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Words Without Music by Philip Glass

Book review
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

The autobiography is thoroughly interesting and easy to read, devoid of the superficiality or narcissism that afflicts most autobiographies. This is the history of spirit whose journey through the artistic imagination is rooted in an international humanitarian ethic. Unlike Béla Bartók, the first ethnic musicologist who traveled over hill and dale to discover music of the people and then transform it into high modern art, Glass had to travel the globe, especially Tibet and India, the latter having an immense influence on his music once he mastered Indian music under the influence of Ravi Shankar with whom he studied under in Paris and Manhattan. Glass’ lifelong quest remains both spiritual and musical.

Of special interest is Glass’ portrait of Nadia Boulanger with he studied for two years in Paris during the early sixties, a lively experimental period where he came to write music for some of Samuel Beckett’s plays. His portrait of himself and his girlfriend in Paris captures the joys and freedom of young adulthood.

Although Glass had taught for two years in Pittsburgh high schools where he composed band music after he had graduated from Juilliard, he was not offered a college teaching job until he was 72—then turned it down. He spent between his mid-twenties and fifties hauling furniture as a mover, taxi driver, or working as a free-lance odd-job plumber without any training or credentials because he didn’t want to leave the innovative art scene in Manhattan. Glass lived the scrappy, sleeve-rolled bohemian life with the working class ethic he had learned from his energetic family in Baltimore; part of the charm of his memoir is the genial depiction of his family that runs like a supportive thread through the quilt of his life. Not becoming an academic “saved” him from writing academic music and permitted him to immerse himself in the experimental community of avant-garde poets, painters, and dramatists—he knew nearly everyone involved in that community.

 Over the course of his life’s story, Glass drops helpful clues on how to understand the music he composes and the reasons for his obsession with disguised repetition—from his early fascination with the rhythm of clicking train tracks to his involvement in Tibetan meditation and yoga. Like Beckett, he decided to jettison narrative arc from music and replace it with contemplative, additive structure. (Steve Reich acquired a parallel technique with his process of “phasing.”) Glass’ music is not literally repetitive, yet the incremental changes employ a slower pace in order to provoke contemplation; this remains a peculiar synthesis of Indian music and Western composition. Glass is charting an emotional landscape that opens up greater vistas of time than the frantic pace of advertising and hype that clutters Western culture.

The book is a portrait not only of Glass but of American experimental as well as currents in world culture; its tone is one of gratitude and satisfaction at discovering his own musical voice which took about thirty years to find a wider audience, so that he could devote more time to his art. Rooted in off-beat drama, his music has recently become successful as film music; he explains how that happened and vividly describes the psychological process of working with film. Glass’ ironies are so gentle that they ambush you through his lack of ego. While there is much about music (clearly explained), this is a book accessible to anyone who enjoys a good story—the effect on the reader is a mood of elation from a man with a generous élan.