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Words Without Music: A Memoir

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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.

432 pages, Paperback

First published March 31, 2015

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About the author

Philip Glass

62 books59 followers
Philip Glass is a three-time Academy Award-nominated American classical music composer. He is considered one of the most influential composers of the late-20th century and is widely acknowledged as a composer who has brought art music to the public (along with precursors such as Richard Strauss, Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein).

His music is described asminimalist, from which he distanced himself in being a composer of "music with repetitive structures". Although his early, mature music is minimalist, he has evolved stylistically. Currently, he describes himself as "Classicist", trained in harmony and counterpoint and studied Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert.

Glass is a prolific composer: he has written ensemble works, operas, 8 symphonies, 8 concertos, film scores, and solo works. Glass counts many visual artists, writers, musicians, and directors among his friends, including Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Doris Lessing, Allen Ginsberg, Errol Morris, Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis, John Moran, actors Bill Treacher and Peter Dean, Godfrey Reggio, Ravi Shankar, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Patti Smith, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and electronic musician Aphex Twin, who have all collaborated with him. Among recent collaborators are Glass' fellow New Yorkers Leonard Cohen, and Woody Allen. He has also composed an opera for the opening of the Expo '98.

He describes himself as "a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist",[10] and a supporter of the Tibetan cause. In 1987 he co-founded the Tibet House with Columbia University professor Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere. He has four children: two, Zachary (b. 1971) and Juliet (b. 1968) with first wife, theater director JoAnne Akalaitis (m. 1965, div. 1980); and two, Marlowe and Cameron with his fourth and current wife, Holly Critchlow. [11] Glass lives in New York and in Nova Scotia. He is the first cousin once removed of Ira Glass, host of the nationally syndicated radio show This American Life. Philip Glass's father is Ira Glass's great uncle.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 248 reviews
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
947 reviews17.6k followers
March 12, 2023
I liked Words Without Music quite a bit. It reveals the Human side of this amazing Minimalist composer - a bit like reminiscing with him in a quiet corner of Starbuck's - the real Philip Glass Unplugged.


But dear me - I had somehow envisaged a book with the densely layered postmodern feel of his syncopated synthesizers. Guess what? Here he paints himself as, earlier in life, the same kinda dumb 'n ditzy kid I once was!

Oh, well. Forget Edginess. An early convert to his stuff at the dawn of the Me-Gen when I discovered him in the early 1980's, I loved art, music and writing like his that "held a mirror up to Nature." The TRUE nature of the ( 'unbalanced') Mad Men who were then driving the economy?

Like so many back then, I thought the world was careening outta control.

And so when the chance came to see Glass live, I snapped up two tickets. Well, Glass MESMERIZED me that night. Seated several rows away from the stage - in a Titanic opera centre that was patently wrong for Glass’ then unknown band (only the first level was full) - my thirsty ears were enthralled.

My eyes locked with Glass’ own several times as he played. Why did he bother even noticing me? I saw the reason tonight.

You see, I was a survivor like he was, and he knew my auditory nirvana in a backward Ontario town could only mean that, like him, I hated my little box of a life.

Some guys can see through you like that.

Why? Because they’ve outgrown and REJECTED their little boxes. It would take me another fifty years to do that for myself. That box was strangling me, as yours may be doing to you right now…

So now, I’ll throw down the gauntlet at your feet, as this great composer threw it down at mine, that long ago night in 1980 -

Cause if you want to someday be a real free spirit again -

You’ve got to Strangle Your Own Shadow:

As those whose hearts still sicken with the dread of it know well.


Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn!
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
539 reviews7,232 followers
June 28, 2018
My obsession with Philip Glass' music is probably a type of mania. There I am, sitting, just listening to the same couple of notes being played over and over again, sometimes for hours. And I love it.

