Philip Glass Balances the Matter-of-Fact With the Metaphysical in 'Words Without Music'

by Brice Ezell

28 May 2015

Philip Glass' memoirs handle weighty life crises and esoteric musical ideas with refreshing, no-nonsense language.
Photo: Fernando Aceves (Press) 
cover art

Words Without Music

Philip Glass

(Liveright)
US: Apr 2015

Dissonance and beauty are, of course, not actually very different from each other.
—Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir, page 47

Statements of wisdom like the above appear throughout Words Without Music, the memoir of the American composer Philip Glass. At 78, Glass is undoubtedly one of the elder statesmen of contemporary classical music, having carved out a distinct repetitive style beginning in the late ‘60s. Understandably, one might come to Words Without Music seeking Glass’ insights into music. What does Glass hear in music that we don’t?

Questions like that are particularly fitting for Glass, whose repetition-centric style makes him a love-or-hate proposition for many listeners. The incessant arpeggios and two-note motifs that form the bedrock for much of his work are hypnotic to some and mind-numbing (or perhaps maddening) to others. When living in Paris during the mid-‘60s, he had the chance to write music for a play of Samuel Beckett’s. During that time, he began to realize how differently he was thinking compared to other composers in the city. Glass writes, “My first encounters with working musicians in Paris had convinced me I would get no help… they practically kicked me out… When they heard the music I’d written for the Becket play, my French friends said, ‘Mais, c’est n’est pas la musique.’ ‘But it’s not music’” (217).

A memorable straw man argument crops up not long after that in Words Without Music. “There was a composer who was describing my music to someone else,” Glass writes, “and he said, ‘Here’s what it is: if you take a C-major chord and just play it over and over again, that’s what Philip Glass does’” (220).

Glass’ response is quick and straightforward. “Well, that’s exactly what I don’t do” (220). Using a key example from his early music, he elaborates,

In order to make [the music] listenable, you had to change the face of the music—one-two, one-two-three—so that the ear could never be sure of what it was going to hear. If you look at “Music in Similar Motion” or any of the other earlier pieces, what is interesting about them is how they don’t repeat. (220)

This response, like most of the wisdom in Words Without Music, is plainly spoken yet resounding. As an extension of his musical style, Glass uses simple sentence structure and frankly stated observations to weave a vivid life story. The prose may be simple, just as a basic arpeggio may appear unremarkable, but when placed in its overall context, it becomes a remarkable memoir of an undeniably brilliant artist.

What’s most striking about Glass’ unfussy writing style is how it deftly handles both the more esoteric musical ideas he touches upon and the day-to-day aspects of his personal life. The same voice that speaks of a fascination with Tibetan Buddhism, one cultivated on many journeys to Tibet, is the same voice that breaks down the life of a cabbie in ‘70s New York City. In fact, Glass does not speak terribly ill of the days in which he had to work regular jobs in order to finance his artistic work; rather, those years form the process by which his life as a composer would fully come to fruition. Glass’ non-musical jobs ultimately form the first movements in the overall symphony that is his life’s story.

There’s no on/off switch that’s flipped when he moves from subject to subject. In one particular instance towards the end of the memoir, he even stops himself from trailing off into too cerebral an inquiry, writing, “Perhaps I’ve wandered into a discussion that’s too abstract, but the truth is that, though these ways of thinking about music may seem abstract as I write them, I think about such things all the time” (384). Even when he recounts his time with the late, great music teacher and scholar Nadia Boulanger, with whom he worked in Paris after receiving a Fulbright Grant, his language never gets mired in the density of music theory.

Music buffs need not worry; there is a good amount of theory chat, including a particularly important section in which Glass relates the tal (rhythmic cycle) in Indian music to what ultimately became the thought process behind his early music (215-217). Glass bears his wisdom in the way a truly wise person does: he makes it clear he knows what he’s talking about without saying any more than he needs to.

