photo & text by nacrowe
in his incredible memoir WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC (LIVERIGHT, 2015), composer PHILIP GLASS looks back at a life and career filled with music and attempts to make sense of it. now i wish to say straight off that this is one of the most thoughtful, erudite memoirs i have read in recent memory and that likely i will be returning to it in the future when i feel the need to think about the origins of the wellspring of inspiration and creativity. it goes without saying that this book is a must-read whether or not you appreciate 20th CENTURY COMPOSERS or classical music in general. just wanted to get that out of the way right at the beginning.
for me distinguishes GLASS throughout his memoir is both his intense discipline and his equally ravenous need to experience and understand cultures and musical traditions outside of his own. having left BALTIMORE to attend the UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO as a teen and then pursue composition at THE JULIARD SCHOOL, only to further refine his skills for two years with celebrated tutor NADIA BOULANGER on a FULBRIGHT SCHOLARSHIP in PARIS, GLASS took his studies seriously and pursued them with dedication and passion.
just as equally he followed his passion for musical traditions outside his comfort zone, especially INDIAN music (for which he took more than 20 trips throughout his life) as well as indigenous traditions in SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA, BRASIL, MEXICO and the ROMA populations of EUROPE. for him, projects were an opportunity to further develop his ability to appreciate and understand unfamiliar traditions that potentially he could incorporate their technical innovations into his compositions. for me, it is this capacity that makes his work special, even if it may be hard to decode on a layman level.
being a former ENGLISH teacher, there were capacities in my students i would have to build up, but ultimately the point of such was for them to utilize these new tools to find and articulate unique insights. GLASS talks about this edge of understanding is where innovation lies and i could not agree more. his compositions, like my classrooms, were spaces for pushing limits of understanding, even looking foolish in the process. my thought was always that if i did the same thing over and over again, that there is no progression, just brute repetition with no purpose. putting discipline to use only further opens us up to new understandings, or in his case, compelling musical landscapes hitherto unearthed and unexplored.
i also appreciate his description of being in the creative moment. that the person who creates is not witness to their own creative process. GLASS would have people ask him why he put a note in a certain place or why he chose a certain tempo, and in all honesty he couldn't respond. this is since despite his great knowledge of musical composition and a variety of world traditions, when in that creative moment he is just responding on instinct. i found that compelling not only as an accurate description of my own experience when writing, but also as an interesting notion to put in a memoir concerning one of the most celebrated and dissected composers of the modern age. to take back music to an experiential phenomena as opposed to that which is academic and laborious studied ad nauseam is refreshing.
just like the act of creation, when a listener hears music they are completing the process, the cycle. there is one passage in the memoir when GLASS asks a student what is in book of compositions. the student responded with "music." "wrong" he states, "its dotted lines on a paper." music is interpreted and created anew by musicians and composers who work in tandem with the audience to experience a composition. there is no ideal, platonic version of a piece of music. it is continually being reinterpreted.
and for me that is what i love about music, art and literature. its fluidity of meaning given the context of time, geography and culture of its audience. again, i will return to this book in the future. could not recommend it anymore fervently.