Words Without Music by Philip Glass

“For me music has always been about lineage. The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.”    — Philip Glass

This 400 plus page memoir by Philip Glass (1937 -), with 14 pages of photos and 20 pages of index, is nothing short of epic. Glass has not only told us the story of his life so far, but chronicling a generation of American arts and music from an insider’s perspective. The zeitgeist of the Beat Generation and the preoccupation of Eastern philosophy with its search for transcendental experiences make the memoir an interesting and informative read.

Pertaining to Glass’s innovative musical style, I’ve experienced the book in several ways: reading the first half in hardcopy, listening to the latter part in audiobook format via hoopla, superbly performed by narrator Lloyd Jones, and listening to Glass’s works available on hoopla. Hoopla, btw, is wonderful.

Words Without Music Cover

Born 1937 to a secular Jewish family in Baltimore, Glass’s father Ben was a record store owner, mother Ida a librarian. The flute and the violin were his first instruments. Bursting with potentials ready to be unleashed, he left home to attend The University of Chicago at merely 15 years of age majoring in philosophy and mathematics. At Chicago, he’d decided what he wanted to do after graduation, to pursue a career in music, albeit the realization of which was still a blurry vision.

As a young college grad, Glass worked at a steel mill to save enough money to head to NYC for Juilliard, a decision that was against the wish of his mother: “If you go to New York City to study music, you’ll end up like your Uncle Henry, spending your life traveling from city to city and living in hotels.” His uncles also frowned on such an idea. They wanted him to take over the family’s building supplies business.

But the teenaged Glass was determined, only to face a closed door upon audition at Juilliard. No, he wasn’t qualified as a flute player, but, he was given the chance at the extension program to learn composition. Only a detour. Once he’d become a full-fledged student in Juilliard, he devoured all opportunities to learn. You’d think such a talent would become a young success soon after? Well, that wouldn’t have been as interesting a story as real life.

Philip Glass is classified as a ‘minimalist’, a label which he frowns upon. Reading the memoir, I can only say what’s minimal is the material means, money, while all else, passion, intellect, talents, cultural milieu, internal space, and the prolific output of works have been abundant throughout his life journey.

It would be decades later that Glass could earn enough to make a living by only composing. Along the way, he was contented with his day jobs in NYC, including being a furniture mover, plumber, and taxi driver. He nearly got killed driving a cab in NYC, albeit he does recall more pleasant excitement like the time he picked up Salvador Dali from 57th Street to the St. Regis Hotel. During that short trip, he was, alas, tongue-tied. Yes, the word is “contented”, for no matter what he had to do to earn a living—at first just for himself, later a family of four—he seemed happy to be on the right course striving for the ultimate goal. That in itself is inspiring. The tone of the book reflects a quiet and humble soul, reflective and personal.

Glass’s contact list is a who’s who of the Beat Generation and cultural icons in the following decades. He was a contemporary with Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollack, John Cage, friend with Alan Ginsberg, Doris Lessing, Richard Serra, collaborator with Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, wrote music for the works by Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, composed for Martin Scorsese, Steven Daldry, Woody Allen, studied with Nadia Boulanger as an American in Paris, journeyed to the East to find enlightenment in New Delhi, Katmandu, Darjeeling, explored and created global music with musicians from India, Himalaya, Chinese, Australia, Africa, and South America. Just a few names. The 20 page index is a definite asset.

“I have come to understand that all music, without exception, is ethnic music.”

As for his own music, people always say it’s like “the needle is stuck in the groove.” To understand this, of course, you’ll have to know the operation of a vinyl record. To counteract the general public impression of repetition to no end of his music, he explains in details the Glass music theory. That I let you to explore for yourself.

But here are some passages that I’ve particularly noted with low tech stickies on the side of the page:

About John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″, wherein the pianist sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without touching any keys, whatever sound the audience hears during that time lapse becomes the piece, Glass writes:

“… a work of art has no independent existence… What Cage was saying is that there is no such thing as an independent existence. The music exists between you—the listener—and the object that you’re listening to. The transaction of it coming into being happens through the effort you make in the presence of that work. The cognitive activity is the content of the work.” (p. 95)

What goes on internally in the listener is what the piece is about. Makes me think of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” notion.

