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The Significance of Philip Glass

By Michael MarkhamApril 27, 2015

Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass

“MAIS CE N’EST PAS LA MUSIQUE.” Philip Glass seems to beam with pride when remembering this phrase (“But it’s not music.”), tossed almost pityingly at him by some of Nadia Boulanger’s other students in Paris in 1966. In one form or another that tsk-tsking is the most common dismissal of the music (classical, let’s be clear) of the 20th century, sniffed carelessly at almost every difficult modern piece dating back to Arnold Schoenberg’s first atonal works. It is a woeful refrain still trotted out whenever your local philharmonic dares tackle anything more adventurous than Ravel. It inevitably burbles up even in music schools when the subject of John Cage’s 4’33’’ is touched on. By emphasizing it, Glass is claiming kinship with that line, and that he sees himself as a challenger and an innovator, as misunderstood as any of the greats. Like so many of the ones that matter most to him, the score that elicited that concerned “But …” was a theatrical collaboration, incidental music composed in Paris for Samuel Beckett’s Play. The mumbles (and sometimes shouts) would come at Glass not, like with most previous modern music, from unadventurous listeners, but from the ranks of the avant-garde themselves who saw Glass’s desire to meet people halfway (and, God forbid, to please them) as a betrayal of the modernist call to expand, explore, and challenge the intellect — “to set a standard,” in the words of Milton Babbitt, “to which they might aspire.” Glass has been difficult to place throughout his career — too downtown-chic-bizarre for some and too pop-crossover-easy for others.

I found myself muttering that same dreaded line, too, when reading Words Without Music, Glass’s 400-page memoir about his life as a composer — muttering it not about Glass’s compositional legacy, which is very much music and, in fact, some of the most important music of the last half century, but about the book itself. It is not a good book, at least if you’re looking for a book about La Musique. Instead it is a book about les amis, collaborations, and the general din of activity that makes up the life of a working composer. Glass doesn’t want to talk to us about his works but to present an image of himself as a worker and a builder. As such it falls into long stretches of picturesque but unrevealing patter about comings and goings, plumbing and planning. Let’s face something right away: we both know that it would be the most hack line in the world to claim that a memoir by Philip Glass is repetitive. But it is. It is a detailed telling of a life of repetitions, weekend concerts, furniture moving, instrument building, set painting, resource gathering, meetings, and hangouts. As part travelogue, part diary of an artist in a thriving scene, it makes sense that it would be so. Hardly a page goes by without a new list of names, slightly varied from the list the page before. The same characters drift in and out largely contributing the same ideas, patterns of work and life repeating with little variation for pages at a time until you realize that the scene has slowly shifted just enough to be a little new. Sound familiar, listeners? Glass himself notes that, “working artists live very regular lives.” Words Without Music is about a history of such working, and mostly about working with. The works that don’t get mentioned are those that are the most traditionally “composerly” and least collaborative. Of his ten symphonies only two even show up in the index. Of his six quartets only the first is mentioned. Words Without Music is essentially a recollection of meetings with people near music.

The regularity of that working, though, is deceptive. Pull back from the fussy detail immersion and you begin to see a genuine life lesson for young artists having to do with making connections and accepting invitations. One of Glass’s most interesting personality traits, at least as he presents himself here, is his seeming nonchalance about embarking on risky ventures and expensive, possibly doomed excursions. I already knew most of the general details of Glass’s life, but I still found myself whispering, “Don’t drop everything and go to India! You have bills to pay!” His near mythic string of odd jobs are well known: Bethlehem steel, furniture moving (the company he founded with Steve Reich, famously advertised as “Chelsea Light Moving”), driving a cab, plumbing, and hanging sheetrock. That factotum-by-day work continued well after he was already famous enough to be recognized by Robert Hughes when Glass showed up to install his dishwasher. Less often mentioned are the reasons for this. It wasn’t simply that he hadn’t “made it yet” (he was still driving a cab well after selling out the Met with Einstein on the Beach). It was because his plans were big and required more and he didn’t want to wait for it to be the right time. He didn’t want to wait to form The Philip Glass Ensemble until he could afford to “do it right” (meaning paying players a full salary, health benefits, unemployment insurance). So he did it right now and went into debt doing it. He didn’t want to wait to tour Europe and storm the Met with Einstein, so he went $90,000 further into debt making it happen despite the sold-out houses. From the moment he left his hometown of Baltimore to attend the University of Chicago at 15, he has been utterly unafraid to say “yes, how soon?” to any challenge or opportunity that arises, with barely a shrug to whatever the risks might be. Throughout Words Without Music, Glass reveals an admirably cheerful pragmatism: “It was a stretch, but I couldn’t get along without it. It just meant more moving jobs or plumbing work. Not all that hard to manage.” The threads of good fortune follow from this attitude. If he hadn’t determined to go to Juilliard despite inexperience and no money, he would never had the connections to win a Fulbright to go to Paris and study with Boulanger. If, while in Paris, he hadn’t agreed to take an odd (truly odd) job helping score an obscure movie, he would never have met Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, who altered his understanding of musical rhythm and form more than had 20 previous years of western-musical study. That encounter, his struggle to notate Ravi Shankar’s improvisations and his sudden discovery of its underlying unmetered patterning, has taken on Genesis myth status in the history of Glass. It is his mystical epiphany moment.