Glass' memoir thankfully doesn't follow his trademark repetitive style. Instead he has produced a really wonderful account of his life, specifically focussing on his early years. We follow him from childhood, through his early music lessons, to Juilliard, to Paris, to India, and beyond. His sheer dedication to becoming a great composer is inspiring.

However, the memoir is slightly off-kilter. The book is just shy of 400-pages, and yet his chapter on his first major masterpiece, Einstein on the Beach, does not come until page 283 - almost at the final quarter. You see Glass spends a lot of time discussing his great musical education but then decides not to actually discuss the great works that he would go on to produce. In fact, all of the discussion of his actual music is relegated to the final hundred pages. Everything from Einstein to now, in one hundred pages.

The absences are glaring. There is no mention of Glassworks for example, apart from a single sentence on its commission. In The Upper Room, Dance, Songs from Liquid Days, and Dracula don't get a single mention. Almost criminally, there is also no word on Metamorphosis, Mad Rush or any of his Etudes, which are by far his most popular works.

I understand that if he did actually discuss all of his major works, the book would have been a behemoth. But strangely he decides to dedicate a whole chapter, the final chapter, to his Cocteau Trilogy, which I doubt anyone would refute my saying are very much minor works within his oeuvre. I feel he just needed someone beside him as he was writing to say to him, 'this is all well and good Phil but how about you write about some of your famous ones?'

However, I do think I am expecting too much. Glass has had an amazing life, peppered with wonderful people and stories. I shall decide to take those stories with me. I guess I'll just have to ask Glass myself about In the Upper Room.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
October 22, 2015
This book is the autobiography of Philip Glass, a world-renowned composer of art music. I have not really appreciated his minimalist style of music, but I truly enjoyed his story. This is a guy who really paid his dues, over and over again, before becoming world-famous. He grew up in Baltimore, and was strongly influenced by the modern music he listened to, in his father's record store. He went to Peabody Institute, University of Chicago, Julliard School of Music, and finally, with a Fullbright Scholarship, studied under the tutelage of the famous Nadia Boulanger, in Paris.

While he composed his music and produced performances and operas, he worked as a furniture mover, a plumber, and a taxi cab driver in New York City. With his wife, he toured through Pakistan and India, learning about Indian music with Ravi Shankar, and Eastern culture.

Glass tells his story with humor and excitement. I loved the episode where his mother, Ida Glass, worried so much about his financial future as a composer. When she attended one of her son's concerts for the first time, there were only six people in the audience. The next time she attended her son's concert, there were four thousand people in the audience!

Philip Glass composed a lot of music, and some of it is very experimental. He wrote many operas, symphonies, a lot of chamber music, and scores for films. He produced some of his earliest operas on a shoestring budget, but were sold out. His opera Einstein on the Beach lasts four and a half hours!

As a composer myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of enthusiasm and love for music that he conveys throughout the book. I recommend this book to anyone who might be interested in a biography of a very interesting person.
Profile Image for Rob Christopher.
Author 3 books17 followers
March 20, 2015
“If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new. As long as you know what you’re doing, nothing much of interest is going to happen.”
– Philip Glass, Words Without Music
Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 12 books611 followers
May 20, 2015
A very warm and human-like nice guy (at least on the printed page) who also has a fascinating life, and knows everyone. Philip Glass has not always been my favorite composer, but he has written some of my favorite pieces of music. I love Einstein on the Beach and the "Mishima" soundtrack - and parts of the "Candyman" is great as well. There are misses in his long career, but there are also fantastic albums here and there in his long discography. This memoir is truly interesting, because it deals with the working life of an American composer. I love reading about his life as a teenager working in his dad's record shop in Baltimore as well as his life as a Taxi Driver in New York City - while at the same time, probably one of the most important (if not financially) successful composers of our era. This is an excellent book for someone who wants to make it as an artist/composer/whatever - and see how someone like Glass worked as a labor as well as an artist. He could do both and he did it quite well. The fact that he took up and lived with Moondog is amazing enough, but also his friendships with various writers and artists from the visual New York City world are equally great. I would have liked to have read more about his relationship with fellow-composer Steve Reich, but that is a minor fault in this book. Over-all, Glass doesn't go out of his way to say bad things about people - this is not a memoir trying to even the score - but more of a life of a hard-working artist. Well-written and very interesting tales.
Profile Image for Anna.
735 reviews505 followers
October 31, 2018
“Openings and closings, beginnings and endings. Everything in between passes as quickly as the blink of an eye. An eternity precedes the opening and another, if not the same, follows the closing. Somehow everything that lies in between seems for a moment more vivid.”

