Words Without Music: The Persuasive Minimalism of Philip Glass

philip glass - words without music
Philip Glass in Florence, 1993

The best knock-knock joke I've ever heard is told by artist Chuck Close in "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," a 2007 documentary about the life and work of composer Philip Glass: Knock knock. Who's there? Knock knock. Who's there? Knock knock. Who's there? Knock knock. Who's there? Philip Glass.

Minimalism is a genre of classical music that -- to put it charitably -- can be tough to listen to. The avant garde extreme, such as works by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Arvo Pärt, can sound like the performers are making up the music as they go. In the case of John Cage's 4'33", you can’t even listen to it; the "performance" is just Cage sitting at a piano doing nothing.

Even the more accessible minimalist composers can be stark and repetitious, which is the gag of the "South Park" Philip Glass spoof and the nub of the Chuck Close knock-knock joke. Glass is a minimalist -- much of his music is based on short, repeating elements -- but he has pushed back against a "minimalist" label, one used to imply that there is not much happening in his music.

"One of the most common misunderstandings of [my] music was that the music just repeated all the time," Glass writes in Words Without Music, his enlightening and enlightened new memoir. "Actually, it never repeated all the time, for if it had, it would have been unlistenable. What made it listenable were precisely the changes."

When Glass started composing in New York in the late 1960s, he had already trained at Juilliard, apprenticed with master pianist Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and studied with Indian composer Ravi Shankar. He had traveled the world and absorbed its cacophony of music and philosophy. He had theories about how to fuse the core elements of Western and Indian classical music into something new. New York, to put it mildly, wasn't ready for all of that.

And so he toiled in obscurity for nearly the next decade -- moving furniture, driving a cab, whatever he needed to do to make ends meet -- while he continued to compose and perform. Audiences often booed him and occasionally threw things at him. An audience member once jumped on stage to disrupt the performance, and Glass punched him in the mouth. Not until he was forty-one years old, and after his opera Einstein at the Beach had opened at the Metropolitan Opera, was he able to make music a full-time profession.

Glass’s explanation of the commonalities among Indian theater, Italian opera, and the music of an indigenous Native American tribe -- which have inspired him to explore unconventional orchestrations, from throat singers to sitar solos -- turns the concept of conventionality utterly on its head:

"The Kathakali traditionally has the same four elements found in Western opera -- text, image, movement, and music, just like Rigoletto. It becomes very clear how theater and opera must have evolved -- by telling religious stories in front of people, as historical spectacle. In this way, the tradition and lineage of these stories have been kept alive. Every generation performs them and perpetuates them, but they do them, inevitably, with variations."

The indigenous Wixárika people of the mountainous region of Mexico, Glass writes, have a similar heritage of this sort of musical theater, albeit with a marakame acting out the story with his hands. From Glass's perspective, his music in the 1970s was not so much experimental or avant garde as the American classical music scene was myopic and constrained. If you can't deal with a tabla (an Indian drum) in a chamber ensemble, it’s mostly because you’re just not used to hearing one.

Einstein on the Beach is an ambitious, intelligent, and odd work of opera. It opens with a chorus singing sequential numbers -- 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 -- and whispering about square roots and who knows what else. Einstein was a genre-defining hit, and it put Glass on the cultural map. Glass devotes an entire chapter in Words Without Music to the history of the opera, which is a phenomenal story of his varied musical influences and the broad collaborative nature of much of his work.

In the years since, Glass has been an enormously prolific composer and performer. He was nominated for Academy Awards for his film scores for "Kundun," "The Hours," and "Notes on a Scandal," and he won a Golden Globe for scoring "The Truman Show." He has gone from revolutionary to establishment over the course of his career not because he changed what he was doing but because audiences bent toward his work instead.

Words Without Music is a fascinating peek into that creative genius.