In the midst of all this and in desperation, I simply erased all of the bar lines, thinking I would just start all over again. There before my eyes I saw a stream of notes, grouped into twos and threes. I saw at once what he was trying to tell me. I turned to him and said, “All the notes are equal,” and his response was a warm, big smile.

For anyone who knows “the Glass sound” the connection between this discovery and his eventual style is self-evident. Streams of equal notes moving fast and grouping themselves into cycles that shift but never quite break down. But none of this happens without Glass’s lifelong willingness to blunder and fake his way from experience to experience, seemingly without fear. A random selection of a book on Tibet from a friend’s bookshelf and he instantly decides, with no money or connections, to travel by train and ship to North India, a trip that began to solidify the spirituality that he would explore in his music over the next 40 years. Each twist followed and not fled leads to new and powerful influences.


But that’s enough Ted Talk stuff. Say “Yes,” kids! Frankly, an artist’s life presented with so much positive energy and good karma makes for a lousy read. But more importantly, ce n’est pas la musique! As a music historian, I have other fish to fry and such tales of beautiful convergence and satisfying personal risk-taking aren’t what I’m looking for. In this way the book frustrated me and will frustrate anyone who wants more insight into La Musique. Not to be ruthless, but Glass’s friendships are not as important to me as he thinks they are. I hear the name Philip Glass and I think of any number of tantalizing propositions, none of which seem to stimulate the artist’s own interest, but all of which might have piqued the reader’s. I think of that coiled moment in the late 1960s when the threads of modernism became so frayed that it would take nothing more radical or explosive than a simple repeating scale to snap them. I think of that burst of ideas released when the two 20th-century pillars of complexity and abstraction, which had held solid for 60 years, suddenly collapsed in a flurry of new spirituality, political engagement, and populist crossover. Most importantly I hear the name of a co-creator of a musical language, minimalism, that, decades later, remains the closest thing to a shared “classical mainstream” style that we have had since the end of the Romantic era over a century ago.

It is a remarkable legacy. Not just being part of that scene (many were who went on to do little else after), but continuing on as a figure of international “serious music” stature while reaching out to larger and larger audiences over a half century of work. At 78-years-old, Philip Glass has produced an astounding output of music ranging from grubby provocations in SoHo warehouse chic to prestigious midtown symphony hall commissions for the elegant set, from pieces requiring nothing more than a table to bang on to operas requiring the resources of a small duchy to stage. Minimalism is now into at least a third generation of composers and audiences since its beginnings. Today you will likely hear more music in any given day that falls loosely into that category than any other kind. It shows up in film and television scores and in commercial background and industrial music. Its looping repetitions remain locked in a symbiotic relationship with decades of popular music, from the stacking of string loops in disco, through the pulsing synthesizer riffs of Laurie Anderson or the Talking Heads, to the layering of musical modules in contemporary hip hop. Drop in on any “new music” concert, from your local university’s composition department to a Nico Muhly gallery installation in Brooklyn, and you will hear echoes of Glass and his cohort, of Glass and that moment. Shattering glass.

