I picked up Philip Glass’s memoir not because I’m very familiar with his music, but because I’d heard that he drove taxis and worked the odd plumbing job before he was well-known. I know of few other people in the classical music world who’ve taken a similar path, so I thought that this would be an interesting account of a life in the arts.
I ended up being far more impressed with it than I expected. Words without Music is written simply, winningly, without much commentary on music. And that’s just fine because his life is so interesting. (I’ll share a few excerpts below.)
Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab. The book offers many other interesting details, e.g. deciding to attend the University of Chicago at age 15, inviting a blind and homeless musician to live with him for a year, hitchhiking through Iran before it was closed to Americans and Afghanistan before it was invaded by the Soviets.
These biographical details are manifestations of a quality I admire. Glass never needed much convincing to drop everything in his life to go on a risky venture. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot twists in his life, the book is engaging because you don’t know where he’ll go next. It’s astonishing how open-minded he is. Consider: His decision to go to India was based entirely on seeing a striking illustration in a random book he grabbed off a friend’s shelf. In addition, he never hesitated to go into personal debt, at times quite steep, because his music couldn’t wait. The book is filled with instances of him saying “sure, when?” to improbable proposals without dwelling on their costs.
He seemed uninterested in stabilizing his position with more regular income. He never took up an honorary conductor position. He never ensconced himself in a plush conservatory professorship. And he didn’t even apply for grants because he didn’t like that they imposed terms.
Glass is either oblivious to conventions or fond of ignoring them. He mentions a few times that he was born with an “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” gene. There’s often reason to distrust these proclamations, but I did enjoying cataloguing his contrarianism. Other performers may look down on amplifiers, but he adapted them no less to the opera house. Other musicians may revere figures like Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger, but he rebelled and talked back to them. Other composers may scoff off film soundtrack commissions, but he tried them out and with success. Other music students may spend their Juilliard prize monies to practice and compose, but he bought a motorcycle so that he can ride around the country. When people made fun of him for appearing in a whiskey ad, he retorted: “It seemed to me that people who didn’t have to sell out… must have had rich parents.”
Here is a short clip of “In the Upper Room,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp and performed by the Ballet de Lorraine.
Now some promised excerpts. These are passages I found striking.
Being able to visualize: My father taught me to play mental chess. I would be with him in the car and he would say, “Knight to Bishop’s 3” and I’d say, “Pawn to Queen 3.” We went through a game together and I learned to visualize chess. I was probably seven or eight years old and I could already do that. Years later when I was learning to do exercises in visualization, I discovered I had developed this aptitude when I was very young… I discovered that many people couldn’t see anything, but I could see right away, and that was a big help. I had a number of friends who said they were having trouble visualizing and I realized I didn’t have any trouble. When I wondered why I didn’t I remembered those chess games that Ben and I used to play.
Keeping an open mind: When my father started to sell records, he didn’t know which were the good records and which were the bad… But he noticed that some records sold and some records didn’t, so as a businessman he wanted to know why some of the records didn’t sell. He would take them home and listen to them, thinking if he could find out what was wrong with them, he wouldn’t buy the bad ones anymore. In the late forties, the music that didn’t sell was by Bartok, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. Ben listened to them over and over again, trying to understand what was wrong, but he ended up loving their music. He became a strong advocate of new music and began to sell it in his store.
Working: Luckily for me, I never minded earning money as best I could, and I actually enjoyed working at the [steel mill]… My curiosity about life trumped any disdain I might have about working. So if this was a reality check, then I had happily signed on at a fairly early age.
On being influenced by Bruckner: One major, and unforeseen benefit of the Bruckner expertise I acquired came when my friend Dennis Russell Davies became the music director and conductor of the Linz Opera and the Bruckner House Orchestra. I went to Linz for the first time with the poorly conceived idea that my music would sound better played by an American orchestra, because they would understand the rhythms I was composing. To my surprise, the Bruckner Orchestra played these compositions better than American orchestras.
Upon noticing an man in his sixties composing music in a coffee shop, when he was doing the same while still a student: It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings… The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.
An exercise: I took the Mahler Ninth as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full-size orchestra paper.
An early job: In Pittsburgh, I wrote some music for children in grade school and some for high school orchestras… At the end of the year we had a big concert, where all the music I had written was played. It was very satisfying. Here I was, twenty-six years old, and I was having a complete concert of my own music.
His first wedding: We continued our trip, driving west to Gibraltar. “You know,” JoAnne said, “we can get married here for five pounds.” We were both twenty-eight years old… We took our five pounds to the civil office of a Mr. Gonzalez, and that’s where we were married.
At a performance in Amsterdam: Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging on the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing again, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five to six seconds.
Please indulge me as I wrap up with a complaint. For some reason Google Music offers woefully light coverage of Glass’s music. There are few of his symphonies, few of his early works, no Akhnaten, not even Satyagraha. You might expect him to be well covered given that he has some status in pop culture, but no. Why are his albums so absent from Google Music?