Coma-Friendly

Stephen Walsh

  • Words without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass
    Faber, 416 pp, £22.50, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 32372 2

Words without Music is Philip Glass’s second book about himself, and it inevitably includes some of the same information, or the same kind of information, as its predecessor, published in 1987 in New York as Music by Philip Glass and in London as Opera on the Beach. But the differences are significant. By the late 1980s, Glass was well known in America, mainly for his first three operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten. He was marginally less well-known as a practising musician with his own ensemble, and a repertoire recognisably connected with the minimalist and process music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and others. In Europe, on the other hand, he was famous almost exclusively for his operas: the most recent two had been commissioned in the Netherlands and Stuttgart, and all three had been premiered in Europe. His background was largely unknown.

This was reflected in the altered title of the British edition, which had to remind the general reader who this Glass character was. The book itself concentrated on the three operas that had reached the stage, other music was dealt with summarily, and there was a short chapter of biography, which explained briefly how these huge and highly unorthodox theatrical works had come about. Einstein on the Beach had openly proclaimed its origins in the radical, anti-establishment theatre of off-off-Broadway, but how that related to musical minimalism, and how it led to the more conventionally narrative, if musically no less static and repetitive Satyagraha and Akhnaten, was hard to fathom. Glass’s music seemed to be without history, without system, a theft of the minimalist aesthetic without its technical infrastructure.

The situation now is very different. At the age of 78, and with the possible exception of John Adams, Glass can be regarded as the most famous – certainly the most successful – of all the composers who emerged from the minimalist revolution of the 1960s. Perhaps because he shed the technical apparatus of such iconic pieces as Reich’s Drumming and Riley’s In C,[1] and drew on rock and other forms of popular music, he attracted an audience never previously seen within shouting distance of the avant-garde. That audience has for the most part stayed with him.

Words without Music contains much more autobiography than Opera on the Beach. The discussion of Einstein on the Beach in the older book was preceded by a mere twenty or so pages of background, but here we have to read something like two-thirds of a four-hundred-page book before we get to this decisive landmark, the work that took Glass out of the garrets and galleries of downtown Manhattan and put him on the world stage. This material is important, not only because it gives an account of the rise of a composer who, at nearly forty and writing his first opera, was still driving a New York taxi in order to feed his family and pay the rent, but because it sheds light on Glass’s present-day attitude to his own artistic development. He pre-empts listeners who hear in his music merely a simplified and commodified version of something that had once been intricate and subtle by emphasising his radical origins and past association with alternative art and theatre. It’s so easy to hear a comparatively recent work like the Eighth Symphony as simply a failed attempt at organic, classical design. One needs to be instructed that the failure is historic and deliberate, at which point, of course, it becomes OK.

Glass’s father, Ben, the son of Latvian Jews, kept a record store in Baltimore, and had a good knowledge of classical music old and new, but was hardly the sensitive type. He was a tough ex-Marine who, if he caught someone shoplifting, would take them outside and beat them senseless. The cultivated one was Philip’s Russian-descended mother, Ida, a self-improving, self-educated enemy of the three Ks of domesticated womanhood – Küche, Kirche, Kinder – who would dispatch her children to long summer camps and go off on part-time degree courses on her own. She wasn’t a musician herself, but she saw to it that her three children (Philip, born in 1937, was the youngest) had music lessons as part of a rounded education: in Philip’s case violin, then flute, but not piano, an instrument he taught himself by sitting in on his brother’s lessons then working them out on his own after the teacher had left.

Later there were percussion classes, which he loved, and ear training, which he loathed, but never any sign of even the elementary music theory the Associated Board in Britain still demands before a pupil can progress beyond Grade 5. At Chicago University, which he entered at the early age of 15, there was barely any music on the curriculum. But in the city itself there were plenty of musical experiences to be had, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner to the bebop and modern jazz clubs and the big bands of Stan Kenton and others. Glass talks much more about the jazz he heard in Chicago than anything conducted by Reiner. By this time he was composing: he wrote a string trio using a sort of serial technique, though admitted that the music he got it from – Schoenberg et al – meant little to him emotionally or aesthetically. It seemed to be the only acceptable way of writing music in the American academic world of the early 1950s. Glass claims he knew little about the modernists who weren’t writing serial music: American tonalists such as Copland, Virgil Thomson and Henry Cowell; or the radical wing represented by John Cage and Morton Feldman, which rejected both tendencies. He would encounter them when he went to New York to study at Juilliard in 1956, but again in the extra-curricular context of downtown alternative theatre, painting and sculpture.