That sudden broadening of the “classical” landscape was a merciful reversal of a century-long trend. But it wouldn’t have happened without a life’s work mending fences. Words Without Music foregrounds that work by placing a heavy emphasis on those pieces, the operas and film scores, that Glass feels have reached the widest audience. The problem was that an arduous century of avant-garde music had left we audiences unable to even notice when composers are actually reaching out to us. One of the few constants across the last hundred years is the troubled and deteriorating relationship between the composers and consumers of that brand of “intellectual” music labeled loosely and dumbly as “classical.” That tension between us and them turned ugly early — from the moment in 1912 that Arnold Schoenberg turned his back, literally, on an audience that was applauding his Gurrelieder, a work he no longer believed in. Their, as he saw it, misguided adulation outraged him and he chose to meet it with provocation, placing himself and all his followers on a path of secession from the social world of performance. Thereafter, the audience riot was a rite in itself, and if you didn’t get one you clearly weren’t pushing far enough. One could easily write a history of 20th-century music by simply jumping from one scandalous premier to another. Schoenberg, as always, set the pattern, having already experienced the masochistic ecstasy of violent rejection at the 1907 premier of his first string quartet. He would go on to settle into a prestigious but marginal existence in the musical life of the general public, proudly proclaiming in 1937 that if any work met with listener approval “either the music or the audience was worthless.” He preferred to remain revered and ignored than popular and compromised — the poster boy for the classic “Art vs. Pop” posture in which “pop” stands for selling out and “art” stands for isolated purity.

Audiences were more than happy to play their part, and the concert life of “new music” became fraught. Intersections between serious modernism and general audiences were infrequent and unsatisfying. Leonard Bernstein’s cloying, half-sneering introduction to the premier of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis by the New York Philharmonic in 1964 elicited the expected boos and catcalls (matched, too, by the players themselves who sabotaged the final performance). The only applause came when he reminded everyone that this was “the last group of avant-garde works in this series.” You can almost hear him whisper it, “Mais ce n’est pas la musique.” Even the joyous and elven Cage could not break the pattern. That codependent relationship resulted in something like a legal separation in 1958 when Milton Babbitt’s infamous essay “Who Cares if you Listen?” (provocatively titled not by him but by his editor at High Fidelity) gently informed us that our attention was, while a perfectly nice gesture, ultimately futile and no longer needed for the survival of musical “research.”

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.

As if that didn’t make things clear enough, by 1967 the composerly repertoire of Cage followers, like Nam June Paik, included stark dramatizations of mutual antagonism, jumping into the audience and slicing off neckties with a pair of scissors. At least once his performance was simply to abandon his audience in the concert hall and take off. He phoned the lobby a few hours later informing his captives that the piece had concluded. Trolling the bourgeoisie never seemed to lose its appeal to composers, and the few petit-bourg concertgoers who still played along never seemed to tire of the dizzying thrill of being outraged.


Thus 1967 marks two things: the terminus ante quem of absurdity in the breakdown of audience/composer relations and the unofficial beginning of the career of Philip Glass who, having returned form Paris and India, was back in New York trying to figure out what was supposed to happen next.

The impending abandonment of the modernist path then can be seen in retrospect as the most important, or at least the last, turning point in 20th-century music (and likely in art writ generally). For 60 years “Next” had been the lawgiver’s name in music, representing a Hegelian devotion to technical innovation, one forward step after another, far beyond any step that listeners and most performers were willing to follow. The canon of modernist composers translates into a laundry list of techniques pioneered: pantonalty, 12-tone, neoclassicism, symmetrical arrays, integral serialism, musique concrete, sonorism, aleatoric composition, time screens, and on and on — a forced march of technical innovation that Christopher Williams has called “Techno-essentialism” and Richard Taruskin “patent office modernism.”

But having already reached points of maximal complexity (Babbitt) and maximal conceptual freedom (Cage) in the previous decade, the line of musical progress had hit a wall along both paths. To take another step in either direction would be to either beat your head against it or bring it crumbling down. Glass and his generation chose to bring it down. Figuratively this meant bringing music down from the heights of ever-increasing technical esoterica and back toward raw emotion. That level had become the domain of Rock. Rather than flee it, they chose to engage and to crossover toward it.

Glass, trained in the highest conservatory traditions (Peabody, Juilliard, Boulanger — a place unto herself), was not the likeliest candidate to lead this charge. He was as pedigreed a “classical” insider as one could be. But he was looking for a way out and was sharply attuned to the new scene taking shape around him. This leads to another running theme that can be teased, with some effort, out of Words Without Music: the importance of place and moment, what in music and art we roughly call “scene.” In particular, the New York art and theater scene. By 1967 the old avant-garde were just that, old. Pollocks had been hanging at the MOMA for nearly 20 years. Pierre Boulez was no longer a radical student but a conservative teacher. The modernist ideal of autonomous “foundation” art upheld in museums and universities was being revealed as a kind of political dodge on the part of status-quo elites. The Guggenheim answered protests of political censorship with this masterpiece of cowardly corporate doublespeak about the sanctity of art:

The trustees [of the Guggenheim] have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends. It is well understood, in this connection, that art may have social and political consequences but these, we believe, are furthered by indirection and by the generalized, exemplary force that works of art may exert upon the environment, not, as you propose, by using political means to achieve political ends, no matter how desirable these may appear to be in themselves.

