so that the classical studio musicians hired to perform on the sound track could actually play the score. But problems arose immediately with Glass’s transcription. He heard Alla Rakha, Shankar’s assistant “exclaiming very emphatically that the accents in the music were incorrect.

I had already set the metronome to the tempo Raviji wanted and I began writing out the parts again, grouping and regrouping the phrases to get the accents the way they were supposed to be heard […]. Each time, Alla Rakha would interrupt and, shaking his head, say repeatedly. “All the notes are equal.”

I then tried moving the bar lines around.

“All the notes are equal,” he declared again.

By now the musicians had joined in and the session was becoming chaotic, with the players shouting […]. In the midst of all this and in desperation, I simply erased all of the bar lines, thinking I would just start all over again. There before my eyes I saw a stream of notes, grouped into twos and threes. I saw at once what he was trying to tell me.

I turned to him and said, “All the notes are equal,” and his response was a big warm smile.

Et voilà, Philip Glass was born.

The book goes on to detail Glass’s dedication to Boulanger and his superhuman commitment to her intense method of training composers, with counterpoint, harmony, theory, and more counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint. American composer Virgil Thomson once said, “Every town in America has a drugstore and a student of Boulanger’s,” but I doubt that many of them pursued their art as diligently as Glass. He writes that he was always hurt by the critics who claim he must be some sort of amateur with no real training, when he had the best training any composer could possible desire. “I was widely considered a musical idiot.” Ouch.

Glass’s time in Paris at an end, he and Akalaitis (they got married in Gibraltar as the wedding license was cheap) began an epic journey worthy of a Homeric poem across Europe to India. Throughout his life Glass had been attracted to yoga and the religions of India, and this trek — through Greece, Turkey, Iraq, all for pennies a day — was to have another effect on his life and work. India seemed like the Emerald City to Glass, and he made pilgrimages to New Delhi, Katmandu, Bombay, Cheruthuruthy, Bhutan, and Darjeeling. Each yogi he met urged him on to the next place, where he was embraced as a spiritual brother. This section of the book could exist on its own as, an intimate guide to what it was like wandering around India when the Raj was still very much in people’s consciousness; Glass was invited into almost every monastery, ashram, and shrine in the region, his “most memorable [experience] taking a refreshing dip in the Ganges.”

Over a period of almost sixty years, I have taken up the study and practice of four traditions: hatha yoga […]; Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism; Taoist qigong and tai chi; and the Toltec tradition of central Mexico. All of these work with the idea of “the other world,” the world that is normally unseen, the premise being that the unseen world can be brought into view.

Part Two brings Glass back to New York, where he happily resumes his truck-loading career, while all the time composing music in the East Village art scene. Akalaitis (who cleaned houses during the day) created the Mabou Mines. Ellen Stewart was creating La MaMa and Joe Papp was staring the Public Theater.

I went to see Joe Chaikin’s and Richard Schechner’s work, as well as Bob Wilson’s, Meredith Monk’s, and Richard Foreman’s. We rejoiced in the diversity — it became affirmation through diversity rather than by consensus. […] Who were the audiences for these theater and dance performances? We were: the musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, poets, and writers.

He also started lessons with Alla Rakha, with whom he learned the fundamentals of Indian music. He learned that the tal is the number of beats that “provides the ground upon which the melodic material will be heard. The coincidence of the two elements, rhythm and melody, become the main concerns of the music.”

I listen to his Music in Twelve Parts. It is monumental, superb.

Glass’s first breakthrough was with this piece. He had been writing sections of it for three years, and when it was done he boldly rented Town Hall, hoping ticket sales would help defray the costs. Up until that time, his concerts had perhaps 40 or 50 people in the audience, but word spread, and the concert sold out, all four and a half hours of it.

While Glass was driving a taxi to support himself, he and Robert Wilson created Einstein on the Beach, another monumental (and monumentally long) theater piece that toured Europe to great acclaim, although, like a great deal of well-received experimental art, it lost money. At the recommendation of Jerome Robbins, Jane Herman, who was running the Special Event series at the Metropolitan Opera, went to Hamburg to see the piece and booked it for one Sunday in November 1976. It sold out. All 3,800 seats. Philip’s mother was in the audience, not quite understanding it, but knowing her son had “made it.” Downtown moved uptown and Glass was a star.

Sad to say, the book became far less interesting in the next section. The financial struggle over, he goes from major project to major project writing about how this production didn’t give him enough time to rehearse, that production didn’t have the right collaborators — in other words, the artist describing (and bemoaning) how difficult it is to get things perfect. Not nearly as interesting as his initial struggles, when he worries about getting enough money to heat his apartment.

The final chapters chart his affair with and subsequent marriage to Candy Jernigan, the love of his life, and, sadly, her untimely death from cancer. Again, the plot line of a hundred tearjerker movies, but Glass’s prose, coupled with his quiet spirituality, lift the final chapters of the book to a beautiful height.

I put on Symphony No. 9. I get it.


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