The life of Philip Glass

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 we get to read about Glass’s very interesting life. (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. I’m not familiar with the many plot twists in his life, and found the book engaging because I had no idea what new adventure he was going to go on 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. [emphasis DW’s.] 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 a 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 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.

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?

Two months of Soylent

I’ve been drinking Soylent, the powdered meal replacement, once a day for nearly two months. Here’s what it’s been like for me, separated in different modules so that you can read whatever you’re most curious about.

Why I got it. The University of Rochester is located inside the bend of a river. A huge cemetery caps the bend so that the only ways out are the tips of the curve. You can cross the river via a bridge, into a neighborhood responsible for a big chunk of all crimes committed in upstate New York. The upshot is that for a city-based college, the U of R offers unusually few good food options close to campus. The dining halls serve dining hall food, expensively; there are no substantial grocery stores around; there are few restaurants, even fast food joints, nearby.

I like to cook, and right before senior year I was living in the center of Toronto while working at a company that offers daily catered lunches. After that summer I decisively gave up hope that college food could be fun. So I ordered Soylent.

(Incidentally, the company I worked at runs the software used to sell Soylent.)

Taste. I’ve received two types of Soylent: Version 1.3, which I’ll call cake-mix Soylent; and Version 1.4, which I’ll call burnt-sesame Soylent. The earlier one comes with bottles of oil that are to be mixed with powder and water; the latter version is straight powder.

1.3 has a sweet taste. It’s presumably the version reviewed by The Verge, which likened the flavor to peanut butter mixed with milk. Appealing, no? Those though aren’t the words I’d use. For me it smells and tastes like those Betty Crocker vanilla-flavor cake mixes: A bit oversweet, but otherwise quite pleasant. The consistency is thin, so it doesn’t go down all that smoothly.

I prefer 1.3 to 1.4. This newer version is bland, hardly sweet. It has more of a savory taste, and the best I can do to describe it is to say that it reminds me of slightly burnt sesame seeds. There’s a bit of a nutty flavor. It’s thicker and smoother, but I do miss the sweetness of the old version.

As I started to drink Soylent regularly, I got scared of the possibility that I’ll one day find it too revolting to swallow. That won’t happen soon, but the thought lurks. Once you reach that point you never want to drink this stuff again, no matter how thoroughly it’s modified and updated. A problem I’ve had with both versions is the persistence of clumping; you can’t get rid of the occasional bit of dry powder in your mouth as you drink. Making it with warm water doesn’t eliminate them. No matter how aggressively I stir and shake, they’ll always be there, undissolved. (Note: I don’t have a blender and haven’t at all been creative with the mixture, for example by adding fruits or cocoa.)

Last thing about taste: You’re supposed to make Soylent the night before and let it chill in the fridge. One day I forgot to do that and had it “fresh.” It was awful. Good Lord. Never drink this stuff warm.

Satiety. Soylent is filling for the moment, but I get hungry soon afterwards. I usually have it to replace lunch, and am looking for food three or four hours later. I’m not a snacker, but I have to keep a stock of apples and cookies. Soylent might make more sense for breakfast, when convenience is more of a premium and where the distance to the next meal is shorter.

I can’t see myself going entirely without food, as anyway this was never my intention. I enjoy cooking if I have easy access to ingredients! I’d be hitting the point of revulsion much sooner if I have this more than once a day.

Health. I’ve experienced no noticeable changes in health or digestion. Some people say that they lose weight, get more energy, or even get to see skin improvements. I haven’t noticed these or any other changes. It’s all been… normal.

Storage, preparation, and convenience. The raw powder can last a long time (upwards, it’s claimed, of two years). But watch out for the caveat: Soylent spoils quickly once you make it.

It takes me four days to finish a batch. Twice when I skipped a day the last quarter of Soylent spoiled, and when it was always refrigerated too. So I’m wary of taking it out and bringing it for example on a hike. You run the risk of spoilage, it tastes terrible when unchilled, and the container is hard to clean in the outdoors.

Making Soylent is as convenient as promised. All you have to do is dump a bag of powder in a pitcher made by the company, throw in water and oil, then shake/stir. With the new Soylent, you don’t even have to add the oil. These are the basics. I’ve learned tweaks, e.g. having water in the pitcher before adding the powder to reduce clumping.

It takes maybe ten minutes, and then I have lunch for four days. Washing the big, gooey pitcher requires lots of soap and water, but of course that’s easier than doing lots of dishes.

Has it been life changing? Not really. The positive take is that Soylent is great if you’re not expecting a lot out of it. I’m little affected healthwise. I don’t find that I have a lot more extra time. That said, it is nice not to have to think about what to do for lunch.

I guess that the biggest benefit of Soylent for me is a psychological one. I don’t always want to cook, but I’m frugal enough not to want to eat out more than a few times a week. I’ve always been a lunch packer. Soylent makes it easy for me to get out of cooking every day without having to feel guilty about eating out. After all, this stuff is cheap, about $3 per meal.

Frustrations with the company. I placed my first order last July, hoping that the shipment would start in September. Soylent told me to wait until October. Come October, a delay: The company told me to expect it in November. Come November, delay again. By the time the powder arrived I had already moved to Germany. Soylent doesn’t ship internationally so I had to wait trying it out until I returned.

Once the subscription started everything was smooth, but the delays were annoying. The advertised two-month waiting period turned into a five-month one.

Ideological commentary. You see I’ve saved this until the very end. People give me incredulous looks and questions when they see that this is what I’m “eating.” Some react with visible sympathy, as if I’ve never enjoyed good food. It’s in vain that I assure them that I grew up in one of the great food cultures of the world, or that I don’t mind cooking, or that Soylent doesn’t demand that I give up on the world of solid food.

Quite a bit of the skepticism directed towards Soylent feels misplaced and elitist. I don’t understand why people are so derisive of it. I challenge the doubters to declare that every meal they have is a plate of nutritious deliciousness, prepared simply, and enjoyed in the company of friends. For the rest of us, there’s at least one meal that involves little cooking, is meant to be quick, and is not often nutritious. That’s called breakfast, and for that at least, isn’t Soylent a great replacement?

People, Soylent is a straightforward Pareto improvement over lots of common situations. It’s simpler and better for you than to get donuts and iced coffee; or a hot dog in a cafeteria before a meeting you’re late for; or a frozen microwave dinner after an exhausting day. Tastewise, Soylent is about as interesting than the latter two. This stuff should be sold in (refrigerated) vending machines, and well-stocked in corporate fridges. It may not be super tasty, but it’s pleasant and nutritious.

Other issues. No I haven’t seen the movie. Yes I would order more when I run out.

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