Philip Glass: Words Without Music - A Memoir

Nenad Georgievski By

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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.
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