Book review: Words Without Music — a Memoir

ONE day in the 1970s, the art critic Robert Hughes came into his New York kitchen and saw that the plumber kneeling on the floor was the city’s most talked about avant-garde musician.

Philip Glass

Faber & Faber, £12.99

“You’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?”

“I’m installing your dishwasher — and I’ll soon be finished.”

The composer of Koyaanisqatsi and Einstein on the Beach doesn’t write about the scale of his present wealth, but he leaves you in no doubt it came neither early nor easily. 

He was 42 years old when a generous opera commission emboldened him to give up his taxi driver’s licence. 

Before then, to raise a young family, pay the musicians of the Philip Glass Ensemble, and clear a huge debt from his ‘successful’ Einstein opera, he had cheerfully gone to work at furniture removal and building work, as well as plumbing and driving a cab.

Glass describes it all — including his escape from a near-deadly ambush on the Upper East Side — without a hint of resentment.

On the contrary: taxi-driving gave him flexible hours and time to compose; loading delivery trucks was “a very good job”. 

As for plumbing: the technique of handling hot lead is described in such loving detail as to be a celebration.

The spirit of celebration pervades the whole book, from young Philip’s days working in his father’s record store around 1950, to his thought processes now as a 79-year-old composer (“I’m not thinking about music, I’m thinking music”).

There are no villains in these pages, and no scores to be settled. 

Even when his beloved father bars him from the family house for marrying a gentile, their nine-year estrangement is described with understanding as well as regret, and without a hint of rancour.

Such equanimity no doubt reflects Glass’s Buddhist practice and beliefs. 

It must also spring from the sunny self-confidence he displayed from his teenage years, insisting on entering Chicago University at 15 to study maths and philosophy, indulging a voracious intellectual curiosity and deciding to be, not just a composer, but his own kind of composer.

The need to assert that individuality anew may be at least part of the reason for his writing his memoirs now for the second time (Music by Philip Glass appeared 29 years ago).

He will always be placed among that group of American ‘minimalist’ composers of the 1960s — La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and others — who were influenced by John Cage and began working with very limited musical means, slowly changing common chords, motoric rhythms, etc.

In Glass’s own account, Young, Riley and Reich appear as contemporaries rather than influences. He highlights instead the factors unique to his own development. 

In particular, there was his study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, legendary teacher of composers, from whom he proudly quotes the recommendation she wrote for him: “I believe that someday he will do something very important in the world of music”.

The other great influence he acknowledges is Ravi Shankar. He worked as assistant to the great Indian musician in Paris in 1965, and credits him with inspiring the development of new rhythmic structures in his own music.

Throughout these pages the glass (pardon the pun) is constantly half full: “John Cage liked me personally” is a typical observation — and the optimism is constantly endearing.

Above all, there is a thoughtfulness which is deeply engaging. Describing the process of artistic creation, for example, Glass suggests that the artist can stop being aware of himself so that all his resources of attention are devoted to visualizing the work. 

The inspiration hasn’t come from any mystical source. The suspension of awareness is a process the artist has learned.

Those of us who have never quite known what to make of Mr Glass’s long works of amplified, commercially successful “music with repetitive structures” will read this book with enjoyment and listen again with renewed interest and respect.


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