From plumber to the gilded prizes with a ‘musical idiot’

'Words Without Music' by Philip Glass

5 minute read
Releasing serious music from the serialists. (Photo by Steve Pyke via
Releasing serious music from the serialists. (Photo by Steve Pyke via

Forty years later, it is still the most exciting concert I’ve ever attended — one of the Sunday afternoon sessions by the Philip Glass Ensemble in a Greenwich Village loft in 1974.

I didn’t like the music, which challenged my twentysomething ears. I did recognize I had just heard one of the most remarkable pieces of music those ears had ever, by then, encountered — or were ever to encounter, as it turned out. I couldn’t go home afterward; instead I went straight to a friend’s apartment uptown, where I raved about having heard “the future” of music.

My judgment was not quite right. Philip Glass did become a huge piece of the future of music over the next 40 years, and he is still going strong at 78. He has captured it in a highly readable memoir published earlier this year, Words Without Music, but what I heard in 1974 was not the future but the climax of the present. His great experiment in sound helped release serious music from the grip of the serialists and academics and Aaron Copland — and opened Glass to older forms and orchestration, longer melody, and other traditions he would explore for the rest of his working life. That ’70s sound, built upon repetitive variations, got him and a handful of others labeled minimalists, although those early Glass pieces are about as minimalist as Mozart. (Check out Music in Twelve Parts, the 1974 piece that Glass says took its three-hour-plus form only after a musician to whom he showed his original score — written for 12 instruments — asked what the other 11 parts were like.)

Reexamining the résumé

Glass did broaden and commercialize, unlike some of his peers, but he testifies to how crucial those early years were by taking 282 pages of his 396-page autobiography just to reach his breakout collaboration with Robert Wilson for the opera Einstein on the Beach in 1975-76. His memoir also shows his powerhouse résumé in a different light:

  • Juilliard graduate, but he was admitted through Juilliard's adult extension school, where he was fortunate to be placed after one of the audition judges asked him kindly, “Mr. Glass, do you really want to be a flutist?” No, he said, a composer — a saving reply.
  • Nadia Boulanger student, but he cut it short at two years, even though the legendary Mlle. Boulanger gave him the second year free and insisted he must stay for seven— all right five, at least three— full years. While there, Glass often thought he might be her worst student, a special project.
  • Transcriber for Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, then (and perhaps still) the two Indian musicians best known outside of India. This gig was the result of chance, to hear him tell it: A western musician was needed to assist the pair on the film score for an American indie production (Chappaqua) that was being completed in Paris while he was studying there with Boulanger. A mutual friend hooked him up. The experience, plus future lessons with Rakha, heavily influenced his early music.

Encountering the counterculture

Raised in rowhouse Baltimore, Glass was driving a New York taxicab for a living into his 40s. If ever someone had a hunger for stars, it is Glass — but always the most interesting of them. The larger résumé includes working or conferring with Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Jerome Robbins, Robert Rauschenberg, Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Leiber (yes, Leiber-Stoller), Virgil Thomson, Doris Lessing, Joseph Papp, Marcus Raskin, and Rudy Wurlitzer. Moondog was a roommate for a year.

His prolific oeuvre includes 20 operas, ten symphonies, 20-plus movie soundtracks, at least eight string quartets, a variety of concertos, piano études, and all the uncategorizable early Philip Glass Ensemble material. Any count is doomed to quick obsolescence because he keeps composing at a rapid clip. Glass projects the premiere of his 11th symphony for his 80th birthday in January 2017.

You need to be curious about Glass to enjoy this memoir, but if you are, it also works as something more — a great recreation of post-World War II American arts and culture. Glass emulated the Beats, read Hermann Hesse, hung with Soho artists, traveled frequently to India, and worked as a plumber and in other blue-collar trades to make his living. The anti-drug vegetarian became an exemplar of the American counterculture, and nearly everyone from the 1960s and ’70s artistic frontlines appears in his book. Today Glass is the Establishment, as jacket blurbs from Martin Scorsese and Metropolitan Opera head Peter Gelb attest.

Hearing exercises

Were his limitations also his genius? Glass is not sure he hears music correctly, or at least normally. That would explain the early work, its intensely formalistic nature and the purity that exhilarates its fans: He was building his language. Mlle. Boulanger “worked tirelessly on ‘hearing’ exercises for me. I suppose the problem was solved, though I never really understood what it was in the first place. And now there is no one left to ask.”

It may explain the reaction to his early sound: “I was often taken by surprise by the anger over the new music I was writing. I was widely considered a musical idiot.” In person at the Philadelphia Free Library last spring, Glass fondly cited a New York Daily News review headlined, he recalled, “Glass Debuts Latest Sonic Torture.”

But his ambition, talent, and work ethic carried him right through those limitations, to the dismay of some of the early fans and, I suspect, a few colleagues.

Why is Philly Glass-free?

The calendar on his website shows his music is performed almost every week somewhere on this planet, often in multiple locations, but I recall only one piece programmed in Philadelphia (at a chamber music recital) within the last five years.

Must we wait for his death for his music to be heard more often here? Why aren’t more — any — of his orchestral pieces in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s repertoire? Listeners should hear the haunting Second Symphony (1994) or the playful, tuneful Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995). The string quartets of the 1980s and ’90s are terrific, especially the singing, propulsive, operatic Number 5 (1991), recorded by the Kronos Quartet. The early music, so relentlessly disciplined, gave Glass his musically difficult reputation, but the nominations above are almost sure crowd-pleasers. Yannick, please take note!

What, When, Where

Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass. Liveright, 2015. Available at Amazon.

More music information and Glass calendar at

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