I absolutely loved this!

I’ve never considered myself a soundtrack or film score nerd, but it is the music genre that I predominantly listen to: I follow some composers’ work religiously, recognize pieces in an instant, and most of the times you’ll hear me say “I haven’t seen the film, but the soundtrack is amazing!” I am that annoying…

I got to see Philip Glass & Kronos Quartet a couple of years ago, in my hometown, playing music to the screening of 1931 “Dracula” in a summer theatre. It goes without saying that Glass is one of my favourite composers and “The Hours” one of my favourite soundtracks ever. His catalogue is beyond impressive and to read about how he got to compose some of his most famous works was a real treat.

He is also an incredible storyteller! The chapters do not follow his life chronologically, rather themes and threads, moments and people he met throughout his career: I loved his meditations on art and music, the story of “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha,” of working with Mlle. Boulanger on his music technique, his friendship with Doris Lessing and Allen Ginsberg, and other inspiring or amusing anecdotes.

“Wait a second, have you seen Taxi Driver?”
“No, I didn’t see Taxi Driver.”
“You didn’t see Taxi Driver?”
“Marty, I was a taxi driver. During the time when you were making that film, I was out driving a hundred miles a night in New York City. On my night off, the last thing I was going to do was see a movie called Taxi Driver.”

Yeah, that Marty!

I’m definitely planning on re-reading it, if not the entire book, at least some of my favourite chapters.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
May 3, 2015


Description: The long-awaited memoir by the world-renowned composer of symphonies, operas and film scores.

'If you go to New York City to study music, you'll end up like your uncle Henry,' Glass's mother warned her incautious and curious nineteen-year-old son. It was the early summer of 1956, and Ida Glass was concerned that her precocious Philip, already a graduate of the University of Chicago, would end up an itinerant musician, playing in vaudeville houses and dance halls all over the country, just like his cigar-smoking, bantamweight uncle. One could hardly blame Mrs. Glass for worrying that her teenage son would end up as a musical vagabond after initially failing to get into Juilliard. Yet, the transformation of a young man from budding musical prodigy to world-renowned composer is the story of this memoir.

From his childhood in post-World War II Baltimore to his student days in Chicago, at Juilliard, and his time in Paris, where he studied under the formidable Nadia Boulanger, Glass movingly recalls his early mentors while reconstructing the places that helped shape his artistic consciousness. Then, to the gritty streets of New York in the 1970s, where the composer worked as a cabbie, leading the life of a Parisian bohemian artist transported to late-twentieth-century America.

Yet even after Glass's talent was first widely recognized with the sensational premiere of Einstein on the Beach in 1976, even after he stopped renewing his hack license and gained international recognition for his operatic works, the son of a Baltimore record store owner never abandoned his earliest universal ideals, all of the highest artistic order.

1/5: Philip Glass recalls his Baltimore childhood and being accepted at Chicago University

2/5: Funding himself by working in a Baltimore steel mill, the young Glass secures a place at Juilliard and begins his music studies in earnest. New York City in the late 1950s was a heady place, offering a range of creative opportunities. He soon found himself immersed in the city's vibrant contemporary art scene.

3/5 In the mid-1960s, and keen to expand his musical knowledge further, Glass went to Paris to study with the acclaimed teacher of musical composition Nadia Boulanger. While there, and working with the likes of Samuel Beckett, he developed his life-long interest in composing music for theatre.

