Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass (Liveright Publishing/Faber & Faber, April 2015) Reviewed by Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres

Words Without Music: A Memoir
by Philip Glass
(Liveright Publishing/Faber & Faber, April 2015)

Reviewed by Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres

Born in January 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland, Philip Glass is one of the most significant composers of our time, having helped to redefine both the forms and the accepted norms of classical music. His new autobiography, Words Without Music, clarifies the reasons for his significance. Throughout the book, he takes care to dispel a great number of the myths that have long surrounded him, created by those who have failed to comprehend his work. The autobiography has an appealingly conversational style, and feels much like listening to a master mentor. The result is that the reader will be both fired up by the creative freedom exuded by Glass’s thinking, while also being disheartened by the considerable disparity between the enlivening ideas traced in the book, on the one hand, and the realities of conventionalism that continue to pervade much traditional music studies, on the other. In his youth, Glass was subject to those same stultifying conventions, but he had the passion and perseverance to rise above them. It was precisely this perseverance that brought him a level of currency and success quite unlike any other composer of his generation, and although now seventy-eight, he shows no signs of slowing down: over the past twenty-five years alone he composed more than twenty operas, alongside eight symphonies, concertos, numerous film scores, and a steady stream of ensemble works—the list is virtually endless.

Although he is heralded as one of the great minimalist composers, Glass doesn’t endorse the term. When he was younger, putting on loft performances in 1960’s New York, he called himself, simply, a “music theatre composer.” Today, he doesn’t describe himself as a film composer, either, but prefers to define his style as “music with repetitive structures.” In the autobiography, he discusses his visual artist friends from that period—the likes of Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra, who were the “official” minimalists. Because Glass associated with them, his music was correspondingly branded as such. He also writes about working with conductors who presumed his music was “minimalist” in a derogatory sense—in other words, that it was just a mere series of repetitions—and so didn’t bother to rehearse it properly, until they found out, all too late, that the score in question was far more intricate than all that, and was actually constantly evolving. It has always been the case that the superficial simplicity of a piece of music is only ever a mask of elegance, concealing a far more complex sonic journey. The assumption that Glass is therefore easy to play is a foolish one. This is also true of J.S. Bach’s music, where the melodies are simple and clear, yet the harmony is meticulously mathematical.

The truth is that Glass never really fitted into any set grouping of composers, notwithstanding the mania of critics ever in search of a rounded label with which to class artists and musicians together and to define schools of thinking. In fact, most attempts to define “minimalism” as a style have fallen short of adequately encompassing more than any one composer—Terry Riley, say, or Steve Reich, or Michael Nyman, etc. If there was anything that linked Glass to these other composers, aside from the fact that they all came from the English-speaking world, it was that the focal point of their music was structure. Beyond that, each composer’s philosophy of musical structure was, and still is, very different. In this respect, it would be fairer to call Glass a “structuralist” composer and steer clear of anything having to do with minimalism. Either way, the point is that his style is more than just a question of arithmetical equations, and that there is a deeper level of emotion present in his work that any generic label will always be powerless to encompass.

Given his very considerable following, it is refreshing to find Glass so modest and relaxed, intimate and self-reflective, about his life and career. His humility is disarming—he does not flaunt his successes, merely acknowledging his achievements, about which he still seems a bit disbelieving. As he reiterates throughout the book, Glass never expected “fame,” nor did he ever search for it. In this respect, Glass hopes to teach the reader something, though without any patronizing. Perhaps the message is to teach us to be untaught; to draw creatively from all aspects of life; not to listen to what other people say or to try to please others, but to draw from the influences around you in a spirit of self-actualization. In our modern world where so much time and energy is spent trying to please and to engage, Glass gives us hope that this individualism will come on its own, whether we will it or not. The more time creative people spend worrying, the less time they spend creating.

