When composer Philip Glass started performing his own music, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. Some people thought it sounded like the needle of a record was stuck in a groove, repeating over and over again. Some people thought it was simplistic. Some thought it was a joke. Glass says that in the ’70s, audience members threw things at him while he was performing.
“If they threw an egg, that wasn’t so bad, because the eggs would just break,” Glass tellsFresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “There was no danger from egg throwing, unless they boiled the eggs first, which they sometimes did.”
But those who loved it realized something new was happening — a new musical language he was developing in parallel with composers like Steve Reich and La Monte Young. It was described as minimalist, even though Glass would tell you it was anything but.
“What’s interesting about this so-called ‘minimalist music’ is how rich it is,” Glass says. “The description doesn’t come close to telling you what you hear.”
Glass, 78, has written a new book, Words Without Music: A Memoir, that’s filled with insights into his work. It has stories about his childhood in Baltimore, his father’s record store, his travels listening to music throughout Central Asia and India, his day jobs and his study of meditative practices and esoteric traditions.
Although Glass studied at the Peabody Conservatory of music as a child, was a Juilliard graduate, and studied in Paris with renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, his music was initially shunned by the classical music world.
“There was a time when I was not even allowed to play at music schools, and if I played in a music school I was usually invited by the dance department or some other department,” the composer says. “If I happened to be in the music building practicing, for example, I could see a notice on the board assuring the students that there was no need at all to come hear me play that night. That went on for years. That has stopped simply because the young people who like me — or learned to like me — are now the professors teaching in the schools.”
But Glass’ music was embraced in the worlds of avant-garde art and theater and experimental music. He’s now considered one of the most important composers of his generation.
On the occasional violent reaction to his music
This was in Amsterdam and I played a piece called “Two Pages.” And I guess it could drive you crazy a little bit — it only had five notes in it, but it was five notes in a lot of different ways, and I thought it was interesting. This was about 1971 and the idea of music that was so, let’s say, consciously or steadfastly repetitive was not so common then.
And someone jumped on the stage and began banging on the piano and, without thinking about it, I stood up and I punched him on the jaw or something, just like the comic books, and he fell off the stage. People came afterwards to say hello and the fellow was there and he said, “And now we have the discussion,” and I said, “No. We had the discussion, thank you.” And that was it. … I think he thought that I was making fun of him. … When [artist Jackson] Pollock first began doing his drip paintings, people thought he was making fun of them. … Why would you go all the way to Amsterdam just to make a fool of yourself in front of other people? I mean, or to make fools of them?
On how his music has become more accepted over time
The people have changed more than I have changed. … What happens is that what seems strange or bizarre for any short period of time starts becoming familiar and whatever artistic rewards or secrets it might have become revealed.
On learning how to develop new music with his ensemble
What you have to develop is what we call a “performance practice” to go with this music. Now if you think about it, for any music to be really new, there probably has to be a performance practice to go with it, otherwise it wouldn’t be new. What makes it new is that you have to find a new way to play. …
We were playing electric keyboards. … They weren’t like the acoustic pianos, where you have to dig your fingers in to make the sounds; you could almost just tap the keys and get the sounds. We learned to play with a very light touch. I also learned to keep my breath very steady. … When we first began playing this music we didn’t know how to do it, we taught ourselves. … This kind of performance was very exhilarating.
On what he learned from hanging out in his father’s record shop
He taught me something, which was very, very interesting, which I saw many, many times: A customer would give him $5, and he would give them a record. I saw this exchange — music, money, music, money — it happened all the time. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with getting paid for music. So later on … I discovered that some people in the concert world were offended by the idea that they would have anything to do with business. I thought my father was a pretty good guy and he was in business, he was in the music business and I always thought the music business was a really interesting business. I never had a problem with it.
On studying with French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris
Every week I had a private lesson with her, a group lesson with all of her students on Wednesdays … and there was a third class, which we called the “Black Thursday Class.” … We were convinced she took three of her best students and three of her worst students and put them together in one class. And the trouble was we could never figure out who was who. We all thought we were the worst ones.
She was a fantastic teacher. She could humble you and, at the same time, could rescue you from the despair of being so incompetent as a musician. She would rescue you by giving you exercises that would then train you to overcome the handicaps which she had uncovered for you. It was a very firm and unrelenting tutelage that went on with her.
On why he didn’t want to teach music, despite being influenced by many teachers
My mother was a teacher. I knew her friends. In those days, the people who came out of the … Depression of the ’30s, people who were trained to be engineers and different kinds of technical workers … they got jobs teaching because there was no other work around. It was a very unhappy crowd of people that were teaching in the schools in those days because they couldn’t get the jobs they wanted. … My impression of teachers was that they were a pretty sad lot and I didn’t want to have very much to do with that.
The other thing was I didn’t think I would have been a gifted teacher. The people I talked about were extremely gifted and they knew how to teach and they knew how to inspire and they could implant huge technical tracks inside of you. They knew the system of teaching; they knew the system of practice and it was successful. I didn’t think I had that talent. I was afraid that I would be one of those teachers who wasn’t a very good teacher and the students wouldn’t get much from a person like me. So I decided I wouldn’t do that.
On being second cousins with This American Life host Ira Glass
My father’s brother was his grandfather. When his grandfather was no longer around to be part of that family, my father [and I], we would go over to Ira’s, to his father’s house … and play with the kids. Ira told me that [when] he was [younger], he thought my father was his grandfather. It was a very close family. We were all Glasses. I lost touch with him for a while. And he turned up in Chicago — I got to meet him again there when he was a grown-up. And now he’s in New York and I get to see him quite a lot. We actually have a lot of fun talking about family Glass stories together.
On thinking about death and his legacy
I’ve thought of the lineage of music that goes way into the past and the future of music, which we hope will go into the future, and where does my life fit into that? I think just expressing it that way: What is the meaning of an artist’s life? Or of anybody’s life? A doctor’s life, a teacher’s life, or a radio interviewer’s life — what is the meaning of that? I’m more and more coming to the idea that it’s the lineage and the connection to the past and the connection to the future — that is the real connection. Everything else, I think, is kind of imaginary. Is there a heaven that is waiting for us or some afterlife of some kind? We have no idea. In fact, it’s not even important.
The important thing is how [you are] connected to the past. Does that represent not only continuity, but does it bring us closer to something that’s richer, that’s more interesting? What have we brought to the world and what do we leave behind us and what does the future have for us? The future … is in our children. It’s in our friends. It’s in our work. It’s all around us.
I find that the most reassuring when we contemplate living and dying, that [it] really misses the point: It’s not the living and dying, it’s the continuity of the lives that’s important.