Tension from the contradiction inherent in a conservative, institutional avant-garde was building in the air outside the citadels of high culture, and new art was appearing not on their walls but on their sidewalks, in the park, in the street, and in experimental performance spaces across the East Village. It was the beginning of a movement seeking, in the words of one of their main, later chroniclers at The Village Voice, Kyle Gann, “to reintegrate […] into the normal flow of daily life.” Glass took to it instantly, diving into collaborations with Mabou Mines and forming his own ensemble to perform in loft spaces, warehouses, and outside a van (his moving van, no less) parked anywhere they could haul their instruments. He discovered in the experimental theater of Richard Foreman and others a way to short-circuit the intellectual processes of modernism and wire directly back into psychological affect:

I saw everything he did for years, and I rarely understood what I was watching, nor was I supposed to understand. In fact, I would say his pieces were anti-intellectual in the sense that applying rational processes to them was discouraged and, practically speaking, impossible […] The emotional effect was what many people were looking for, a kind of transcendence and epiphany, an emotional high that came from being detached from the world of the rational and the dramatic.

Glass began to seek that same level of deep emotional epiphany, but the formal techniques of modern music were not equipped to provide it. So he noted the music that was turning on those effects for the artists he admired:

the people around me at the time — painters and sculptors like Bob Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra — all listened to rock ’n’ roll. They did not listen to modern music. It was not in their record collections.

His attempt to connect with them, to write “the music that goes with [their] art,” led to the next moment of discovery and the solidification of the Glass sound, combining the metrical patterning he learned from Ravi Shankar with the basic emotional impact of simple chord progressions all lit up electric with loud amplification.

[T]he biggest thing I heard was amplified music at the Fillmore East. It had the same rhythmic intensity that I had heard in Ravi Shankar’s concert music. That became a formal model, and I would say that the technology became an emotional model […] I was totally enamored with the sight and sound of a wall of speakers vibrating and blasting out high-volume, rhythmically driven music […] In Europe, what was being presented as new music at that time was intellectual — abstract, quite beautiful, but with very little emotional punch to it. I wanted music that would be the opposite of that […] a major part of the impact of the music comes through the amplification itself, which raises the threshold experience to a higher level.

Those early Glass scores still provide the same electric jolt today, regardless of how many times one has heard them. Glass’s early minimalism is distinguishable in sound and motivation from his contemporaries in what is loosely called the “minimalist school” — La Monte Young and Terry Riley in Berkeley, and Steve Reich in New York. The Left Coast minimalists traded in long stretches of stasis and slow imperceptible transformation. Theirs is the stuff of “mindful meditation” and is the most challenging for being the least active. They, too, were heavily influenced by Indian spirituality, but their music is more strictly ritualized than Glass’s. It is communal participation music that is as much religious communion as concert.

Over on the East Coast, sounds had to move faster. Reich, the most modernist of the minimalists, strives for a transparent unfolding of logical process. His rapid “phasing” pieces present us with transformations that are meant to be analyzed and mentally processed in real time. One line turns into multiple blurred, shifting lines, evoking an almost Bach-like counterpoint but with complicated Babbitt-like cross-rhythms. That kind of “intellectual” structure aligns him more closely with the 20th-century avant-garde and is exactly what Glass was hoping to strip away in order to achieve his “emotional epiphanies.”

Instead, a score like Glass’s Two Pages works on a more primal level. It hits the body heavy, an incessant fast pulse (subtactile eighth notes is the “official music theory” term) generating intense waves of physical motion that, over time, begin to translate to psychic energy. When the patterns begin to change, adding a note or taking one away, listeners are staggered. Unlike in Reich, the processes of change are difficult to register or predict intellectually. The buildup of tension between grooving and staggering eventually creates a sensation that, to read Glass describe it, is something of a high: “The buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level.”

