Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Words Without Music

Yes, blogging has been very light of late. I was off to Virginia for the holidays, but now I am back: revived, recalibrated and resonant.



I have been reading a fairly new book recently and it deserves a review in some depth. The book is Philip Glass' autobiography Words Without Music and it is well worth your time. It recounts his whole life from childhood and is surprisingly interesting and well-written. Some of the most fascinating material deals with just how he built up a constituency by moving within the New York avant-garde art and theater circles whom he slowly won over to his music. The blurbs on the back contain positive comments from Martin Scorsese, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but none from any of the big name classical composers or performers. My composition teacher in Montreal has been known to comment that he is not sure if Philip Glass is a classical composer or not.

Whether it is "classical" or not, it is fairly certainly "concert" or "art" music as, alongside his extensive music for theater and opera, are his numerous outings for orchestra in the form of symphonies and concertos. But his music, like that of Steve Reich, has a unique sensibility that tends to rub traditional classical musicians the wrong way. I have been a fan of Steve Reich since the middle 70s, but less so of Philip Glass. But I see from reading the book that I may have simply not given his music enough of a listen.

Philip Glass has the kind of determination and commitment that one rarely encounters. For example, at one point in his life he decided that he needed to formalize, to discipline, his compositional activities. To this end he confined himself for three hours every day, from 10 am to 1 pm, to his studio where, if nothing came to him, he would simply sit at the piano for the three hours. Finally, out  of a kind of insane boredom, it started to work for him. I completely understand this.

The book is full of interesting insights like this. There is also a lot about his devotion to yoga and spirituality generally that I find less interesting, but that may be just me. He talks a lot about transcendence as the point and destination of his music and I understand that as well. Tomorrow I am going to get started on a series of posts talking about the book in some detail, but this is just an introduction.

For those who are new to Philip Glass, he is a composer of what was often called "minimalist" music, though it is a lot less "minimal" than it used to be. He was born in Baltimore in 1937, but has lived most of his life in New York. From his early public concerts (one of the first was attended by a mere six people, including his mother) to his major US breakthrough, the performance at the Met of Einstein on the Beach in late 1976, took surprisingly little time. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is his detailed narrative of exactly how he lived, with no "arts grants", developing his musical style and doing various day jobs to support it: plumber, furniture mover, taxi-driver and so on.

For today, let's just listen to a selection of his music. First, an early piece called Two Pages (from his discovery of a way of notating it that made it possible to fit onto two pages of score). This was written in 1967 or 68.


Once you get past the initial "is he trying to drive me mad" stage you start to notice the groupings and additive structure. Some of the idea for this kind of music came from working with Ravi Shankar. He was given the task of writing out accompaniments for musicians to play with Shankar and was struggling with how to write down what was essentially improvised music. Shankar was telling him he had the rhythms all wrong so he erased all the barlines and noticed how that would work better! Glass remarks in a few places how it all comes back to 2 and 3 note groups.

A much more developed piece is Music in Twelve Parts, written between 1971 and 1974, this is the slow, stately Part 1:


And this is the more active Part 2:


I purchased, way back in the 70s, an LP of some of his very early music that I recall was played on piano. Later on, in the 1980s, he released the very charming album of piano and other music called Glassworks which I also owned:


If you have never heard his music before, then I hope that this intrigues you a bit, at least.

More to come...

6 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I went to Amazon to add the Glass book to the (alas, always lengthening) list and, do you know, there is a television series ('Mozart in the Jungle') that revolves around the travails of an orchestra? apparently a highly libidinous one in which all the musicians are beautiful tortured creative souls. Something like that. One appears to have to pay Amazon to see episodes so I'm never going to: no idea what 'the jungle' refers to, either. When Amazon makes 'Biber von Bibern in the Jungle', I'll buy Prime for that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, that's the trouble with wish lists! Mozart in the Jungle is based on a book by an orchestral musician about the seamy underbelly of being a classical musician in New York. I haven't seen the tv show, but I just downloaded the Kindle book. Here is the blurb:

From her debut recital at Carnegie Hall to performing with the orchestras of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, oboist Blair Tindall has been playing classical music professionally for over twenty-five years. She's also lived the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth, trading sex and drugs for low-paying gigs and the promise of winning a rare symphony position or a lucrative solo recording contract. In Mozart in the Jungle, Tindall describes her graduation from the North Carolina School of the Arts to the backbiting New York classical music scene, a world where Tindall and her fellow classical musicians often play drunk, high, or hopelessly hung-over, live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. (In the cramped confines of a Broadway pit, the decibel level of one instrument is equal to the sound of a chain saw.)

Mozart in the Jungle offers a stark contrast between the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars and those of the working-class musicians. For lovers of classical music, Mozart in the Jungle is the first true, behind-the-scenes look at what goes on backstage and in the Broadway pit.

Anonymous said...

I share your view that Steve Reich is the better composer among the two;but Glass has composed some good music.
Here is a speculation,about prolific output and reputation;In the classical world,Brahms wrote 4,Beethoven 9,but Haydn wrote 100+ symphonies.So the implication is that,for others writing a symphony was an artistic quest,whereas for Haydn it was just work?.Surely it's isn't true,for Haydn's symphonic work is of the highest quality in terms of elegance and inventiveness.Sadly he is considered as warm-up before Mozart/Schubert.
Not intended as a comparison,but Glass is a active composer churning out work across multiple mediums like theater,concert hall & films every year,hence the contempt from traditional folks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I was just talking to another composer who was praising Philip Glass' string quartets, which I don't know yet. There can be a credibility issue for prolific composers, but our experience of Haydn, as you mention, but also Mozart and Schubert, both very prolific and Bach, who also wrote an amazing amount of music, tends to support the idea that you can write lots of great music.

Philip Glass is prolific in lots of different areas, too. But don't you get the feeling sometimes that there are certain ideas, certain syncopations that he just uses too often?

Anonymous said...

true Glass does use a few techniques too often:i know a few,who dislike his music strongly for the same reason.we watched a film with Glass's score,a couple of friends commented they would rather not listen to one chord arpeggio'd for 2 hours! what we can do is pick & choose the good music from the formulaic ones.

Bryan Townsend said...


"choose the good music from the formulaic ones"

That is pretty much the basic aesthetic principle that we support at the Music Salon!