So do we have “the death of the composer” now?  Wait, actually, no. You see, Glass has this brilliant point. The composer still lives in that the performer interacts with and interprets his works, thus becoming a co-creator:

“… the performer has a unique function in terms of what I call this transactional reality which comes from being in the presence of the work: that the interpreter/player of the music becomes part of that. Until then, I had really thought of the interpreter as a secondary creative person. I never thought he was on the same level with Beethoven or Bach. But after I had spent some time thinking about all that and began playing myself, I saw that the activity of playing was itself a creative activity… ” (p. 96)

And how should the performer play the music? By listening intently and purposefully:

“The ideal way of performing, to my way of thinking, would be when the performer allows the activity of playing to be shaped by the activity of listening, and perhaps even by the activity of imagining listening.” (p. 97)

In 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had just been published and “everybody had read it”. With the $750 prize money he received from Juilliard at the end of his third academic year, he bought a motorcycle, probably an unintended item on which the music school would like to see the scholarship spent. Off he went on a cross-country road trip. But what’s the difference between he and his friends and the Kerouac’s clan? Glass writes:

“His [Kerouac’s] book is full of interesting characters, but that’s not what happened for us. We weren’t interested in having those kinds of experiences, we were out and abroad in America, consuming the country visually and experientially by driving through it…. (p. 102)

The renowned sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, or Raviji as he was known to friends and colleagues, at that time started collaborating with George Harrison. Glass notes that “The casual drug use by young people particularly upset him. Sometimes he would lecture me about drugs, and I had to remind him that I was drug-free.” Ummm, wonder if Raviji had lectured George Harrison on same.

In 1964, with a Fulbright Scholarship, Glass went to Paris to study with the eminent music guru Nadia Boulanger. For two years, she inspired and led Glass to higher grounds of musical epiphanies. One of the crucial lessons he took away after two years with Boulanger was the route to innovation. First, learn the conventional theoretical foundation, then you diverge and create your own:

“… an authentic personal style cannot be achieved without a solid technique at its base. That in a nutshell is what Madame Boulanger was teaching.” (p. 145)

His mother Ida went by train from Baltimore to NYC for her son’s first concert at Queens College on April 13, 1968. There were only six people in the audience including herself. As Glass drove her back to the train station after the concert, the only comment she made was that his hair was too long.

The second time Ida attended her son’s concert was eight years later in November 1976. This time, she was in the full house audience of four thousand people at the Metropolitan Opera for the performance of his first opera, Einstein on the Beach.

Glass movingly recalls his conversation with his mother at her death bed. She was in and out of a coma. She whispered two last words to him: “The copyrights”. Mother and son came to a perfect understanding. He reassured her, “It’s all taken care of, Mom. I’ve registered them all.”

He’d better.

Glass has composed more than twenty operas, eight symphonies, two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra, soundtracks to films, 125 credits on IMDb for all sorts: full features, doc, shorts, TV. And more to come.



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “Words Without Music by Philip Glass”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful summary. I am very interested in the philosophy and the lives behind the art. I grew up with an interest in ambient music and noted Glass both in films and in my college radio show along with Eno and others. Something to add to the ‘must read’ list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle,

      You’ll find this memoir fascinating. Lots of experiences with not only music but art, as Glass has come across many artist friends. There are chapters on his journey to India and various cultural experiences. Nothing minimal.


  2. This sounds utterly fascinating, Arti. I love the details you’ve brought out from the memoir. That quote on page 97 makes me think of a good speaker who attends to his audience.

    Alas, my local libraries (three of them!) aren’t subscribed to hoopla. But I’ll be flagging this audiobook. Thank you!


    1. nikkipolani,

      I guess it’s fascinating to different people for different reasons. For me it’s his journey towards his goal to be a composer. Along the way, how his academic training, friendships, mentoring from others, and generally life itself had moulded him, and his gentle, contented outlook to all that he’d encountered.


  3. This is a fabulous review and looks like a remarkable book. I’ve never been that fond of Glass’ music (although I will confess I’ve not heard a lot that I’m aware of, but what I have is a little too out there for me. But the lives of musicians/composers/artists of all kinds fascinate me and this is one I might have to take a look at.


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m not really a ‘fan’ of Glass, it’s just that I’m very curious as to what he has to say about his life. That’s why I picked this book up from the library, and later found it was on Hoopla too. Anyway, I quite like his ‘repeated structures’ but not all his works are like that. I particularly enjoyed his screen music, the dramatic tension. (e.g. in “The Hours”) I don’t usually embrace everything that I read, and it’s utterly up to me to pick and choose. So it doesn’t mean I subscribe to all that he embraces, but it’s fascinating just the same to read about his search and life story.


  4. I had no idea he worked in such influential and eclectic circles. Between them all, the artistic input and output must have been riveting.


    1. Aubrey,

      The insider’s view is totally fascinating. And I’d enjoyed the tone, quiet, humble, human, and cerebral. It’s a smorgasbord of delights. Up to your taste and preferences. You’ll enjoy it. 😉


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