Despite being very well read and highly educated, Glass talks more in his memoir about his impactful experiences from real life, of meeting interesting people from different cultures who had a direct effect on his music. A lifetime spent absorbing various philosophies from individuals beyond the small Baltimore society in which he grew up provided a more substantial education than any books could. Perhaps something of all this made it into his operatic “Portrait Trilogy” of Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1979), and Akhnaten (1983). Yoga and meditation became a part of Glass’s life in this way, both during and after a formative trip to India during the 1960s. For Glass, it is only when the mind is free and open that it is truly able to create. Even today, he still practices yoga, and he has been an early riser since his days studying at the Julliard School, following a strict daily routine whereby he devotes certain hours exclusively to compositional work, no matter the circumstances. He talks in his autobiography about finding it almost impossible to do anything, at first, when confronted with the blank page. Surmounting this challenge involved clearing away a space for creativity, and dedicating time to that one single pursuit. This is only to say that routine is not always a negative.

The interplay between routine and reiteration is also, of course, an important feature of Glass’s music, where despite seemingly always repeating itself, it is in fact almost always developing. But separating one’s work from one’s life, and then reconnecting the two together, emotionally and holistically, is no easy feat for any artist. More often than not, composers today start off with one or more “non-creative” day jobs, which provide a steady income, whilst constantly struggling to free up enough time on the side to create. In his youth Glass himself worked various odd jobs, including as a cement factory laborer, as a furniture mover, and as a taxi driver. The mistake that creative people often make is switching their brain off when doing these “mindless” jobs. But for Glass, it was all grist for his mill (no matter how mundane it may have seemed at the time), providing learning opportunities and valuable inputs. This broad-minded philosophy of learning had roots in Glass’s studies at the University of Chicago, where, instead of specializing in a specific subject, he received a liberal arts education in the broadest sense, studying literature, art, history, and the classics. It was an all-embracing approach to knowledge that Glass would continue to endorse from that moment forward.

Learning to listen was another philosophy that Glass learnt, this time under the indefatigable Parisian pianist, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger, for decades the tutor for anyone who really wanted to succeed as a composer. Her influence on Glass’s life encompassed instilling the traditional values of music as an art form. A fascinating character in her own right, Boulanger was of the mindset that it was only once you had truly mastered the art of analytical listening, of being able to understand a piece of music segment by segment, that you could even begin to put pen to paper and start to write music for yourself. Without this regimen of tough love, Glass may have very well turned out to be just another composer. In the whole chapters Glass dedicates to Boulanger and his Parisian vie boheme, we learn that it wasn’t all as glamorous as the history books might lead us to believe. Just as young artists presently struggle to forge a career, worrying constantly about how their life is going to pan out, many transplanted to a strange city far away from familiar surroundings, so was Glass once in exactly the same situation. Instead of constantly applying for arts grants, he had to be more concerned with heating the attic room in which he lived. These basic survival skills provided a sort of “Zen” comfort that everything would work out. In this sense the autobiography should make for an inspiring read for today’s generation of composers and artists, especially with regard to the now-mythical image of the 1960s as some sort of artistic utopia. The idealistic lifestyle that supposedly prevailed is only half the story and the truth is that people did experience hardships. Philip Glass’s life offers a moral lesson—to pursue one’s dreams in a world where everything comes at a cost.

Inhabiting a tiny attic in Paris turned out to be valuable preparation for life back in New York, where he obtained a large loft space in the center of Manhattan for pennies. During this period Glass formed his eponymous ensemble and wrote, amongst other pieces, his seminal Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74). As he modestly states now, the secret to this music’s success was the basic fact that the title led people to expect twelve separate pieces, rather than one single piece scored for twelve instrumental parts. When they heard “only” the one piece at the first performance, this set up the expectation of another performance, and so Glass wrote another eleven pieces, which brought the audience back a further eleven times. It is arguable that this sort of coincidental concert would no longer be possible now, and that may be true as far as it goes, but it is also a fact today that art spaces are constantly cropping up in disused buildings and unusual spaces, and that this spirit of spontaneity may once more be on the rise. Whatever the case, Glass states in his memoir that the official, institutionally-affiliated concert halls of the time refused to play his amplified brand of music, so that many of his early performances were by necessity put on in alternative spaces such as art galleries, which gave his music a certain aura of easy accessibility.

