Philip Glass, singing his own song

philip-glass-piano-getty-600
Composer Philip Glass attends Fox Searchlights evening with the artists from 'Notes On A Scandal' at the Skirball Cultural Center on February 6, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chad Buchanan/Getty Images)

Philip Glass has been such a constant compositional presence over the last 40 years that only with the arrival of his memoir, Words Without Music (W.W. Norton & Co. $29.95), do you realize how long overdue it is.

The book chronicles his Baltimore upbringing, education in Paris, and travels in Europe and India. But it rightly touches on only the major works of his early and middle periods, gracefully leaving the reader to conclude how much the 78-year-old Glassv - who will appear at the Free Library on Tuesday evening - has changed the cutting-edge music world, how that world is run, how pieces are made and disseminated, and the value of his having saved serious music from the hegemony of modernism.

Already compared to Patti Smith's rightly adored memoir Just Kids - the two came of age artistically in New York at the same time - Glass's Words Without Music is a different animal. The druggy, drifty world of Andy Warhol in which Smith traveled was geographically blocks from Glass but was, and is, a hemisphere away. She is a poet who uses words to change readers' inner lives; he is an artistic builder of musical edifices. In the beginning, Glass had no infrastructure and no money for his huge works, and was too far below the radar for consideration from important presenters and funders. The construction ethic is sometimes literal: An able-bodied fix-it man, Glass could turn abandoned SoHo lofts into artistic laboratories.

 Once, when interviewing him in his New York apartment, I watched him phone one plumber after another for repairs. I quietly mentioned that he used to do work like that. He paused for a moment, as if paging that memory. "Yeah, I could probably do this myself . . . but I don't want to." And then he went back to the phone.

The fact that Glass had to drive a cab into the late 1970s - even after he was an important and celebrated composer - is often discussed as one of the great signs of America's failure to treat its artists well. But Glass seems not to have minded. Though his opera Einstein on the Beach was a global triumph in 1976, its tour ended deep in debt. Yet the early-career effort was worth it - it made the names of Glass and stage director/designer Robert Wilson, and even as they spent years paying down the debt, offers now were pouring in.

Not that it's been all smooth sailing. Hostile audiences have been known to throw food. "But you have to see this as a political act," he once told me, "because they had to buy the food before actually hearing the music."

Whatever one thinks of Glass's music - from his operas to his Altoids commercial - his grand washes of sound that morph over time (something like time-lapse photography) created a counterrevolutionary alternative to the ultra-compact Boulezian modernism, and continue to be influential with up-to-the-minute New York-based Bang on a Can composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. Steve Reich has written more masterpieces. John Adams made minimalism intersect with the symphonic past. But so much has Glass entered the landscape that Philadelphia's Prometheus Chamber Orchestra recently set out to perform a single movement of his String Quartet No. 5 in a soup kitchen at North Philly's Church of the Advocate and ended up playing the whole thing by popular demand.

Obviously, the more one brings to Glass's memoir, the more meaningful his chronicle will be - as opposed to Smith's Just Kids, whose central love story makes it thrilling for anybody. Glass's personal life is secondary in his book. His first wife (of four), the great theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, is a significant presence, and Glass admits that his eye for other women killed their marriage but not their creative partnership (his incidental music for her is always from his top drawer). A major presence is the poet Allen Ginsberg, whom Glass knew as he was dying, chiefly from personal neglect. "Even now," writes Glass, "I do not feel that he is very far away."

The book truly soars with the making of Einstein on the Beach. A piece with no plot, lots of abstract visual imagery, and dances with words partly written by the autistic Christopher Knowles, it evolved as an act of pure intuition. Glass can't really say what it is about in any external sense. He can account for the overall design of the score, but why the particulars are the way they are can't be explained. It's the creative process, and was as much a leap forward in the 1970s as The Rite of Spring was in pre-World War I Europe.

Though Glass, now pushing 80, has gone on to write many symphonies and concertos, he is at his best when not having to carry the entire piece on his shoulders. At heart, he's a collaborator. Curiously absent is any discussion of his rift with his contemporary Reich; though the two worked closely and shared the same musicians, after a dramatic break, they had no contact for decades, not sharing a stage again until last fall.

But memoirs have no responsibility for historic completeness or complete transparency. And you have to love the lack of apparent logic in the way Glass ends the book with a series of haiku-like snapshots from his childhood. They're moments of everyday magic - kites, bicycles, haircuts that seem to happen without scissors - that could probably be explained but were best left as incidents of wonder. Sort of like his music.

 


BOOKS AND MUSIC

Philip Glass

7:30 p.m. at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

Event is sold out. 

Information:

215-686-5322 or libwwwfreelibrary.org 


dstearns@phillynews.com