Words without Music
If you listen to the music of Philip Glass, you will be puzzled, or bored, or snippish, or passing out, or in a few cases, knocked out. In any event, you won't go away untouched. But if you ignore the music and read the words of Philip Glass in this memoir --- I think you might be, if not knocked out, at lest scintillated. He writes simply, pure Strunk & White, in a linear fashion, taking us from his childhood in Baltimore, his studies in Chicago, and, most of all his work in the place that was the love of his life, New York City.
But the message in the Memoir is that no matter what Glass is putting out in his music, he is one helluva a writer. Words without Music is a great porthole in to the heart of the New York art world of the last decades. There doesn't seem to be anyone in music, art, poetry, or dance or performance art that he hasn't met, spent time with, and oddly --- not fighting with. Glass just doesn't seem to be into the ritual artistic feud. He has dozens of friends who are obviously devoted to him. He even managed the impossible job of parting from his first wife in amicable fashion . . . and was able to keep working with her on various projects for the next forty years.
The only place we find him being scrappy was quite early on, in 1960, when he went off to Aspen one summer to study with Aaron Copeland and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud he evidently charmed, was able to work with.
On the other hand, Copeland invited the students to show him a composition, so he could meet with him one-on-one to discuss it. Glass had composed "a violin concerto for solo violin, winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombone) and percussion."
The way Glass wrote music was by pencilling in "a theme for the violin . . . 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. Copeland looked at it and said, "You'll never 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. Copeland, I'm going to hear it."
Mr. Copeland 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.
What's wrong with me? I thought. Mr Copeland was much older than me. He was a real composer. He'd invited students to show him their compositions --- a wonderful opportunity --- and I had totally blown it. I had one lesson with Aaron Copeland and we had a disagreement and he basically kicked me out.
As it turned out, I was right, at least that time. On a student recording the next year at Julliard, there was that French horn line, outlining the countermelody to the violin theme. You could hear it clear as a bell. I am sorry I didn't keep in touch with Mr. Copeland, for I would have sent him the recording.
This is typical Glass in his Memoir: opinionated, funny, sure of his ground, not needing or wanting to budge. It also borders on being a shaggy dog story, and this book is filled with them. For instance, in his early days of composing, after he graduated from Juilliard, he worked almost twenty years in New York City he did plumbing. And then right here, in the middle of a book about arts and music and the art scene in New York and contemporary music, he goes off on a riff about plumbing, for Christ sakes, a lengthy and rather pithy and no doubt accurate disquisition (he is above all things a detail man) on the ins-and-outs of fixing the sinks, toilets, and outlets in every part of your house. Evidently, it has to do with filling cast-iron pipes, complete with lead bends, oakum, a "snake," propane burners, and "wiping," which means you have to grab a piece of lunch-bag paper and swipe it through the hot lead and then put it "on the lip of the flange." Bare hands. No stuff.
Equally as fascinating are the two decades that Glass spent driving taxi to support his composing habit. He loved driving the streets of Manhattan, tells us exactly where to go to get a license, where to go for your shift, how you took care of yourself when you got to a dangerous part of town, and mentions casually "at that time, in the early seventies, drivers were regularly getting killed in their cabs."
At one point a woman gets in and tells him to go to an area uptown that he knew was dangerous, and, yep, once there, at the stop, four guys try to jump the cab. I won't tell you how he got out from under --- read it yourself, it's on page 276 --- but he does comment that "Some people thought cabs were banks on wheels." I for one am quite glad they didn't murder our good friend.
Oh, yes: it was shortly after that show-stopper that he picked up Salvador Dali on Fifty-Seventh Street and took him to the St. Regis Hotel. "I was dying to say something to him," Glass reports, "but I was completely tongue-tied."Most of us in the arts biz have heard of Glass, and most of my friends find his music missing something. For instance, this from my friend Phage, when I sent him a copy of the Glass-Copeland contretemps, he sent me this e-mail,
But sleep doesn't come upon me when listening to Philip Glass, because his music is so stupendously boring that I stay wide awake in amazement, for the 30 seconds or so it takes for me to move the dial to something else. Frankly, I think Philip is one of those operators who turned a complete lack of talent into a marketable gimmick, much like Andy Warhol. I have no doubt that he affects a new-age sort of religiosity, no doubt a hodgepodge of Tao, Buddha, Carlos Castañeda (you and I, especially, must not forget him), and a few scraps of native Indian Americana about the spirit of the Cedar and the wisdom of the Sumac berry.
