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Philip Glass Settles Some Old Scores

Channeling the good Jewish son he never quite was, Philip Glass gives the first line of his new memoir to his mother: “If you go to New York City to study music,” she warns her youngest on the occasion of his graduation from the University of Chicago in 1957, “you’ll end up like your uncle Harry, spending your life traveling from city to city and living in hotels.”

Arriving in the quiet that followed the hoopla surrounding his 75th birthday in 2012 (an occasion marked by the premiere of his Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, a grand international tour of the five-hour modern classic “Einstein on the Beach,” a slew of interviews, and the requisite grumbling by critics insisting he’d long since lost his edge), Glass’s memoir “Words Without Music” is less a told-you-so victory lap (“Look, Ma — I’m the world’s most famous living composer!”) than an exploration of the many ways in which his mother’s prediction rings true.

Least of these is the literal fact (offered winkingly at the start) that Glass began writing this very book while on a concert tour from Sydney to Paris by way of Los Angeles and New York — traveling in a style, one assumes, slightly different from that to which Uncle Harry, a drummer and dental school-dropout who played vaudeville houses and Borscht Belt hotels, would have been accustomed.

Then there’s the bit about money: Glass’s folks thought “music was basic to a fully rounded educational program,” but that it wasn’t something a respectable person did for a career, and that he’d probably end up broke and singing in some bar. In fact, he spent two whole decades simultaneously absorbing as much as he could of the avant-garde art scene in New York and Paris and working blue-collar jobs (in the steel, trucking, plumbing and moving industries and famously as a taxi driver, the post he held when “Einstein” thundered into the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976) that kept him from starving as he refined his own musical experiments.

Together these twinned experiences — the mind-bending and the bone-wearying — make up the bulk of this mostly charming memoir focusing on the years before what, in commercial terms, you might call Glass’s “big break.”

It is refreshing to read about the youth of a musician who was far from a prodigy — though it’s true that Glass was precocious in some realms: At the age of 8, he began taking solo streetcar rides from his family’s Baltimore home to the Peabody Institute for flute lessons with the Baltimore Symphony’s Britton Johnson. At 11, he went to work at his father’s record store and soon developed a taste for Bartók, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. At 15, he persuaded his mother, a school librarian, to let him enroll at the University of Chicago, which offered admission via an aptitude test in lieu of a high school diploma.

Early on, he learned that art music was at a crossroads: At the time Glass began writing, “the only door that appeared to [him] to be open for a composer was to carry on in a European tradition of modernism, which really came down to twelve-tone music.”

After experimenting with the 12-tone system in an early string trio, Glass neatly “set it aside” in favor of music by composers like Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who though “not considered in academic circles to be important at first,” wrote pieces that were “tonal in the way a popular song would be,” with “melodies you could sing.” He describes Charles Ives as someone who “didn’t mind if his pieces had tunes in them,” and to me that’s as good a description of Glass himself as any: His work can be challenging, but it’s filled with tunes.

After Chicago, Glass auditioned for Juilliard on the flute, but was gently steered into taking preliminary composition classes in the school’s extension division before being accepted into the composition program full-time. He spent five years there, during which time he studied big works like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by copying the scores out by hand, discovered the cool jazz of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, resolved to take up the practice of yoga and, crucially, grappled with composer John Cage’s postmodern idea that the listener completes the work.

He was 26 when he got a Ford Foundation fellowship to become a “composer in residence” for the Pittsburgh public schools, where he liked to sit in the stands at high school football games and — can you imagine? — listen to marching bands play music he’d written for them. In the summer of 1963, Glass joined friends for an “On the Road”-inspired motorcycle trip to San Francisco, where he met JoAnne Akalaitis, who would become his first wife, his longtime theater collaborator, and mother of their children Juliet and Zach.

When Glass won a Fulbright to study harmony and counterpoint with Copland’s teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, she went with him. There, Glass wrote a loopy score for Samuel Beckett’s “Play.” After Paris, Akalaitis accompanied Glass on an extended tour of India and Nepal that kicked off his commitment to the study and practice of hatha yoga and Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism.

Around this time, Glass’s life seemed to become one long parade of conversations and collaborations with anybody doing weird things in galleries or on stages. His anecdotes — whether about cult heroes like musical jokester Peter Schickele or, later, mainstream icons like Martin Scorsese — are more or less amusing depending on your level of interest in the person being described. Most telling are the ones from which he seems determined to extract a particular lesson. From Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar he learned how to organize two- and three-note phrases into longer musical cycles. Listening to Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa at the Fillmore, he discovered the advantages of amplification. Robert Wilson, with whom he’d later write “Einstein on the Beach,” turned him on to the idea of “extended time.”

In Glass’s telling, these sound less like epiphanies than prerequisites to becoming a mature composer; he needed to learn these lessons he seems to say, the same way he needed to learn how to stack boxes to load trucks, or fit pipes together to get plumbing work.