It is a powerful effect that some recoiled against as anti-intellectual and even dangerous. Elliott Carter called the tune back in 1982, denouncing Einstein on the Beach in starkly Godwinian terms:

About one minute of minimalism is a lot, because it is all the same. Minimalists are not aware of the larger dimensions of life. One also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler and in advertising. It has its dangerous aspects.

Even its proponents have found an uneasy correlation between the power of repetition in this music and that same power in advertising or propaganda. Short-circuit the intellect and you can manipulate people into ecstasy, religious or sexual or militant, or consumer — whatever you need once you unlock the secret. For Robert Fink, whose 2005 book Repeating Ourselves was one of the first major academic studies of the impact of Glass, Reich et al., minimalism works at the same level of repetition and sensory flooding as does most modern media, a distillation of the sensations of desire through powerful mechanisms of selling:

It is as if 19th-century rhythmic salesmanship has undergone the same rationalization by industrial techniques that Baudrillard saw in modern marketing. The unique, handcrafted stratagems of Beethoven have now been replaced by industrial machinery that works to a much finer tolerance; the task of creating desire has been analyzed (through “time and motion studies”) and broken down into microtasks (the “phase-shifting process”).

Fink’s mention of Beethoven clues us in to Glass’s most important discovery. His way to reach back out to listeners was a path back into the traditional romantic experience of musical motion. Despite what your music appreciation class might have said, plenty of what hits us in Beethoven is also anti-intellectual and purely physical, harnessing and releasing emotional desire over long stretches of time through throbbing downbeats and swirling motive repetition. Such a phenomenological approach was heresy to generations of abstract modern artists and 12-tone composers. Motion toward emotional uplift was exactly what they had rejected about Romanticism in the first place. Suspicion of “emotional buoyancy” and the ability of music to manipulate crowds by routing around the intellect was the flog with which early modernists attacked the swooning thrall of Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler.

This is the whole flaw of “emotional” music. It is like a drug: you must have more drug, and more noise each time, or this effect, this impression which works from the outside, in from the nerves and sensorium upon the self — is no use, its effect is constantly weaker and weaker.

As thus proclaimed by Ezra Pound, the drug/advertising analogy goes back at least to 1914. Ironically, given Pound’s proclivities, it would be hard to argue against suspicion of such manipulation. The bloody track record of emotionally buoyant mass messaging is impossible to explain away from our seat at the end of a century of totalitarianism, personality cults, and Warholian blitz marketing. Following World War I, Stravinsky famously announced the formalist era had arrived for music, declaring his distrust of emotionalism and that music could (read: should) not “express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood …” and certainly not anything so corruptible as emotional buoyancy. From that point forward, music would express not emotion but truth, and the only pure truth was abstract truth. Process and structure would replace psychology. Thus 12-tone, serialism, and the other systems would follow, each more purely and truthfully structural than the next. Following World War II, John Cage reconfirmed that suspicion of the human, seeking solace in the randomness of composition by coin flip and putting his faith in sounds without agency and with lots of silence in between. “I love sounds just as they are […] and I don’t want [sounds] to be psychological […] or to pretend to be in love with another sound [laughs].” If we couldn’t trust our own psyche, we certainly couldn’t trust any art that offered to tickle it for money.

But that is just what the minimalists would do. Shields were still up when Terry Riley’s “In C” received one of the last riotous rejections by an audience in the century. But this time it was an audience of avant-garde composers at the Darmstadt Summer Course who were outraged at the simplicity and mesmerism of what they were hearing. Anyone could get that! And worse, people would listen to it, and sway and swoon and then what? But the turn was in the air, and the younger generation, invigorated by Selma and Vietnam, had decided that formalist detachment wasn’t so safe either. It just leaves the field wide open to whomever wants to claim it, and you know who will. (Spoiler: The Man.)

Glass began to re-engage the old musical grammar of repetition and intensification in pursuit of the same emotional high that the Romantics had. His early scores produce a momentum that pulls us forward toward moments of explosive catharsis. The result is nothing less than the old “romantic sublime,” the same effect we get from Beethoven’s 5th: repetition + speed + trajectory + release = emotional buoyancy. In Two Pages, the release comes in a most Beethovenian way, the emphasis, disappearance, and then re-emergence of a final “tonic” note beneath the obsessively repeating scale in the final minutes of the piece, every bit as incessant and weighty as the blissful final chords slammed down over and over to end the 5th. Listen, as well, to the excruciating buildup and explosion of the “spaceship” scene form Einstein on the Beach. As shiny and electric and new as it may sound on the surface, the effect is pure Rossini.

