Philip Glass: Words Without Music - A Memoir


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Words Without Music: A Memoir
Philip Glass
432 pages
ISBN: 0871404389

While composer John Cage is the first name in contemporary classical music that most people will likely know, the music of composer Philip Glass is probably more likely to be the first sound of it they actually hear. His music and influence are literary widespread everywhere. Today Glass reigns supreme as America's most successful living composer and his music can be found at the opera, ballet, TV and film soundtracks, symphony or dance halls. Glass has had the kind of career that is unlikely to ever be duplicated. It is a life marked by a restless, even relentless drive toward creative expression that remains undiminished till this very day. Philip Glass has done a lot of living in his 78 years—enough to write not one memoir but two, the first Music by Philip Glass (Harper and Row, 1988) and the second, Words Without Music. Words Without Music is a fascinating look into that creative genius, drive and accomplishments which have made him going from a revolutionary composer to establishment over the course of his career. He participated in one of the most significant music revolutions in 20th century music where an artistic movement that was dedicated to the act of reduction and simplification changed the way people listen to and think about music.

Glass was born in Baltimore to hard working, first generation Americanized Jews whose roots were in the USSR. His father repaired radios and sold records in an electric shop while his mother was a school librarian. The first music he was exposed to was classical which he heard from his father's collection. Equally important were Italian crooners and Elvis Presley. He began taking flute lessons as a child in the Peabody Conservatory, and at the age of 15 he went to the University of Chicago in a special program for bright kids. It's interesting to note of others that went there as well, like astronomer Carl Sagan and writer and activist Susan Sontag who also attended the same program a year before or after Glass did. At the University he studied maths and philosophy, but these subjects were of passing interest. At night he acquainted himself with the music of Charles Ives and Anton Webern. During the summer break of 1954 he went to Paris to follow in the footsteps of his hero Jean Cocteau and lived the life of a student bohemian. At the age of 19 he graduated and went to New York's prestigious Julliard School of Music. Julliard, which was considered to be the premier American music school of the time, was the second hothouse academic environment he'd experienced. Much like the University of Chicago, they put very talented people together to see what would happen. He got a diploma from Julliard and by 1962 he was in Pittsburgh on another reward, as an in-house composer for the local public school.

In 1964, Glass found himself in Paris on a two year Fulbright Scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger, who had taught several generations of American classical composers, including some of America's most distinguished musical figures: Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Elliott Carter and Walter Piston, to name just a few. Boulanger had been a stern lecturer and he found himself in situation where she ridiculed and bullied him, negating his past work and getting him to start all over with punishing lessons in counter-point and harmony. Beethoven and Mozart were the order of the day. Despite the scholarship, Glass has found that he still needed to support himself, and in the course of doing so met up with an unusual musical influence: Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar . Glass worked with Shankar, helping him prepare his music for Western studio musicians to play for his film Chappaqua.

At the same time, he also studied with table player Allah Rakha. While working on the written notation of Shankar's music, Glass became absorbed in the structure of Indian ragas and talas, the cyclic rhythm patterns of north Indian music. It was there that he came to see how rhythm could be used to shape his own musical ideas, developing, in the process, his particular brand of minimalism based on rhythms with overlapping cycles. It's this feeling of cyclical motion which would mark out his later music from that of his contemporaries. The earliest work in this manner was composed for a theater company in Paris. Shankar also represented both a composer and a performer, and that was the moment when he set his sight on making his way in the world as a composer and a performer although not through the academic system. Before 1966, he had written 80 pieces and these he turned away from, instead vowing to start afresh. At a time when Western art music had reached a state of information saturation, where the modern music as represented by Pierre Boulez, was considered as cul-de-sac, he developed his new language.

But to delve into the history of Glass' music without providing a context for the times in which it was made wouldn't get at its relevance. What emerges from his account is a multi- faceted look at one musician's life, and the effects that it had on both the people around him and the community of which he was a part. Apart from telling biographical information about his background and various stories, the book is characterized by several sub-themes. The first is the path he undertook in order to become a composer going from school to school, and the circumstances that have shaped his tastes and intellect. It seems that all throughout the book Glass is on a some sort of a pilgrimage or on a road to discovery. During that formative period of learning Glass was very aware of different musics other than classical. He attended jazz concerts in clubs in Chicago and New York by the likes of Billie Holiday , Bud Powell , John Coltrane , and was especially fond of saxophonist Ornette Coleman . Also he was a voracious reader and fond of the writings of Joseph Conrad, Herman Hesse as well as those of the beatniks. Travels through the US, Morocco Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Glass and his first wife Joanne Akalaitis spent months at the base of the Himalayas immersing themselves in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Not only that, but Glass, throughout the years, also got involved in hatha yoga, qigong practices and the Mexican Toltec culture.