I can’t help connecting Glass’s habit of presenting his art as a trade to his family’s middle-class anxiety regarding the idea of a career in music. In the book, he almost obsessively lists how much things cost ($30 per month for his loft on Front Street, 2 1/2 francs for a meal at a student restaurant in Paris, $3,000 per year for Zach and Juliet’s school tuition) and how he paid for them. The $1,200 earned working for Bethlehem Steel one summer went toward Juilliard tuition. A taxi shift in the early 1970s paid about $120 per night. Members of the Philip Glass Ensemble got about $600 each for the whole of their first multi-city tour. “Einstein” lost between $2,000 and $3,000 per performance on a blockbuster four-month tour.

Only his first major commission, for the opera “Satyagraha” allowed Glass to quit his day jobs, at the age of 41. But it did not — he takes great pains to illustrate — “make any difference to the music,” or change much about the way he worked. Beginning in his Juilliard days, he’d developed a strict discipline, working on composing in shifts each day, a habit he held on to for 40 years.

On her death bed, Philip Glass’s mother, Ida Glass, ever practical, asked whether he’d made sure his copyrights were squared away — which, of course, he had. Ida Glass had attended one of Philip Glass’s early concerts as one of just six audience members in an auditorium at Queens College in 1968, as well as the sold-out 1976 “Einstein” opening at the Met. Glass clearly regrets never having asked her what, finally, she made of it all.

Things were even tougher with Philip Glass’s father, Ben Glass, who, upon hearing the news of his son’s marriage to Akalaitis, wrote to say that he should never come home again. This shocked Philip Glass, who, like many kids who had Yiddish-speaking grandparents and played hooky from Hebrew school, had always seen his parents as culturally Jewish atheists.

Philip Glass and his brother ultimately decided that Ben Glass was trying to get back at Ida Glass for disowning his brothers when they married Gentiles, and at any rate, after years of estrangement, father and son reconciled shortly before Ben Glass’s death in 1974. In 1987, Glass finally wrote a piece dedicated to his father — a violin concerto in the style of Mendelssohn.

I imagine that endings — of books, let alone of lives — are difficult to contemplate when you are 78, which could be why Glass goes boldly experimental in his memoir’s last chapter, interweaving a repeating line about eternity with the scene of Allen Ginbserg’s funeral and snapshots recalled from his own childhood. Elsewhere in the book, he writes more directly about death, including in a moving chapter devoted to his third wife, artist Candy Jernigan, who died unexpectedly of liver cancer at 39. “I actually had the incredibly foolish idea that I would will her life to continue,” Glass writes, “but my will had nothing to do with it. Will is okay for writing music, or for writing books, but not when it comes to the great matters of life and death.” He also writes about how Jernigan had “carried on” painting “until she wasn’t able to do it anymore,” leaving little doubt that he too plans to work “right up until the last minute.”

It’s perhaps understandable that Glass lavishes less attention on his romantic relationships that ended the usual way, though some readers will raise an eyebrow at some of his bolder omissions: Luba Burtyk and Holly Critchlow, wives two and four, are never mentioned, though Glass does make passing reference to his sons Marlowe and Cameron, the “second family” he started with Critchlow.

There is also, in “Words Without Music,” a modest amount of score settling, with Glass issuing well-rehearsed rebuttals to the usual criticisms that his early work was aggressively and mind-numbingly repetitive, that you can imitate him fairly well just by playing C-major arpeggios over and over, or that nothing he did after “Einstein” was as good or as revolutionary — as well as answers to some oddly trivial accusations, such as that he rented out the Met for “Einstein” (rather than being invited to stage it on a Sunday when the theater was dark).

Of course, now that Glass’s catalogue has dramatically expanded to include around 30 film scores and as many operas, with a new symphonic or chamber work premiered practically every month, he’s opened himself up to a whole different kind of critique. As Peter G. Davis put it in New York magazine in 1995, “Glass has come to resemble Andrew Lloyd Webber, another limited talent who enjoyed early success and became a crafty entertainment packager with a canny understanding of this middlebrow audiences and how to cater to them.”

The closest Glass gets to addressing this takedown is in a fantastic rant about how, in lending his image to a Cutty Sark whiskey ad in 1982, he was not selling out. “I called it ‘selling in,’ because the money went right into my work,” Glass writes. “It seemed to me that people who didn’t have to sell out, or in, must have had rich parents.”

In general, Glass writes more or less how he speaks: plainly, and with a wry sense of wonderment at all he’s managed to accomplish. Sometimes you wish that it was all a little less tidy, that in this nose-to-the-grindstone tale of an everyman on a decades-long quest to amass a useful set of skills, Glass would leave a bit more room for what other people might call “talent.” Even in a rare section where Glass relaxes a bit, spinning out a trippy theory about the “artist’s having his feet in two different worlds at the same time,” he pauses to call out other composers for claiming inspiration from dreams or gods or past lives.

“Oh, come off it, Phil,” I sometimes found myself thinking. Can it all really have been so simple? Even if we all spent half a decade at Juilliard, powwowed with every last radical in 1960s New York, and studied with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar and all the yogis on all the remote mountaintops in the world, we still wouldn’t be Philip Glass.

But then again, who knows? Few people have summoned the wherewithal to figure out how to pay the rent each month, and the courage to confront the blank page day after day, for as many years.

Eileen Reynolds writes about music for the Forward. She once live-blogged a performance of “Einstein on the Beach.”

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