Glass hints here and there in Words Without Music that he turned to such extreme measures of pulsation and volume because that was what was required to reawaken our instinct for the sublime and to compete with the exhilarating drive of Rock and the overwhelming cacophony of pop art. He hints … but finding useful bits of musical or conceptual analysis in the book is a game of skim and peck. Its lessons are hard to extract and will only reveal themselves if you fight against the book itself, skipping, flipping and rearranging, pursuing the patterns that arise in his life by crossing randomly from section to section. It’s like a game. But I wonder how many readers will figure it out before giving it up. Most will be stymied by a mountain of monotonous detail:

With three keyboards and two saxophones, and soon a singer, we needed a sound system we could all plug into. The ensemble’s original four-channel sound system was put together with two University twelve-inch speakers and two Dyno-kit amplifiers that I had built for me from kits that came with instructions. We used Y connectors to fit the eight channels we needed into the four channels we had. I picked up three Farfisa electric organs for two hundred dollars each from the Buy-Lines. This kind of used keyboard was easy to come by. Usually a few weeks after Christmas they could be found for sale. I always found them, without exception, in a knotty-pine paneled basement in Queens.

It goes on like this for a while. Chirpy, gossipy, and excruciating. Part of the problem is that the outlines of Glass’s life, as inspiring and unpredictable as they might be, are so well known to even a casual fan. Glass is among the most cheerful and generous talkers in the history of music: lectures, interviews, audience Q&As, essays, even a previous book (whose title/author listing is a gentle rib on his own musical style — Music by Philip Glass by Philip Glass). Because of that, and his seemingly endless patience with answering the same questions about the same moments of his career, the stories seem like reruns to those who are already fans. For those who are not already familiar, his descriptions of that magnificent scene are about as informative as a voice over for a newsreel on the 1960s.

In only a few years, the Beats had become the hippies, while the dreamers had reawakened as activists. Woodstock was just two years away, and a new electric popular music set the beat for everyone. The scene at Berkeley was very much a part of our energy system, a second pole of active creativity, as it were. Looming over everything and everyone, however, was the long shadow cast by the Vietnam War. It still had years to go, and no one, either for or against it, could withstand its pull. The drug culture had not yet taken root in our lives, which, for some, meant there would be dark, dark days ahead. Some would not survive. AIDS had not surfaced, still over a decade away, and sexuality was still a playground of sorts. You could say that these were still our days of innocence.

Such reads like the blurb on the back of a coffee table book by Tom Brokaw. I want more and so should you. But Glass is more interested in personal interactions than historical consequences. The sorts of critical insights I was looking for were rare and stated with a deliberately naïve and unrevealing simplicity (“It was a party that never stopped, and I felt like I was in the middle of it”). True to the mellow public personae he has cultivated, he undersells the radicalness of the moment and the conflicts around and within himself. Those who are looking for the drama of revolutionary art-making, for tensions between creative collaborators, for a self-conscious reflection on the interaction of a “high art” composer and the corporate recording industry that helped him so much to crossover, for artistic breakups and personal falling-outs, will have to settle for the drama of Y connectors fitting eight channels into four and bargains found in the buy-lines a few weeks after Christmas. Those looking for guidance in contextualizing that moment, or for language to help them translate the experience of Glass’s musical style, will be best served to look to other books. More is to be learned of both from a single chapter of Robert Fink, Alex Ross, Kyle Gann, or Keith Potter.


Glass transcended that New York scene in 1980, becoming a world figure with the premier of his opera Satyagraha in Rotterdam. Its relative success initiated a steady stream of large-scale dramatic works (operas and film scores) and allowed him to finally give up his cab. Since then he has become a kind of midcult multimedia mogul. There is an irony in his devoting the final third of this book to these works. They are clearly the most important to him. But revisiting them reminds me that, as much as anything else, when I think of Glass I think of biography. He may be the most innovative biographer alive.

