Book Review – Words without Music by Philip Glass

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Here we look at a memoir by one of the most famous contemporary composers, the prolific and widely-appreciated Philip Glass.


by Warren Burt, July 2015 


Philip Glass is, of course, one of the most famous of contemporary composers.  His name is known widely, whether from his early repetitive pieces, mostly performed by his own ensemble (Music in 12 Parts, Music in Fifths), his many film scores (Kundun, Koyanisqaatsi), his symphonies, or his operas (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Kepler).  Now we have a memoir from him, mostly covering his early years, but dealing with recent matters as well, and it’s a total delight.  Glass in conversation is very clear, down to earth, and engaging, and his writing is the same.  If I say this is a very breezy, conversational book, that is not putting it down at all, and among the cheery anecdotes are some real serious nuggets about the function and nature of listening, the life of a composer, and the way music works.  I found the book to be a real page turner – Glass’s way of writing was both engaging and riveting.  

The book concentrates mostly on his early years, from his childhood in Baltimore, through his student years in Chicago, New York and Paris, through the early years of his career in New York.  Along the way, we meet a veritable who’s who of figures in the arts in those years.  Theatrical people such as Richard Foreman, Richard Schechner, Joanne Akalaitis, choreographers such as Molissa Fenley and Lucinda Childs, fellow composers such as Vincent Persichetti, Louis Hardin (Moondog) and John Cage, his mentors Ravi Shankar and Nadia Boulanger, his Buddhist and Hindu teachers, artists Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra, writers such as Allen Ginsberg, and a host of others.  As well, we meet Glass’s family – his record store owning father, his mother, worried about her son’s career prospects, his brother and sister, and his friends.  About each of these, Glass writes with characteristic sympathy and generosity.  Indeed, from the book, one could gain the impression that Philip Glass is basically a nice guy.  Knowing him slightly, I can say that the book is not misleading; this is indeed the case.

Glass has never held any major teaching position.  All his life he has worked very basic jobs to keep body and soul together (taxi-driving, plumbing, working in a record store) until the point where he was able to earn a living from his music.  In the book, he is quite open about the many jobs he has held, and how mostly, he found the experience a positive one.   This identification of the composer as a worker, as a member of the working class, is a very refreshing one, especially in an era where the mythology of the pop star and celebrity culture is so dominating of popular consciousness. 

As an example of Glass’s serious writing on listening, for example, there is this paragraph:

The activity of the listener is to listen.  But it’s also the activity of the composer.  If you apply that to the performer, what is the performer actually doing?  What is the proper attitude for the performer when he is playing?  The proper attitude is this: the performer must be listening to what he’s playing.  And this is far from automatic.  You can be playing and not pay attention to listening.  It’s only when you’re engaged with the listening while you’re playing that the music takes on the creative unfolding, the moment of creativity, which is actually every moment.  That moment becomes framed, as it were, in a performance.  A performance becomes a formal framing of the activity of listening, and that would be true for the player as well.

Or here is an insightful paragraph about the work of Jean Cocteau, from later in the book:

The point is, if a young artist were to ask Cocteau directly what he would need to pursue the life and work of an artist, these five elements would be the answer.  The rose represents beauty.  The key represents technique – literally, the means by which the “door” to creativity is opened.  The horse represents strength and stamina.  The mirror represents the path itself, without which the dream of the artist cannot be accomplished.  The meaning of the glove eluded me for a long time, but finally, and unexpectedly, I understood that the glove represents nobility.  By this symbol Cocteau asserts that the true nobility of mankind are the artist-magician creators.  This scene, which leads directly to the resolution of the fairy tale, is framed as the most significant moment of the film and is the message we are meant to take away with us: Cocteau is teaching us about creativity in terms of the power of the artist, which we now understand to be the power of transformation.

So in the middle of a parade of delightful anecdotes, you keep getting moments of insight such as these, and you realize the depth of understanding that underlies Glass and his music making.

Not that things are all rosy in this narrative.  Glass can also write with empathy about the hard times in his life.  One of these was his ongoing relationship with his principle music teacher, the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger:

One afternoon I arrived with my usual stack of counterpoint – at least twenty very dense pages.  She put them on the music rack of the piano and began to speed read her way through them.  At one point she stopped and caught her breath.  She looked at me steadily and calmly and asked me how I was feeling.

“Fine,” I replied.

“Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?” she continued.

“No, Mlle. Boulanger, I am really fine.”

But now I was getting worried.

“Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist?  It can be arranged very confidentially.”

“No, Mlle. Boulanger.”

She paused for only a moment, then, wheeling around in her chair, practically screamed at me, which pointing to a passage in my counterpoint, “Then how do you explain this?!”

And there they were – hidden fifths between an alto and bass part.  I was deeply shocked by this whole maneuver.  It was then quickly upgraded to a complete denunciation of my character, with special reference to my lack of attention, general distraction, and even my commitment to music.  That was the end of my lesson for that day.

A fun anecdote, to be sure, but the experience for the 27 year old Glass must have been terrifying.  He quickly developed a means of detecting hidden and parallel fifths (a very common counterpoint error) in his writing, and never had an incident like that happen again.  (Although several years later, one of his earliest major works is “Music in Fifths” which consists of many minutes of parallel fifths – revenge?  Or simply exploring and taking seriously what was for another system, forbidden material?)

Glass’s insights into his major works, such as the operas “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha”, and his insights into the unusual (for the film industry) ways he collaborated with director Godfrey Reggio on the “Qatsi” trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) are both informative and useful.  For those who know these works, his writing will be revelatory.  For those unfamiliar with them, the stories themselves are still fascinating in their own right.

Usually, in a review for SoundBytes, we’re asking, “How is this book, software, etc. relevant to the concerns of the average SoundBytes reader?” In the case of this book, the writing is so felicitous, and the stories Glass tells are so compelling that even if one has no interest whatever in contemporary art or film music of the kind written by Philip Glass, one can still read this book with both pleasure and profit.  I started reading this book out of curiosity.  By about half-way through, I knew I had to review it for SoundBytes, so that I could tell as many people as possible about it.  This is one of the most interesting and engaging books about any music that I’ve read in a very long time.  Highly recommended.


Philip Glass: Words Without Music WW Norton Co, 2015. $29.95





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