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.



Remembering John Barry this Valentine’s Day

To me, John Barry (Nov. 3, 1933 – Jan. 30, 2011) would always be the romantic of screen music.

As a youngster, I was thrilled by the iconic theme and melodies from all the James Bond movies, unaware of the name John Barry, the composer. I had seen them all, beginning with “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”…  knowing only one name: Sean Connery.  I did not care to find out more about the creator behind the music which had invigorated a youngster’s fantasy, that of the urbane spy hero, gadget-savvy, resourceful, adroit and indomitable, the romance of a childhood.

And then there was the wild world of nature, and the romance against its backdrop to run free and uninhibited. Again, John Barry’s screen score and Don Black’s lyrics had enriched a young heart with the ideal of freedom and beauty, and instilled the notion that “life is worth living, but only worth living ’cause you’re born free”.  I was oblivious to John Barry’s winning two Oscars with his music for “Born Free” (1966).  To me, what was important was to see the lion Elsa being set free into the wild to go back to her real home.

Years later, as the child grew up to become the ever steadfast romantic, I was again mesmerized by John Barry’s melodies set to some most memorable cinematic renderings, utterly enthralled by the simple melodic lines from “Somewhere In Time” (1980). Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour brought out the most heart-wrenching scenario of unrequited love. CLICK HERE to listen and watch on YouTube.

Again a few years later, there emerged the deep yearning and expansive orchestral score from “Out Of Africa” (1985). Another pair of star-crossed lovers entered the romantic landscape. Robert Redford and Meryl Streep poignantly portrayed the auto-biographical sketch of Danish writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). John Barry won another Oscar.  CLICK HERE to watch and listen on YouTube.

Fast forward some more, the sweeping orchestration of “Dances With Wolves” (1990) with Kevin Costner’s epic cinematic depiction of the Sioux nation presented another frame of romantic offering: a people striving to defend their raison d’être, and a man clinging to his own ideals.  John Barry’s musical creation had done it again, capturing another Oscar.  CLICK HERE to watch and listen on YouTube.

There are many more works by Barry, who at the end of a career that spanned almost 50 years, had garnered 5 Oscars and many other accolades.  Some other acclaimed film scores include Best Music Oscar for “The Lion In Winter” (1968), Best Music Oscar nomination for “Chaplin” (1992) and “Mary Queen of Scots” (1971). Still others include “Zulu” (1964), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Walkabout” (1971), “King Kong” (1976), “Body Heat” (1981), “Jagged Edge” (1985)…

This Valentine, I remember John Barry as a romantic. I lament the passing of another figure among a generation of artists who worked with genuine talents and old-school creativity without massive hi-tech glamour. This Valentine, I remember also Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) and Anthony Minghella (1954-2008).


CBC Cutting Classical Music Programs

What a shock it is for me to learn that our national radio station CBC Radio 2, is choosing to axe more classical music programs to appeal to a ‘wider audience’.  Why, aren’t we who have been enjoying the arts and music, who have cherished the long tradition of these CBC productions, who have raised our children on them, teaching and nurturing them to appreciate their content, not a part of the general public? 

Click here for Russell Smith’s article in The Globe and Mail on March 13, 2008, “No classical?  Then kill Radio 2 and get it over with.”  Just let me try to fathom the motives behind these further cuts:

1.  Diversity.  If it’s diversity they are aiming at,  they should all the more leave the classical edge in because CBC Radio 2 is the only nation-wide English radio station in Canada that offers classical music.  Which station can I tune in for such extensive and in-depth coverage of the arts and artists, classical music and musicians, live concerts, commentaries, CD reviews and even an audience requests program? What alternative do I have when the only classical music station in Canada decides to go with the flow and become just another dial for easy listening or contemporary pop?  I feel like I’m a CBC copywriter doing a promo for the station…but why would they need me to tell them this?   To CBC Radio: Respect your role in the Canadian cultural landscape.  What ‘diversity’ are you offering if there are no choices in genre? If ‘diversity’, and ‘choice’ are such powerful words nowadays, honor the real meaning of these terms and not just utter them for political correctness. 

2.  Multicultural. The term “Classical Music” has often been misconstrued as being monocultural.  Are CBC program researchers and management not aware that many so called “classical” composers, especially the more contemporary ones, are from a diverse cultural background including not only Western European, but Central and southern European, Scandinavian, Russian, North American, South American, and Asian?  And do they not know that for this last group here, Asian-Canadians, especially appreciate classical music and particularly in the teaching of their young, the next generation of music lovers?  I for one can speak out on this issue where I personally and know and have come into contact with countless parents of Asian descent who have involved their children in the learning of classical music, and have nurtured numerous talented young classical musicians here in Canada.  Jan Wong in her recent book Beijing Confidential notes that there are 30 million piano students and 10 million violin students in China today.  Two of the most popular music icons among the young are Lang Lang and Yundi Li, both world renowned classical pianists in their 20’s. Wouldn’t it be odd that one can enjoy classical music on radio in China but not be able to in Canada?

3.  Education. If it’s just for the sake of our young, we owe them a great heritage if we do not nurture them to appreciate the roots of modern music. Without going deep into music theory, isn’t it true that our contemporary music evolves from classical foundations?  Calling it ‘classical’ sounds so politically incorrect, as it wrongly conveys ‘elitism’ or simply connotations of being passé. But, would you avoid teaching our next generation Canadian history just because history is passé? 

4.  Business. If it’s for marketing reasons, why add one more ‘easy listening’, ‘pop’, ‘jazz’ or ‘contemporary’ station to the already competitive business, why fight for market share while you can distinctly offer something very different and unique, a real alternative to the radio audience in Canada.  If you wish to morph into a more hip mode to appeal to the young, look for younger DJ’s for your classical music programs. If George Stroumboulopoulos (previously of MuchMusic) can become a Canadian news icon on CBC Television, I’m sure you can find young blood equally well versed in the classical music sector.  

5.  Identity. And if it’s Canadian identity they are seeking, trying to appease the ‘general public’ (as if we are not), then CBC Radio 2 should all the more realize, as a publicly owned radio station and a national institution, the classical music they are eliminating is not just a part of Canadian identity, but human civilization…and I suppose western or eastern, old or young, we are a part of that.

Enough said here.  My teenaged son who alerted me to this piece of incredulous news has sent me a link to the on-line petition.  Click here to sign.

Other reactions to this announcement:



A Facebook group has already been formed:  “Save Classical Music on the CBC”, has gathered more than 8,000 members and counting.