Skip to main content

Words Without Music: A Memoir


Words Without Music: A Memoir

Philip Glass is known the world over as one of the most adventurous music composers of our time, yet is still vastly underappreciated for what he’s contributed --- and still contributes --- on the leading edge of all art forms. To describe him as “musician” or “performer” is too limiting and vague, yet there just don’t seem to be appropriate adjectives to neatly capture the Juilliard-trained, world-traveling, record shop owner’s son from Baltimore, who turned new music sideways during the 1960s and taught people how to listen in unprecedented new ways. Half a century later, Glass’ rhythmically driven, meticulously textured scores still catch the ear with an effect nothing short of mesmerizing. You can go for years, maybe decades, not hearing a note of his and then it’s suddenly there, as boldly distinct as if it were created yesterday. 

Now in his late 70s, Glass has turned his unique finesse with sound, substance and texture into print; for fans and admirers, it’s not a moment too soon. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC is the brilliant, surprising result: brilliant because the author’s mind is in full creative bloom pulling together the threads of a truly eclectic life; surprising because this is a musician’s memoir that anyone with a love of good storylines can thoroughly enjoy from cover to cover without one iota of theoretical skill.

And that’s saying a lot if you happen to be among those of my generation who took weird early-morning university electives like “Materials of Modern Music,” rubbing sleep from our eyes while trying to comprehend 12-tone, atonal or aleatoric compositional techniques at a time when digital sampling and manipulation were but distant technological dreams. Today, reading about it in 2015, I fervently wish that Glass had been there himself to explain his passion in the effortless prose that energizes every page of WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC. 

"Now in his late 70s, Glass has turned his unique finesse with sound, substance and texture into print; for fans and admirers, it’s not a moment too soon. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC is the brilliant, surprising result..."

Historically, Glass was/is at a liminal edge of the great transformation of “serious” music from handwritten rule-respecting paper scores to structured and free improvisation, new symbolic language, a fusion of classical and world techniques. As he recognized even at the time, he and his free-spirited New York colleagues of the 1960s were a generation that absorbed the rules, but rather than break them, they took the more challenging route of redefining them. Whether writing for film, poetry, dance, theatre, opera, art installations, or any combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, actual performance became something unlike that of any previous generation.

While theory, harmony, and the many mechanical and logistical skills of music creation are essential --- something Glass affirms over and over again --- newness comes from doing things around the creative process that seem to move it into other areas, blurring the conventional lines between sound and graphic art, tune and movement, instrumental colour and moving imagery. In other words, Glass challenges our senses by directing us away from the idea that there always has to be a “story” in music. There can be substance and even addictive appeal, for example, in slow textural changes that masquerade as repetition, pulling woven notes out into infinitely long skeins of sound. This remarkable capacity for elongating and rewinding what we know as “music” in unimagined ways has brought Glass into contexts few traditional or even avant garde composers ever explore.

While some of us music geeks can instantly identify with the exploratory and eccentric side of WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, Glass actually spends as much, if not more, space communicating the profound human values of all art. He writes with eloquent simplicity and candor about how these values emerged or were embodied in so many of the unique and influential people he’s encountered and collaborated with throughout his diverse career, notably Ravi Shankar, Nadia Boulanger, Doris Lessing, Martin Scorsese, and a host of leading artists and teachers in all genres. He’s had plenty of time to take patient and mindful measure of fellow humanity over a career that began long before his mid-40s when he actually started making money in music. In fact, there were substantial periods of Philip Glass the plumber, Philip Glass the handyman, Philip Glass the cab driver…all of them parallel to Philip Glass the musician-artist-composer. But by getting his hands dirty, he put down deep roots while launching transcendental ideas.

While the journey of WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC has been a global one that always returns to New York, the center of his musical universe, Philip Glass was affected early and profoundly by his experiences of India and Nepal. In one of those strange and disturbing ironies, I was happily absorbed in his vivid recollections of Kathmandu at almost the very moment when the worst earthquake in living memory devastated that mystical and beautiful place. So many of the monuments, temples, historical sites and art that he describes so richly are now rubble. At this tragic moment in history, it seems as if the words of perceptive creators like Glass may now be their only memorial.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on May 1, 2015

Words Without Music: A Memoir
by Philip Glass

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2015
  • Genres: Memoir, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 0871404389
  • ISBN-13: 9780871404381