Book Review: Harmony, rhythm help move Philip Glass’ ‘Words’

Book Review: Harmony, rhythm help move Philip Glass’ ‘Words’

In New York in the 1960s it wasn’t unusual for struggling artists to do odd jobs to make a buck until the next big break. Author Fran Lebowitz drove a taxi and still owns her vintage checkered cab. Philip Glass drove a cab too. He also worked as a plumber, in a steel mill, did construction and cleaned homes. It wasn’t until he was 41 that he was able to give up day labor and earn a living full-time making music, he reveals in his new memoir, “Words Without Music.”

Glass devotees who have read 1987’s “Music by Philip Glass” (edited by Robert T. Jones) will be familiar with some of the ground covered in “Words.” The former is a thinner tome with a chapter dedicated to each of his seminal “portrait operas” — “Einstein on the Beach,” “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten.” The scope of “Words” is broader and provides the backdrop for the composer’s musical and spiritual evolution, from childhood to the present.

Seventy-one years ago in Baltimore, the artist as a young boy studied the flute and tailgated on the piano lessons of his older brother, Marty. Father Ben’s record shop exposed young Philip to the blues, jazz, “hillbilly music” and the “modern” classical music of the time, notably Shostakovich and Bartòk.

Baltimore in the late 1940s, early 1950s was a place where it was possible to see an occasional yard sign reading “No Dogs, No Jews.” Homeless Holocaust survivors who made their way there found temporary refuge in the secular Glass household. His parents’ values of “kindness and caring” influenced Glass, and today he helps to preserve the culture of Tibetans in exile as a board member of Tibet House US.

Glass studied at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, then left for University of Chicago and didn’t look back. It was 1952. He was 15 years old. Chicago had an art scene that Glass found intoxicating. He continued his piano studies with Marcus Raskin, who politicos might recognize as the co-founder of liberal Washington, D.C., think-tank Institute for Policy Studies (his son, Jamie, is running for a seat in Congress).

Glass continued his studies at Julliard, where the counter-culture scene had a profound impact on him: “There was a huge explosion going on in New York in the 1960s when the art world, the theater world, the dance world and the music world all came together. It was a party that never stopped, and I felt like I was in the middle of it.”

In the mid-1960s, Glass left New York to study on a Fulbright scholarship in Paris with composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. In the United States and India he studied with Ravi Shankar, pre-Beatles association. Until his passing in 2012, Shankar remained a lifelong teacher and friend to Glass. Through the years Glass traveled the globe composing, performing, collaborating and nurturing spiritual interests in yoga, qijong, tai chi, Tibetan Buddhism and the Toltec culture. He also founded the Philip Glass Ensemble and co-founded theater group Mabou Mines with then-wife Joanna Akalaitis.

“Einstein on the Beach” marked Glass’s first broad-scale success in 1976. On the inspiration for the opera, Glass writes, “Einstein clearly visualized his work. … he wrote that he had imagined himself sitting on a beam of light … traveling through the universe. His conclusion was that all he had to do — as if it were a minor matter — was to invent the mathematics to describe what he had seen. What I have to do when I compose is not that different. All I have to do after I have the vision is to find the language of music to describe what I have heard, and it’s within that language that I’ve learned how ideas can unfold.”

Glass has since composed more than 25 operas, soundtracks for feature films (“The Hours,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “Kundun”) and award-winning documentaries (“The Thin Blue Line,” “The Fog of War”), symphonies, concerti and string quartets. He’s collaborated with Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing, avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, fine artists, dancers and others. Highlights of his prolific artistic collaborations make for a rich page turner. Glass writes with the understanding that harmony, melody, rhythm and silence aren’t the province of music alone, but also of writing.

Throughout “Words,” Glass pays tribute to the well-known and obscure musicians, dancers, painters, teachers, gurus, writers and friends who influenced and guided his musical and spiritual path. “Words” is an ode to these individuals and to the quest for an answer to the question he asks throughout: “Where does music come from?”

Chapter by chapter, Glass reveals the answer.

This piece originally appeared in Washington Jewish Week.