The picture he paints is of a talented and exceptionally open-minded young musician groping his way towards some kind of individual expression while in the grip of forces he was neither technically nor intellectually assured enough to resist. In New York he was drawn to the radical art world of Rauschenberg, Rothko and Jasper Johns; at Juilliard he worked enjoyably and productively with dancers and theatre people, but wrote music which, he admits, mostly sounded like his teachers’. He seems to have sensed that his creative path would diverge from theirs. But he had the strength of character to recognise that without the technical knowledge they were there to instil, he would never be able to write the music he wanted to write. He went to Paris and studied for two years with Nadia Boulanger, who was notorious for the severity of her technical training. But he also met the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in Paris, as well as his tabla player Alla Rakha, and became fascinated by the rhythmic intricacy of their music and its non-Western additive and accentual patterns. In due course he embarked on a programme of study with Rakha. Once he’d finished with Boulanger, inspired by a picture in The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, he set off with his young wife, the theatre director and actress JoAnne Akalaitis, on a trip to India via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He ended up at the expatriate Tibetan monastery of Tharpa Choling at Kalimpong, where he sat at the feet of the lama Tomo Geshe Rimpoche.

It’s all very 1960s: joss sticks, yoga and vegetarianism, Maharishis and the novels of Hermann Hesse. The Beatles are here or hereabouts. But Glass, now almost thirty, has still not composed anything that anyone has heard or will ever hear or even hear of. We hear about mental concentration, the power of attention and the search for transcendent emotion, as if these things came from beyond the rational world that bred Bach and Beethoven and Shakespeare; though Glass, an insatiable listener and a voracious reader, has studied them as well. He soon loses patience with the modern school of realist theatre represented by Chekhov, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams: ‘We got rid of the things that were trivial, even nauseating, to us,’ he says, ‘which meant most of the content had to go.’ Content gives way to process, the how rather than the what. The enemy of serial music gradually finds himself involved with a music of simple repetition modified by minute numerical changes of internal pulse and note count.

Exactly how this came about is not easy to unravel. Indian music, with its immobile harmonies enlivened by subtle and complex internal rhythmic schemata, was an important influence. But the avant-garde theatre of Grotowski and Beckett – for whose Play Glass composed incidental music in 1965 – was just as influential. As was the repetitive, patterned imagery of downtown artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg. Around 1967, he got involved with Steve Reich: each performed in the other’s ensemble. Words without Music is unforthcoming about the association with Reich, with whom there was a falling out in the early 1970s. But it was only during his time with Reich that Glass wrote instrumental music employing phasing processes comparable to Reich’s own – that is, repetitive schemes in which minute variations between parts set up secondary internal patterns that go in and out of phase. Keith Potter, in his excellent Four Musical Minimalists (2000), discusses nothing of Glass’s later than Einstein on the Beach (1975-76), probably because in that work, arguably, and certainly thereafter, its composer abandoned technical minimalism in favour of what might indulgently be called trance-repetition. This music is, for some, like being strapped to a piano on which a ten-year-old child is busy learning the simpler phrases of a minor sonata from some 19th-century nationalist school.

Einstein on the Beach is a lone icon of the absorption of minimalist musical thinking into the imagery and rhetoric of the contemporary theatre. Glass (like Reich) had been using minimalist procedures, which were worked out over extended periods of time. He seemed to believe that the tedium of repetition might serve to slow down the nervous metabolism and induce a state of heightened spiritual consciousness in which the mind could lose itself in the intricacies of minute interior processes. In India in 1973 Glass attended an all-night Kathakali performance of a group of plays from the Ramayana, a multimedia affair involving music, theatre, dance and storytelling. At that time he was composing an instrumental work called Music in 12 Parts, which, when completed the following year, would play for four hours without a natural break.[2]

But in December 1973 he attended another all-night performance, of Robert Wilson’s Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, and met Wilson at the post-performance party as dawn broke over Manhattan. Wilson was not so much a playwright as what has been called a theatre artist: his dramaturgies were mobile strings of words and visual images combined with movement, lighting and stage design.[3] Wilson’s idea for a surreal theatre piece dealing with relativity, Einstein and the bomb through oblique imagery and abstract wordplay fitted Glass’s thinking perfectly, and they began a collaboration. Einstein on the Beach used simple musical repetitions, bright, somewhat silly musical litanies, abrupt changes of texture, and crisp diatonic – even pentatonic – harmonies.[4] It gives a general sense of activity without progress, and it lasts five hours without an interval. It might have been a nine-day disaster. But it caught a mood, and suddenly, especially after the New York premiere in November 1976 (it was first staged in Avignon in July), Glass was propelled from a minor figure on the downtown Manhattan arts scene into a world-famous composer, though not yet one who could afford to give up his day job driving a cab. The secret of the work’s popular success lay in the babyish simplicity of its musical materials – a challenge to the idea that to be worthwhile modern music had to be horrible, discordant and probably too complicated to understand. Understanding Glass has never been a serious problem. The test is one of endurance.