4/5: After decades working day jobs to fund his music, Philip Glass finally broke through with the opera "Einstein on the Beach". Collaborating with director Robert Wilson, the five-hour production sold out each night during its 1976 European and American tour and made the pair's careers.

5/5: Asked to write the score for visionary 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi, Glass discovered a new avenue for his musical composition. He later worked with Martin Scorsese, writing the soundtrack for Kundun (1997).

Reader: Kerry Shale
Writer: Philip Glass
Abridger: Laurence Wareing
Producer: Kirsteen Cameron

Track: "Opening"

Knee Play 5 - Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass 1979 Original

Philip Glass - Kundun - 15 Move To Dungkar
Profile Image for Katie Ravenwood.
17 reviews11 followers
April 24, 2015
Absolutely incredible read. If you're a musician or an aspiring musician, especially if you're a composer, or even if you're none of those things, read this if you want to be inspired and liberated of your notions about fame, art, and life as an artist. Colorful, inspiring, and completely engaging.
Profile Image for Nirav Savaliya.
34 reviews27 followers
February 1, 2022
There's nothing better than an artist who can write! (Other than writers, of course). I'm always intrigued by how artists take an inspiration and conjure something up, sometimes so very beautiful, that one wonders, where did it come from? Turns out, Philip Glass, other than being excellent composer, is also a very good writer. And he tries to answer questions like this in his memoir. I loved how he described his artistic process in great detail. And what a fabulous life he has lived! He has traveled far and wide, and it seems everywhere he has traveled, he took some inspiration and created music out of it. He is a true "World Music"-ian.

As for the book, it's really well written. I got introduced to a lot of his music. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Charlie.
3 reviews
July 9, 2015

After watching Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I was convinced that Philip Glass is an aloof turd. Now I believe he is an aloof turd with a heart.

If you at least know something about any one of the following things, you will probably enjoy Words Without Music: A Memoir:

Philip Glass, music theory/composition, Buddhism, world travel, pretense, yoga, daddy issues, plumbing, vagueness, or NYC in the 60's and 70's.

As a hardcore fan of PG since high school in 1995 (guess who sat at the cool table), I was disappointed that the book didn't get too juicy. I wanted a tabloid-style self-exposé, but I got the highlight reel from the giant career of a giant composer.

Mr. Glass clearly picked and chose what he wanted to write about and what he didn't want to write about. That's fair! But large swaths of his career and personal life were glossed over, if not excluded. I guess that's my main criticism.

As a just-past-being-able-to-call-himself-young composer myself, I enjoyed this book for its technical discussion of broad music theory. I finished this book having gained additions to both my reading and listening lists. I also found value in the philosophical discussions on creativity and art. I would love to see an On Writing (Stephen King)-style technical discussion about the craft of music composition. There's certainly some meandering in this book (we get it, you like your vacation home), but it does come to a point, even if it takes a while!

There is a slightly grim tone to the text -- it's clearly written from the perspective of an almost-eighty year-old who is reflecting on his life in words and wants to leave a detailed descriptions of the best parts (and some of the worst). The book's beautiful in that way. There's also a micron of laughter, and some great stories about Glass's artistic contemporaries.

So read this book. It's written by a creative mastermind and intellectual. It teaches you things. It lets you about three quarters of the way into his head and there are your reasons to pick it up right now. Enjoy.

Profile Image for Peter Colclasure.
248 reviews22 followers
December 29, 2020
A warm, thoughtful, extremely well-written autobiography from one of the greatest living composers. The impression of Philip Glass I get from this book is of a man who is plain spoken, down to earth, and yet sincerely engaged with art, creativity, and spirituality. It's a fine balancing act, to be a relatable, normal genius. Sometimes great artists have raging egos. Not Glass. He comes across as supremely confident, but not arrogant. Creative, but not pretentious. Accomplished, but not conceited.