His main competition in the world of opera has been John Adams. Thanks to the two of them contemporary opera has become, primarily, a form of oral history. Adams has tended toward singular events: Nixon’s visit to China, Oppenheimer preparing to test the H-bomb, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, The 1994 L.A. earthquake. Glass meanwhile obsesses over scattered images gathered from the life of one great or unusual person: Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha), a human demigod from 14th century BC Egypt (Akhnaten), Columbus (The Voyage), Walt Disney (The Perfect American). His treatment of history in these works is destabilizing and challenging. It is as much historiography as history, a complicated argument on how famous lives are remembered and packaged, distorted and canonized. In this way it is both less dependable and more honest than the feigned objectivity of academic biography. It is unpedantic and democratic, an admission that what survives of the past are fragments and half-stories that are freely appropriated and fabricated as lessons for our own lives — a game of telephone as collective couch session. Glass scatters his subjects into shards and allows the pieces to reflect back at us whatever we will see in them without asserting his own authorial control over the final portrait. He brings to the surface conflicts of reception and reality, truth and symbol. It is simultaneously a realistic view of reception history, an honest abdication of objective authority, and a naïve vision of the trustworthiness of crowd-sourced myth-making.

No complete story is told, and even single events are only glimpsed. There is no fixed chronology. Glass doesn’t want that kind of responsibility. In place of narrative he gives us frozen moments, a few seconds at a time of a life slowed and stretched into minutes or hours, allowing for free examination and meditation on the frozen specimen. This isn’t entirely new. The manipulation of time, the slowing of “real time” to allow fleeting emotions to take up entire scenes, is the most basic tool in the theatrical arsenal. From a Shakespearean soliloquy to Michael Bay’s slo-mo, we are often invited to experience emotions stretched out, unfolding across minutes instead of the split second they actually take. Opera, of course, could not exist without the ability for millisecond emotions to fatten into 10-minute songs. But Glass has taken it to a maximal state. His fragmented storytelling together with his endless, slowly-unfolding musical backgrounds amount to a claim that slowed-down time is not just how theater works but maybe how history might work as well. No longer a special effect, suspended time is all he gives us. The theater becomes the only place to confront history as it really is, always frozen but constantly changing.

In place of a “reading” of history Glass offers an invitation to speculate. He coaxes life moments to take on their role as eternal tableaux that open themselves for each viewer to adapt and manipulate on their own. The right and wrong of it all matters less than the ceaseless process of canonization and revision:

It’s a metaphorical distance, but it’s a real one all the same, and it’s in that journey that the spectator forms a relationship to the music and the image. Without that, it’s all made for us and we don’t have to invent anything […] the spectators are supposed to invent something. They are supposed to tell the story of Einstein.

The most compelling of these later works remains Akhnaten, in which history interlocks and supersedes history and myth conquers myth in grand cycles. The subject, an 18th-dynasty pharaoh, father of Tutankhamen, is himself a test case for the relationship of history and myth. Akhenaten sought to “erase” the God Amun in favor of another, Aten, literally uncarving a deity’s image and name across the architecture of the empire and removing it from history. In turn, Akhenaten was himself “uncarved” by his son who restored the old Gods and erased his father’s name, an oblivion that only lifted in the last century and only with a lot of digging. In Akhnaten a single historical life becomes an emblem that stretches across four millennia, encrusted in layers of revision, variously imagined as name and incantation, a word symbolizing a person, a God, a criminal, a threat, a vision, a gap, a warning, a resurrection. Glass collapses superstition and history revealing the two to be the same. In this case the “metaphorical distance” between spectator and story creates a space in which our own faith that we can understand the past mingles uncomfortably with our realization that the future will change it anyway.

The musical style required to create that distance is different than that of his SoHo days. After Einstein Glass consistently adopted a sound designed to enhance and cultivate a state of focused contemplation. The repetition and pulsation are still there, but the forward propulsion has given way to a kind of punctuated stasis. To keep with Pound’s metaphor, if Two Pages provokes a Beethovenian adrenalin rush, Akhnaten is a form of Adderall. There are a lot of ways for music to provoke a contemplative state of mind but Glass is like mainlining, to the point that for many his music is encountered not in the opera house but delivered straight into the bloodstream via headphones when pulling an all-night study session. Glass has become, whether he likes it or not, a name on a list of sound-material used to induce states of mind. These go by various names (and you can search them on Youtube): binaural beats, isochronic tones, ambient drones, ASMR, sound-sculptures. As Fink describes a normal interaction today with this kind of music:

A college student sets out to read 150 pages of an overdue sociology assignment. Settling down at her desk with pencil, highlighter, and a one liter bottle of Diet Coke, she decides the only thing lacking for her invariable study ritual is some sonic ambience.

(At this point I should probably divulge that it is 3:00 a.m., and with Akhnaten pulsing through my own headphones I’ve written about 3,000 words without lifting my face from the computer screen.)