Operatic success completely changed the direction and emphasis of his work. Einstein on the Beach is essentially a gallery of images, brilliant and ebullient, tedious for some, invigorating for others: minimalism on a grand scale for the operatic stage. Its composer’s attempt to bracket it with its two successors as ‘a trilogy of “portrait operas” of men whose lives and work changed the world’ looks like an attempt ex post facto to imply a continuity with the radicalism of the pre-Einstein works, while at the same time claiming moral importance for Satyagraha (about Gandhi)[5] and Akhnaten (about the lost pharaoh who pioneered monotheism). This, to me, is deeply unconvincing. Much of the music in these two operas is mind-numbingly repetitive, without the subtle internal changes of the earlier, minimalist works, and to some extent of Einstein. When you look at what’s being repeated, you may wonder at the tolerance of those who can happily sit for ten or 15 minutes at a stretch listening to the same commonplace two or four-beat figure over and over, without audible variation. Compare the opening of Akhnaten[6] with the introduction to Handel’s Zadok the Priest.[7] The rhetoric of repetition is the same, but Handel allows the harmony to move, albeit slowly, and he knows – to misquote Cocteau (whom Glass also misquotes, in a final chapter on his 1990s trilogy of operas based on Cocteau’s film scripts) – for how long it’s allowable to go on for too long.

Glass himself seems half-aware that there might be some difficulty in justifying this quality in his later theatre and vocal works. Not only does he say very little about them (apart from the Cocteau trilogy) or the period in which they were written, but he is both tendentious and at times defensive about their intellectual standing. Until he reached seventy, he claims, his music ‘didn’t owe that much to the past. Now that I’m in my seventies, my present music does.’ ‘For me,’ he goes on, ‘music has always been about lineage. The past is reinvented and becomes the future.’ In his case the future has turned out to be remarkably fertile: he now has ten symphonies to his name, 14 operas, six string quartets, as well as concertos, ballets, songs and a large quantity of film, incidental music and what he calls ‘installations’. To keep up with all this work, and to fit it into the general picture, is difficult to say the least; and since Glass doesn’t talk about his music of the last twenty years at all, the story remains to some extent provisional. Perhaps popular recognition has loosened his musical tongue, as is often the case with composers who have left their youthful radicalism behind. But he wouldn’t want to dwell on this if it were taken to imply that he was dumbing down for a mass audience, a criticism that has been made but is by no means easy to substantiate.

If you can overlook the revisionist character of Words without Music, there is much to enjoy and a good deal to chew on in the way Glass writes about himself, whether or not you belong to the coma-friendly sector of the listening community. His account of his Baltimore Jewish childhood is vivid, entertaining and swift-moving, not at all repetitive. He may not have picked up a great deal of musical theory or technique until much later, but he learned how to make his own way, how to find and make use of the teachers he needed, and how not to compromise himself with kinds of music and musical life he felt to be alien. Until the age of forty he supported himself with an array of temporary or part-time jobs. He drove a crane for Bethlehem Steel outside Baltimore, he loaded trucks for a New York haulage company, he worked, self-taught, as a plumber, he started and ran a removals firm, he drove a cab, and was nearly murdered by a gang on the upper East Side of Manhattan. All this time he was immersing himself in the downtown arts scene, befriending the painters and sculptors, dancers and theatre people with whom, from the start, he felt more affinity than he did with regular classical musicians. He examines his influences and experiences: the Boulanger studies, the Asian travels, the work with Richard Serra, which involved making an installation for Jasper Johns and sitting down to lunch with the two artists and John Cage. The collaboration with Robert Wilson comes to seem like the climax of a long preparation for a new and dazzling alternative music theatre. Everything is lively and engaging. The memoir charms; only the music, for me and others, remains problematic.

[3]

Robert Wilson’s ‘The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin’ (1973)
Robert Wilson’s ‘The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin’ (1973)