Words Without Music: A Memoir
New York Times Bestseller
An NPR Best Book of the Year
Winner of the Chicago Tribune Literary Award
Finalist for the Marfield Prize, National Award for Arts Writing
"Reads the way Mr. Glass's compositions sound at their best: propulsive, with a surreptitious emotional undertow." —Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times
Philip Glass has, almost single-handedly, crafted the dominant sound of late-twentieth-century classical music. Yet in Words Without Music, his critically acclaimed memoir, he creates an entirely new and unexpected voice, that of a born storyteller and an acutely insightful chronicler, whose behind-the-scenes recollections allow readers to experience those moments of creative fusion when life so magically merged with art. From his childhood in Baltimore to his student days in Chicago and at Juilliard, to his first journey to Paris and a life-changing trip to India, Glass movingly recalls his early mentors, while reconstructing the places that helped shape his creative consciousness. Whether describing working as an unlicensed plumber in gritty 1970s New York or composing Satyagraha, Glass breaks across genres and re-creates, here in words, the thrill that results from artistic creation. Words Without Music ultimately affirms the power of music to change the world.
In this episodic narrative of intellectual and artistic development, famed American composer Glass describes his involvement in the avant-garde music and art scenes in New York in the 1950s through the 1980s, as well as learning harmony and counterpoint in Paris from the brilliant composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger in the 1960s. He recounts touring the Indian subcontinent in search of a guru and eventually winning fame for repetitive compositions like Einstein on the Beach and Koyaanisqatsi, which delighted some listeners and enraged others. (When an annoyed audience member came up and started banging on the piano keys, Glass recalls, "I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage.") At its core, Glass's story is about work he worked as a mover, a plumber, and a taxi driver to keep his family fed during his decades of obscurity, and since then he has immersed himself in the craft of composing. Glass is raptly alive to the aesthetic epiphanies, philosophy, spirituality, and magnetic personalities he has encountered, yet his prose is conversational and free of pretense. The result is a lively, absorbing read that makes Glass's rarefied cultural sphere wonderfully accessible.
Philip Glass holds up several mirrors to himself
Words with Music is Philip Glass with little analysis. He gives us history--childhood, Chicago, Paris and New York--with a glimpse into the influences that shaped his musical process. Glass writes about his early works and operas, his film work, and his personal life. But don't expect a tell-all exposé. It's perfectly reasonable for him to be guarded about his private life, and you are told the bits he wants you to know, but that doesn't mean he isn't honest and open about what he says.
The last chapters are heavy with his experiences with the creative process, and it is here where the artist really come out. His process comes with little psychology, but action is paramount. In this way, Glass is part romantic, part practical man. A postmodern hero trodding through the East Village.