Another subtheme is the work ethic that was installed by his parents. The many stories of music and travel are sprinkled with stories of working as a plumber, a mover, an artist's assistant and a taxi driver. It's almost surreal to read how Glass has been pursuing various manual jobs in order to provide for his family, to sustain his art and parallel to that to practice the piano, yoga, to attend exhibitions. The book covers a tremendous amount of ground and gives you something to remember on almost every page.

Apart from acknowledging different people from various cultural branches what lacks is throwing more light on other matters and people. While Glass insists on his individual path in his story he doesn't acknowledge the works of others in the same movement that he was/is part of. Very little is spoken of composer Steve Reich . For many years, the names Glass and Reich were inextricably linked in the musical press. Discussing the one without the other was something like discussing about Lennon without McCartney or Laurel without Hardy. Over the years they have taken very different approaches to their work. Yet it is unarguable that since the early '70s, Glass and Reich have been the most visible composers associated with the label Minimalism. In 1967, one year after Steve Reich formed his New York Group, Glass began to put together his own ensemble, which also featured Reich. They both met in 1958 while studying at the Julliard School. By 1968 they both teamed up, fronting the same band and moved furniture together. At the time music flowed out of him—Music in the Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion and Music in Similar Motion. Shortly after, in 1969 they went their separate ways due to musical differences.

It is no surprise that the term Minimalism was affixed to the music Reich and Glass were composing at the start of the '70s. Many of the minimalistic pieces of those early years were built around repeating fragments that change in a very slow, subtle fashion. One point of these repetitive works was to draw out the process of musical change to such an extent that the listener could practically "see" as well as hear the process taking place. Unlike serial composers, the minimalists strove for simplicity and clarity. Simplicity they achieved, but clarity proved to be a problem.

At the time, these composers were seen as the lunatic fringe of modern music and the musical establishment began to launch a barrage of hysterical invective against them. They broke out all the rules: they used cheap electric organs, the sounds of wind instruments and voices were amplified (it was composer/guitarist Frank Zappa who actually gave him the courage to amplify his music), the rhythms they used were strong and pulsating and they wrote tune, which was unforgiving. The levels of polemics were extraordinary and the criticism vitriolic. The only places where this music was performed were art galleries, rock clubs, lofts and other unusual venues. Glass' route to fame and recognition has been anything but easy. It is literally "Per Aspera ad Astra" or through the thorns to the stars. Wittingly he writes about negative criticism "I thought this selling out idea was a bizarre notion. It seemed to me that people who didn't have to sell out ... must have had rich parents. "

Glass goes into details about the music from that period and people's reactions. The book occasionally borders on the academic but never makes for less than a brisk, absorbing read. From then on he centers the events from his life around more popular and better known works in his oeuvre and on discussing the meanings behind it. Any doubts about the quality of the Minimalist trend were cast away with the 1976 production of Einstein on the Beach, the first of the portrait operas. The collaboration between Glass and director Robert Wilson invented a new type of theater where music, movement and visuals acted as co-equals. It was the peak of his minimalism phase. The opera was a huge success and left its mark on the art world but it left Glass in huge debts. He had to continue to drive a cab until 1979 when he wrote the second portrait opera Satyagraha when he received a Rockefeller grant and a commission from the Netherlands Opera.

But it was the soundtrack Koyaanisquatsy or "Life Out of Balance" that would make the Glass' star shine even brighter. Written for director Godfrey Reggio's groundbreaking film that featured panoramic visuals of nature clashing with the destructive and all-consuming nature of modern urban life, the soundtrack was a unique marriage of visuals and music. When he is asked how does he approach music for films, he replies he doesn't—all he does is writing the music that is the film. The partnership was so fruitful that over the years these two have worked on 5 more important and thought provoking films. In 1980 he remarried, this time to a doctor, but that didn't last. The '80s were probably the most intense decade of his life as commissions arrived one after another. Special place is given to the "Cocteau Trilogy," based on the works of his greatest hero, Jean Cocteau. This trilogy consisted of three works, Orphée, La Belle et la Bête, and Les Enfants Terribles, a chamber opera, a movie soundtrack and a ballet. What he did with these works was to rethink the nature of film and music but through the lens of an opera. He did that in the same manner as Belle transformed the beast.

The book ends on a high note with his epiphanies about the nature of music. He is not thinking about music, but he is thinking music. Music is a physical and real place for Glass rather than an abstract notion. With an eventful and fruitful life such as his, Glass' memoir easily could have been double the size it is now. Too bad the publishers didn't push him to write more. Maybe that is left for the third memoir. But the book doesn't rely on the tell-all details of most music biographies. In the end, though, Glass has given us a mostly revealing look at his life and artistic methods, in so doing significantly enriching the music literature. Interspersing the chapters with details about collaborations and projects, ideas, observations, processes, epiphanies, or personal issues, Words Without Music is a portal into vivid moments in music history as well as the life and times of one of the greatest modern composers.

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