Glass might recoil at being grouped with so much “noise” not normally thought of as “composition” (though his idol John Cage would probably have been delighted at the comparison). But his dramatic works rely on this effect. They immerse and compel focus and create a sort of inverted sensory deprivation chamber in that they fill us with noise and deprive us of silence and rest. “Too many notes, Philip, too many notes,” Glass remembers Cage warning him, thus putting himself in the role of Mozart to Cage’s Emperor Joseph II. He doesn’t just provide space to think but forces it with a blinking array of stimulation. Thinking under Glass is reflexive and, when accompanied with complex images, deep. If you are new to this music and wondering how one can sit still for hours of “the same thing over and over,” you may be surprised to find your mind doing all the work.

That state, once induced, is fine-tuned by Glass in acts of genuine compositional ingenuity. In place of a foregrounded line of transforming repetition, as in Two Pages, Glass’s later works use repetition as a background canvas over which other layers emerge. He will direct you a bit — choice of harmonic mode, changing level of pulsation, heaviness of orchestration, outbursts of choral chanting, elusive bits of melody seduce you toward an emotion like so many wisps of incense. Chord changes chosen for their traditional association with pathos or triumph, just as they would have been by Schubert, might suggest a new mood. But the bulk of the work is turned over to you. In John Adams’s Nixon in China, shivering pulsation cues you to enter empathetic mode and attempt to see the world from inside the mind of Pat Nixon or Chou En-Lai. In Akhnaten, similar slow waves cue you to wonder at broader concerns, the nature of belief. You cannot help but assume a critical stance. You are not offered a plot to follow but jolts of stimulation, suggestions on how and when to refocus your eyes on the shifting images in front of you, or reminders that it is time to let go of whatever you have been thinking about and move on to something new. The theatrical experience stops being passive, and Glass achieves that transcendent epiphany he experienced all those years ago in Foreman and Beckett that comes from disrupting normal narrative.

At the same time, there were usually lights in your eyes, noises in your ears —everything was done to disturb the normal train of thought that you would bring to the theater. At a certain point, you began to watch in a different way. You never knew what was going happen, and it didn’t matter […] When you look at a play of Beckett’s, the epiphany doesn’t come where Aristotle said it was supposed to come. It doesn’t come from the fall of the hero. In Play and in Waiting for Godot, it can happen at any point in the work. When the feeling content is not necessarily related to the narrative content, and the epiphany can come anywhere, then that feeling has become unrelated to the actual material you’re attending to. It becomes a different way of experiencing music […]


So there may be good reason for Glass to remain reticent when discussing the content of these works. He knows better than anyone that their success relies on maintaining free space between the text, composer, images, and audience. But Words Without Music, as a book, cannot help but suffer for it. If there is one thing that I don’t associate with Glass, it is linear narrative. And so it is confounding: what could possibly be the point of asking Philip Glass, of all people, to write his own biography in the form of a detailed linear narrative? What a bizarre misalignment of personality, form, and content.

It feels like a forced exercise undertaken at the behest of a publisher or friends or both, and perhaps only agreed to with the unfortunate proviso that it would only happen if he could do it in one pass. Near the end he seems to anticipate the frustration. He has experienced it before when asked about his music:

But what was it like when you wrote Satyagraha?” someone might ask. “I don’t know.” “But you were there, weren’t you?” “Are you sure?” Because I’m not sure that I am there at that moment. The ordinary witness has been lost — the artist Philip has robbed the daily Philip of his ability to see himself.

Words Without Music is the testimony of the daily Philip. If we believe this passage, that is all it can be. Presumably “the music itself” will have to stand on its own as the sole testimony of the artist Philip. As with his operatic subjects, he will allow us to fill in the gaps. Daily Philip is plenty busy, and following him around offers us a chance to drift in and out of the interminable and energetic life cycles of a musician building a career. It can perhaps stand as some sort of prompt for young artists, an idealized guidebook for how to go about tapping into your scene. But as busy as he was, and as necessary as they were to his success, the activities of daily Philip are really a trivial background hum to the activities of artist Philip, and so this book can only be a trivial addition to its author’s legacy.


Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

LARB Contributor

Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera JournalThe Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions. Two recent essays can be found in The Music Room in Early Modern France and Italy: Sound, Space, and Object published by Oxford University Press and The Music History Classroom published by Ashgate.


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