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.

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