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Words Without Music. A Memoir.
Faber and Faber
£22.50 hardback. £19.99 ebook
After living overseas since 1964, Philip Glass returned to New York in April 1967. He was thirty years old. He had been abroad studying with Ravi Shankar and Nadia Boulanger. Now he discovered that the creative people around him at that time, in the energy system that was known as New York - painters and sculptors like Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra - all listened to rock 'n' roll. They didn't listen to modern music. Asking himself why not, Glass discovered that none of these artists listened to contemporary music. "Stockhausen, Boulez, or Milton Babbitt - forget it," he says.
Why was there such a disconnect? Consciously, or to some degree unconsciously, Glass began looking for the music that should be in their record collections. He asked himself: "What is the music that goes with what art?" In Manhattan, Glass began going to the Fillmore East, then the current hip rock 'n' roll venue on Second Avenue, near Sixth Street. The place was full of kids; Glass says that he felt like an old man going there to hear bands such as Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa. But he became totally enamoured with the sight and sound of a wall of speakers vibrating. Simultaneously, he was aware that rock 'n' roll was anathema to classical music people.
Glass did not make a living working full-time as a musician-composer until 1978 when, at the age of forty-one, he was commissioned to compose Satyagraha for the Netherlands Opera. His twenty-four years of day jobs had included loading trucks, moving furniture, running an overhead crane at Bethlehem Steel near to Baltimore, working as a plumber in Manhattan and, famously, driving a taxi. In the meantime, Glass had also been an indefatigable student, with forty years of studying yoga, thirty years of Mahayana Buddhist studies, a qigong program, various languages, and much more.
Glass's broad overview leads him to the conclusion that music and the arts have moved in a direction far from what one might have expected thirty to fifty years ago. The way that things changed during his professional lifetime is, in part, the subject of Words Without Music.
Martin Scorsese, who worked with Glass on the 1997 epic biographical film Kundun, has remarked that Glass is as good a writer as he is a composer. I agree; I couldn't put the book down. This is a splendid memoir, Words Without Music being essential reading for anyone interested in the contemporary scene.
John Robert Brown
First published in Classical Music Magazine, March 2015. Used by kind permission; reproduction forbidden.