Musically, Glass is one of the most severe of the Minimalists. They reacted against the aridity of the 50s/60s avant-garde by going to the other extreme, namely a derriere-garde of idiotically drastic simplicity --- for example, repeating the same three chords a million times, as in Glass' typical compositions. What happened in the 50s/60s was that the atonalists and Stockhausians of the avant-garde had taken over in the university music departments, and so they provoked a counter-reaction. It was a transient academic fashion, like the fad of Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man.
That's his music, but here we are dealing with his life story. And what a story. From taxi driver-plumber to putting on some of the zaniest productions in the classical music world. No matter what one thinks of the noise he makes with his instruments, one cannot help but be impressed at the way he pushed his particular vision --- at times to the breaking point. And got away with it.
The feeling throughout is of a decent guy, curious about everything: time, space, music, life, the divine, death. What's missing, thank god, are trivial pursuits that seem to preoccupy the rest of his artist cohorts: drugs, celebrity gossip, making money. I mean, he is astute, has a manager, gets paid --- but for years he was living as simply as one could in New York City. I lived there in the summer of 1961 merely sleeping on couches of friends, eating at the Automat or at my sister's apartment when I could get up to her place. Subways were cheap, even taxis (in an emergency) and who knows . . . . I might even have gotten a ride with a future famous composer.Glass's explications of his music don't exactly make much sense, at least not to me . . . with one exception. He is trying to explain what happens when he is composing, what goes on in his head. At this point, he plucks one of the most unlikely parallels: weight lifters --- "the ones who lift the five-hundred-pound weights." They sometimes
stand in front of the barbell for thirty seconds, or a minute, or even a minute and a half. When they are finally in the right frame of mind, they execute the clean and jerk --- the pick the barbell up and then throw it above their heads.
"They are able to do this because of their passage from their usual ordinary attention to the extraordinary gathering of attention that is required to accomplish something that is unbelievable."
While I was working on this review, I tried listening to his music, but it gave me such a sense of disassociation that the words started drying up and I had to move over to my favorite Baroque master on U-Tube --- Antonio Caldera (give his Stabat Mater a whirl, it's addicting).
What Glass leaves you with is a sense of the open-mouth wonder of a kid, whether it is preparing for a performance in Europe, studying under Darius Milhaud, telling us about Luigi Nono, or Gerry Mulligan, or Ravi Shankar, or Morton Feldman. God knows where he gets his memory for names; I would estimate the people who worked with him to number, at least the ones talked about in this book, to between two and three hundred. And these are not your obscure performance artists from SoHo. One of my favorite stories here is about Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and Henry Luce --- the Time-Life magnate --- at the dinnertable, elegant, in Luce's apartment.
Luce's first question of Ginsberg was I hear you write pornographic poetry. Allen agreed; Luce wanted to hear it. Ginsberg pulled up a couple of the coarsest. Luce said, "Well, well, well . . . that is certainly is pornographic."
After that they fell into a lively and very friendly conversation. In face, Hank and Allen had a very good time together.
And part of the reason for that, we are sure, is the presence of a very amiable if odd musician right there at the table with them.
One last story, and then I am done. The love of Glass's life, evidently, was Candy Jernigan. Such is Glass's art that in the short time we are with her, we come to love her too. She's feisty, no-nonsense, and very funny. But . . . at thirty-nine: cancer.
I have read many accounts of what they call "the iron door down there at the end of the path:" good, bad, sad, ugly, traumatic, gentle, senseless, peaceful, calm . . . But I have never read of the event that Glass relates about the after-death release. He writes about it with his usual calm and art:
Anyone who has sat with people who are dying will know --- it's not a mystery --- that after the last breath, after the heart has stopped beating, after what common medical practice recognizes as the physical death, there is still an energy in the body. Until that energy leaves, the body doesn't relax, if I can put it that way, and this can go on for some time. In Candy's case it would last two or three hours . . . An intense passage was taking place, both for the children and for me. We stayed there for a couple of hours, and at one moment --- it was the damndest thing --- it was as if a film director had changed the lighting. Somehow, the whole appearance of the body changed. The actual physical change was slight, but it was unmistakable. It was as if the body had just gone limp.
"I think this was the first time we understood the fact of impermanence and the inevitability of death. It became very clear to us. Until then we had no idea. We were strangely out of touch with the simplest reality of life, which is that death doesn't keep score of our years. It moves at will, and it takes who it wishes to take."
Or, as Horace had it, a bit more pointedly: Pale Death beats equally at the poor man's gate and at the palaces of kings.