In maintaining a level field with his life and his music, Glass establishes that music is his life, not merely a passion project or a vocation, but something exuded with his every breath. This becomes one of the realizations he expresses at the end of the book, saying, “I’m not thinking about music, I’m thinking music” (391). By way of example, one need only look to his score to Godfrey Reggio‘s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). The soundtrack is regularly regarded as Glass’ strongest work in film, to the point that his music has become inseparable from talk of the picture itself. Rarely is Koyaanisqatsi mentioned without Glass being a focal point. As he puts it, “When someone says, ‘How do you write music for a film?’ I say to them very truthfully, ‘I look at the film and I write down the music.’ I don’t make music to go with the film, I write the music that is the film” (392).

Glass’ direct voice on all the corners of his life that he revisits in his memoirs is refreshing, but it does also miss some things. The latter half of Words Without Music, although still chronological, becomes episodic in structure, with Glass examining certain major works of his at length: early operas like Satyagraha; his best known major work, Einstein on the Beach; and the “Cocteau Trilogy” of Orphée, La Belle et la Bête, and Les Enfants Terribles. Many of his most interesting pieces get left by the wayside, namely his solo piano music (both the Etudes and the suite for a stage performance of Kafka’s Metamorphosis), his symphonies inspired by the music of David Bowie (Low and Heroes, or Symphonies 1 and 4, respectively), and his gargantuan Symphony No. 5, a choral work comprised of a collection of religious texts organized on key themes in human life.

Of course, Glass is one of modern classical music’s most prolific composers, and as Words Without Music is a memoir of his complete life, a run-through of his greatest hits would instead qualify as glorified album liner notes. Still, for all of the deep simplicity that forms the philosophical bedrock for this memoir, it’s hard not to wish that he would trail off into more abstract thinking, the kind that he regularly hedges against doing.

Part of Glass’ reluctance to engage in such thought is undoubtedly because he is still figuring things out for himself. In addition to the aforementioned notion of thinking music, he comes to another determination about what music is, a question that has vexed him since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Plainly enough: “Where does music come from?”

One of Glass’ key answers is rather opaque at first pass: “music is a place. By that, I mean a place as real as Chicago, or any other place you want to think of, that has all the attributes of reality—depth, smell, memory” (391). He qualifies this a sentence later, saying, “I’m using the word ‘place’ poetically in a certain sense”, although the poetry of the word nonetheless has “solidity” (391).

That description, in essence, is what Words Without Music is, which means the title of these memoirs is certainly misleading. For all of the gaps that occur throughout the text, the one thing Glass effectively does throughout is bring together the worlds of his life and his music, to the point that attempting to distinguish the two proves futile. Satyagraha cannot be divorced from Glass’ travels to India, where he learned about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. His controversial early pieces, such as Music in Fifths and Music in Similar Motion (both 1969), are inextricably bound to the intense musical training he underwent with Boulanger in Paris.

Those coming to Words Without Music looking to find what in Glass’ personal life influences his composing are likely to miss the point, or at least miss it the first read-through. The latter isn’t buried in the former: it is the former. Glass’ music is Chicago, Paris, the Himalayas, and of course, New York City, where the composer has established much of his legacy. Words Without Music may be dominated primarily by simple prose, but it’s rich with poetry, as well.

In closing, it’s worth bringing up what is perhaps the most insightful observation of Glass’ in Words Without Music which, like the one quoted at the beginning of this review, is profound yet succinct. Buried in a lengthy paragraph wherein he describes some of the things he learned under Boulanger’s tutelage, Glass remarks, “Style is a special case of technique” (145). This is what is often missed in the reductionist critiques of Glass’ music, the kind that suggest that his work isn’t music, or that it’s merely banal repetition. Glass’ style is a distinct technique all its own, one layered with sophisticated technique and nuanced melodic and rhythmic manipulation. In essence, this is what Words Without Music offers: a lengthy view of Glass’ style, and thereby his technique. Although the text explains this technique in bits and pieces, it is also itself the technique. Far from Words Without Music, this is words and music coming together in a harmonious portrait of a musical treasure.

Words Without Music

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