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Lead book review

Plumber, taxi driver, mystic, musician — the many facets of Philip Glass

Philip Hensher revels in the smallest details of the composer’s memoir, while admitting he is no fan of the music

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

Words without Music Philip Glass

Faber, pp.432, £22.50

Philip Glass is by now surely up there in the Telemann class among the most prolific composers in history. There must be an explanation, preferably a non-defamatory one, for how his technique has enabled him to produce such an enormous quantity of music. A glance at my iPod shows that Varese’s collected works are over in 150 minutes: Berg, Ravel and Debussy each managed to produce between ten and 15 hours of music at most.

Glass’s style, which has been called ‘minimalist’, though he doesn’t accept the label, works on a bigger scale. He has written 25 operas, some, like Einstein on the Beach, as long as Die Meistersinger. He owns up to 30 film scores, although the internet movie database connects him with more than a hundred different films. There are ten symphonies on a Mahlerian scale, nine string quartets and a dozen full-scale concertos.

The early pieces can be immense— ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ lasts four-and-a-half hours in performance. Even committing to listening to Glass’s oeuvre would be a time-consuming occupation, let alone writing it. The fact that he has now published rather a charming full-scale memoir on top of this colossal output makes one wonder whether his energy may not start to fall into the category of the pathological.

The music, quite unlike anything written before, emerged from a New York background both predictable and peculiar. On the orthodox side were flute lessons, the Juilliard School, and, like most American composers of the 20th century, a stint in Paris learning from the French guru Nadia Boulanger. (Virgil Thomson remarked that every American town had a drugstore and a Boulanger pupil). On the less predictable side was a long 1960s stint delving into Indian mystical thought, years spent working as a plumber and a taxi-driver before recognition as a composer came in his forties, and, most significantly, a background in the visual arts and in ‘happenings’ rather than in musical life.

Glass says that one incentive to develop his own style was the recognition that contemporary music just didn’t seem to interest the Manhattan artists he hung out with and worked for; they had rock and roll on their studio gramophones, not Stockhausen. His music was intended for a big crowd, not the musical elite. For years, kindly professionals would inquire of the Boulanger pupil whether he had ever considered taking lessons to acquire some compositional technique. But with the entirely new and completely accessible style of ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ and Einstein on the Beach, Glass had caught the ear of a massive, hip, tuned-in audience, something no serious composer had achieved for decades. It may have helped that his surname was so appropriate and therefore memorable: the glossy, shiny, hard and transparent sound of his ensemble just was the Glass sound.


It is as well to admit that, personally, I can’t be doing with Glass’s music, which seems to me to rest on a few flimsy harmonic devices, such as the constant switch between minor and major third, and his development as a composer has gone from weird and confrontational (good) to banal little tunes (not so good), like the Wizard of Oz emerging from behind his awesome screen. I get the impression that the respect of musicians is afforded to Steve Reich and John Adams, but not so much to Philip Glass and his many symphonies. I don’t think that much matters for the present purposes, because Words without Music is, as the most hostile critic must admit, a definite recommendation in Glass’s case.

Glass came from a small-business background: his father ran a record shop, and was determined to make a success of its every aspect. The time it took to sell four box sets of Schoenberg’s string quartets in the 1950s was a complex, thoughtful lesson for the young Glass. Everything pays if you give it enough time and enough energy. But in the meantime you’re taking up space. Glass is absolutely clear that the music business and the world of music are two entirely different things, and one of the appealing things about the autobiography is his business practicality from the very start.

When the Philip Glass ensemble began performing, he ensured that the members fulfilled the bureaucratic requirements to be eligible for unemployment benefit — and, 40 years later, he tells us the details of the arrangement. His mind snags on such particulars, and he doesn’t hesitate to specify that ‘after five months of working at the mill, I had saved $1,200’; that ‘I was spending 20 dollars a week for a larger room’; that ‘my rent [in the late 1950s] had climbed to $69 a month and, finally, a high of $125 a month’; that, because of the prize culture, it ‘meant $500 to $1,500 every May or June’; that he bought his house on Second Avenue with a

10 per cent down payment… I had ten grand from Sony as an advance… and I borrowed five grand each from [his children] Juliet…and Zack…. which had been gifts to them from their Akalaitas grandparents. The last ten grand I borrowed from an old friend, Rebecca Litman, on a 60-day loan, which I actually paid back in 120 days.

It is rather a regret when Glass starts to become too successful to share these financial specifics with us.

Some people might think these details undignified in a composer’s autobiography, but there is plenty of Buddhist speculation alongside to be going on with, and Berlioz’s great autobiography is just as practically minded. It is fair to say that Glass gets some of this from his family. With no intention — I think — to amuse, he records his mother’s deathbed utterances.

‘Yes, Mama. Yes, I’m here.’ She nodded her head, and she motioned for me to lean down so she could talk to me. ‘The copyrights!’ she whispered. ‘What?’ ‘The copyrights.’ She had come to the conclusion somewhere along the way that they were worth something, and she wanted to make sure I still owned the work. I understood what she meant. I leaned down to her and said ‘It’s all taken care of, Mom.’ She nodded. ‘I’ve registered them all, and they belong to my company.’ She nodded her head again. That was the last thing we said to each other.

Words Without Music is just as specific, and just as engaging, when it comes to the information about taxi-driving in the 1970s or, especially, the melting of lead in plumbing work. (‘You wiped the lead around the lip of the flange, let it cool, and then placed over it a wax gasket that would provide a seal between the flange and the base of the toilet.’) Glass, a professional plumber at the time, was also working as the studio assistant to several important artists, and his expertise with melting lead, protected by nothing more than a brown-paper sandwich bag, drew the sculptor Richard Serra to work in the medium for the first time.

This autobiography is worth your attention. It’s a shame that Faber, who have published many books on contemporary music, should allow Glass to refer to Harrison ‘Birtwhistle’ twice, and a more interventionist editor might have asked him to cut down a little on the chapters about his enlightenment in India. But it’s a well-written, well-observed memoir with a charming New York flavour of directness and specificity about small things. His prose gets to the point with the minimum of fuss — as one might expect of a onetime New York cabbie of the old school, not expecting any interruptions.

Roland Barthes said of the famous Mapplethorpe portrait of Glass with Robert Wilson around the time that Einstein on the Beach was written that his eye was drawn inexplicably to Wilson. Mine too — but after reading this autobiography, I found myself looking again at Glass, with new respect.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18 Tel: 08430 600033


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