Words Without Music


Cover credit: Goodreads

If you've never read Philip Glass' memoir Words Without Music, you must read it now.

The day I stumbled upon the book, I was strolling in our library of performing arts and around the music history shelf looking for a next read. There, all the Cambridge companions, biographies and autobiographies are arranged alphabetically, subject to certain library encoding having nothing to do with music history. So everyone kind of randomly sits next to one another. Beethoven (BEE) was next to Bernstein (BER), and there'd be other Bernsteins scattered around because Jonathan Cott (COT), among others, also wrote about him.

I took out Words Without Music for very shallow reasons, I've heard of the composer, the book has comfortable size, I like the binding of the hardcover by that publisher. Then I started reading from the beginning, within the first page I sat down on the floor, and before long I moved to the seat by the window, until I took it home and sat all evening immensed in the stories of his life.

Rather than chronicle biographies, I like profile books written around a central question or idea. Why Mahler is a good example in the category that I enjoy reading. The book expands on this question with a simple, two-word statement, "why Mahler?"

The statement under Philip Glass' is not explicit, and other readers may have their own understanding. To me, that central idea is Mr. Glass' lifelong pursuit of the question, "where does music come from?"

Before it reached that depth, the book already caught me with extremely catchy storytelling and I literally laughed out loud.

When my father started to sell records, he didn't know which were the good records and which were the bad. Whatever the salesmen gave him, he would buy. But he noticed that some records sold and some records didn,t so as a businessman he wanted to know why some of the records didn't sell. He would take them home and listen to them, thinking that if he could find out what was wrong with them, he wouldn't buy the bad ones anymore.

In the late forties, the music that didn't sell was by Bartók, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, the modernists of that time. Ben listened to them over and over again, trying to understand what was wrong, but he ended up loving their music. He became a strong advocate of music and began to sell it in his store. ... He was converting people. They came in to buy Beethoven and he was selling them Bartók.

Stories aside, Mr. Glass strikes me as someone who has a strong voice of things he firmly believes in. For example, this happened in his early studentship at Julliard:

Mr. Copland looked at the first page. What I had done was to pencil in a theme for the violin—it's so similar to what I do today, I'm surprised that I had even thought of it then—and every low note of the theme, I had played on the French horn. So the violin went da-da, da-da, da-da, and the French horn outlined the bottom notes, which became the countermelody. I thought it was a very good idea.

Mr. Coplan looked at it and said, “You'll never be able to hear the French horn.”

“Of course you will,” I said.

“Nope, you'll never hear it.”

“I will hear it.”

“You're not going to hear it.”

“I‘m sorry, Mr. Copland. I'm going to hear it.”

Mr. Copland got extremely annoyed with me, and that was pretty much the end of my lesson. He'd only seen the opening page of the piece! We never got beyond the first eight or ten measures.

Some aspects of the anecdotes later on gained intensity and certain themes emerged, like how one's life would develop, too. One or few aspects would emerge and outgrow others, and that becomes the identy of the person.

For Glass, I guess, the music training intensified along his Julliard and Boulanger years. And then the development goes how he worked on it and travelled for it. There is also an underlying contextual line that goes along how in the 20th century, the world has invented recording devices and vehicles that carry people to all over the world. While the less inspiring consequence is how now everyone sounds more or less the same, reading how Glass has joined the other faction, developing himself such that he can work with anyone in the world, by that he referred to it culturally and musically, is thrilling.

He shares about a trip to Africa, where he learned from an African musician, Foday Musa, about their history and tradition. They teach their history not in textbooks but in songs. To become a griot, you have a repertoire of songs to learn and you get tested by going to other households to sing the songs. They'd tell the griot who teaches you, and who cannot be your own father, that you "know the songs", and then you "graduate". As a learning musician, at some point you build your own Kora.

Glass and Foday Musa has collaborated on The Screens, you can here the album here.

I was once introduced to Philip Glass' music by its most identifiable motif, the repeated chords and its minimalistic texture. But what I found out to be vastly interesting, guided by his own interpretations from the book, is around how it changes and how it merges with music ideas from all over the world.

As a violist I must point out this interesting episode. Glass once worked on an opera about an ancient Egypt Pharoah. When he was checking the venue for its premiere, he was brought to attention that the stage was too small. “Get rid of the violins,” was the creative solution he came up with on the spot. So “violas became the first, cellos became the second, and bass became the cello.” I went ahead and listened to the whole thing, it has a distinct dark texture that goes amusingly well with the theme. That's an opera scored violas as firsts.

Before I return the book I must quote for you one of the many enlightning thoughts from Mr. Glass:

..., if a young artist were to ask Cocteau directly what he would need to pursue the life and work of an artist, these five elements would be the answer. The rose represents beauty. The key represents technique—literally, the means by which the “door” to creativity is opened. The horse represents strength and stamina. The mirror represents the path itself, without which the dream of the artist cannot be accomplished. The meaning of the glove eluded me for a long time, but finally, and unexpectedly, I understood that the glove represents nobility.

Philip Glass calls the book Words Without Music, but the closing will reveal itself as a masterwork of music. The closing is a rondo, or I may have made a mistake about precisely what the form is, but it expands from a paragraph which is followed by a scene, and then the paragraph comes back, followed by another scene. Each of the scenes in the closing references back to a scene described in an earlier chapter.

And does a book without music answer the question where does music come from? Once again, the answer or whether there is one is implicit. But I guess in this case being given the question to wonder about is more captivating than an answer.