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...