After developing a following from his loft concert days, Glass’s next big move was to write a big stage piece with his friend, the avant-garde artist and director Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach. This operatic work revealed the true scope of what Glass could achieve, given freedom from idle boundaries and conventions. One of the very first plotless operas, this operatic abstraction (as the work could be reasonably described) was to become, arguably, a starting point for a new approach to the form as a whole. Glass and Wilson’s portrait of Albert Einstein was premiered in the summer of 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon and went on to tour around Europe and the U.S. A documentary made for U.S. public television in the Eighties called Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera still gives the viewer in 2015 an idea of the revolutionary impact of that production.

Glass’s more recent operas have also achieved substantial success, and though less revolutionary than the famous “Portrait Trilogy,” and with more traditional plotlines, they still confirm him as a true master of the stage. He is one of the few modern opera composers whose work is not only premiered, but re-performed and then subsequently taken up and adapted by different directors and presenters—something very rare amongst play-it-safe opera houses whose bread and butter is traditional productions of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, etc. It was in fact Glass’s knack for opera and the appeal of imagery and visual stimuli that eventually led him to begin to write for film. Few would consider him a professional “Hollywood composer” by any means, but his structured style of composition suited a wide variety of filmic aesthetics, and so in a sense he “slipped in” to the industry almost by accident. (Winning a Golden Globe in 1999, for The Truman Show, didn’t fundamentally change this fact.) As noted above, he still doesn’t call himself a film composer, which isn’t so much false modesty as Glass’s disinterest in trying to define himself. It is partly this reason that he has such a wide fan-base, because people from all sorts of backgrounds and various art forms can appreciate his work, each from different angles.

Glass doesn’t talk much in his book about his earlier performing career and the steady stream of concerts and premieres that continue to take up a significant portion of his time. His memoir is more about how he got to where he got to, than how he keeps going to wherever he’s going. Even so, it would have been nice to have more specific insights into how, during the 1970s and 1980s—back when he was still highly active as an instrumentalist—Glass found time to tour and play his own music while also creating new work. Listening to recordings of his own performances of his work, it is clear that he grasps the rhythms better than the majority of performers who have turned their attention to his work. He writes about how he was stunned to find that the incredibly intricate rhythms of Indian music are not notated, and perhaps this is where the structure in his works derives from. When repetitive structures are involved, new systems have to be created either by the performer or the composer to help the former learn and internalize the changes, which it can be all too easy to lose track of in the heat of the moment. A numerical system was something that Glass adopted from the principles of counting that he had learned in India, and it is much more organic than the rigid classical music technique of counting bars, more cyclical and making very complex rhythms much easier to remember. This could also be compared to Stravinsky’s work, another of Glass’s influences, which looks very complicated on the page, but is rather easier to understand upon hearing it. Again, it was a question of Glass learning to use all of his senses meticulously.

Glass writes about how his family, when he was growing up, viewed musicians as doomed to “living on the fringes of respectability”—a view that has since been belied many times over the course of his long, fruitful, and now decidedly “respectable” career. The moral that we can take from Words Without Music is that becoming a true artist requires one to master the arts in their entirety, to learn to absorb and apply all the information we are given throughout our lives, both good and bad, and to divert it to creative ends. Glass doesn’t mention any regrets in his memoir, and instead closes with a beautiful analogy comparing life and his ongoing search for new modes of expression with learning to ride a bike—“my feet looking for the ground, and sometimes touching the pedals.”


Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres is a composer, writer, and artist based in Bristol, UK, and is Co-Director of MPA Motion Picture Arts Ltd. She specialises in writing music for stage and film, and is active as a reviewer for Bachtrack.