Sunday, January 3, 2016

Words About Words

“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying.”
--George Orwell

This is another post on Philip Glass' memoir, Words Without Music that I previous wrote about here.

I just briefly browsed a few reviews of the book and one interesting thing is how uncritical they are. This is a widespread phenomenon that is probably not as remarked as it might be. Genuinely critical reviews--of anything--are anathema these days. Too "negative" or something. If we look back several decades, we find quite a lot of criticism in reviews, some of it very funny. I am thinking of a review of a play where, I believe it was Audrey Hepburn, was described as covering the whole emotional gamut from A to B. But in the writings of Alex Ross, to name a prominent music critic, there really is no criticism. This is also true of Philip Glass in his book. He is pretty careful to depict himself as getting along with pretty well everyone, even film producers. In looking over reviews of Words Without Music the only criticism I found was in this one in the Boston Globe:
The infidelity that ended Glass’s marriage to Akalaitis flits past in a single line, for example. Prominent recording contracts, without which Glass’s music might not have spread as far and as fast as it did, go unexamined. And while third wife, Candy Jernigan, is the subject of a late chapter and some of Glass’s most touching reminiscences, his second wife, Luba Burtyk, and fourth, Holly Critchlow — mother to the boys I’d watched in 2007, cited in the book’s dedication alongside Glass’s older children by Akalaitis — go unacknowledged.
Philip Glass tends to downplay or simply omit details. On some occasions, where you might have expected a bit more detail, such as when he describes a rehearsal that was going very badly, it is simply missing. In the case of the rehearsal, he proposes to the group of forty or so string players that were working on the piece, that everyone who wished could simply go home. Some fifteen players did leave and, as he says, the piece then started to sound pretty good. This is probably one instance out of many in which the more traditional classical musicians have resisted playing Philip Glass' music. Even compared to the string parts in Bruckner and Schubert, it can be extremely repetitive.

Another odd moment is after the death of his third wife, Candy Jernigan, who gets a whole chapter. She passed away at age thirty-nine of liver cancer and afterwards Glass took some time off to mourn. He was staying with his Tibetan teacher Tomo Geshe Rimpoche in the Catskills:
One afternoon, Geshe Rimpoche caught up with me walking around the lake. He patted me hard on the back and with a quiet smile said, "That was a big lesson on impermanence." I smiled slightly and nodded.
And that is how the chapter ends. I don't know about you, but that strikes me as ghoulish. In fact, Glass' account of his spiritual explorations all seems vapid and puzzling. He talks about it in very standard terms, transcendence, meditation, vegetarianism, but it lacks the individuality and convincing detail of his discussion of music.

But the fact that this memoir is selective and excludes warts merely makes it like most autobiographies. To be trusted for some things and not for others. Composers, and Stravinsky comes immediately to mind, have a track record of rewriting history.

Very much to the credit of the book is its considerable detail about the author's long and exhaustive preparation and education as a composer. Anyone reading it will come away with no illusions about the hard work necessary. This is one of the most interesting revelations in the book: Philip Glass, he who is renowned for the extreme repetitive simplicity of his early music and for his turning away from the mainstream trends and traditions of classical music, had as lengthy and conventional a training as any composer working today.

He began as a child studying flute at the Peabody Conservatory and entered the University of Chicago as an undergraduate at age fifteen, studying mathematics and philosophy. After a year as a student in the extension division at Juilliard, he qualified to enter as a composition student. He also studied with Darius Milhaud at a summer course. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger who, after reviewing some of his work, promptly put him on a rigorous study of species counterpoint! If this is unfamiliar, it is the traditional way of studying counterpoint and begins with writing lines to go with plainsong melodies. First one note against one, then two, three and so on. The rules are very strict! Composers have used this method of studying counterpoint for centuries.

The point is that Philip Glass had the kind of grounding in traditional composition that few composers have gotten since the Second World War. He bypassed or rejected almost the whole of high modernism and did so pretty early on.

Here is his String Quartet No. 5, from 1991, the performers are the Kronos Quartet:


A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

" I believe it was Audrey Hepburn, was described as covering the whole emotional gamut from A to B."

Katharine not Audrey.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the correction, A. C.!