Here's an anecdote from the book that conveys his confidence:

In the summer of 1960, four years after I had graduated from Chicago, Copland was a guest of the orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I had come from Juilliard to take a summer course with Darius Milhaud, a wonderful composer and teacher. The orchestra was playing some of Copland's pieces at the festival, and through Milhaud's class, Copland invited students to meet with him one-on-one to show him their compositions. I took him one of my pieces, a violin concerto for solo violin, winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones), and percussion.

Mr. Copland looked at the first page. What I had done was to pencil in a theme for the violin—it's so similar to what I do today, I'm surprised that I had even thought of it then—and every low note of the theme, I had played on the French horn. So the violin went da-da, da-da, da-da, and the French horn outlined the bottom notes, which became the countermelody. I thought it was a very good idea.

Mr. Copland looked at it and said, "You'll never hear the French horn."

"Of course you will," I said.

"Nope, you'll never hear it."

"I will hear it."

"You're not going to hear it."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Copland. I'm going to hear it."

Mr. Copland got extremely annoyed with me, and that was pretty much the end of my lesson. He'd only seen the opening page of the piece! We never got beyond the first eight or ten measures.

What's wrong with me? I thought. Mr. Copland was much older than me. He was a
real composer, a famous composer. He'd invited students to show him their compositions—a wonderful opportunity—and I had totally blown it. I had one lesson with Aaron Copland and we had a disagreement and he basically kicked me out.

As it turns out, I
was right, as least that time. On a student recording the next year at Juilliard, sure enough, there was that French horn line, outlining the countermelody to the violin theme. You could hear it clear as a bell. I am sorry I didn't keep in touch with Mr. Copland for I would have sent him the recording.

So there you have it. Glass, a college student, meeting the great Aaron Copland for the very first time, entirely unintimidated. Absolutely sure of himself. And right.

Glass has written, "I knew exactly what I was doing. I was changing music." There's something punk rock about that sentiment. It wasn't so much that Glass was intentionally trying to flout conventions. It's just that he didn't care. He was entirely indifferent to the prevailing trends in 20th century composition. He didn't have any interest in atonal music, or odd harmonic colors. He didn't care about winning the approval of music critics. He had a sound he heard in his imagination and he did that instead.

During his early years, he operated outside of mainstream institutions. He formed the Philip Glass Ensemble, made his own recordings, sold them at his shows, booked his own tours, and paid for it by working as a plumber, furniture mover, and driving taxi. He never applied for any grants or considered teaching. He was in his 40s before he started making enough money as a composer to quit his day jobs. Until then he operated independently of the world of classical music, and this was also very punk rock.

The man had a work ethic that could choke a small horse. After driving a nine hour cab shift, he would come home, cook his kids dinner, and then write music for four hours. To this day, he averages about four hours of composition time a day. He gets by on only a few hours of sleep, apparently. It's incredible.


Here are some quotes.

On his time studying with Nadia Boulanger

I would describe it this way: If you wanted to be a carpenter, you would learn how to use a hammer and a saw and how to measure. That would be basic. If someone said, “Here, build a table,” but you had never done it before, you would pick up the tools and maybe you could build a table but it would be shaky and probably a mess. What Mlle. Boulanger taught was how to hold a hammer how to use a saw, how to measure, how to visualize what you were doing, and how to plan the whole process. And when you had learned all that, you could build a really good table. Now, she never thought the “table” was itself music composition. She thought her training was simply about technique. Basically, when you left her, if you had studied with her diligently, you would end up with a toolbox of shiny, bright tools that you knew how to use. And that was a tremendous thing. You could build a table, you could build a chair, you could put in a window—you could do anything that was needed.

On the norms of 20th century art music:
The generation I grew up with in the 1960s had to bear the brunt of another, older vision for the future of music that was narrow and intolerant. I think that kind tyranny, for the moment, is behind us.

While playing a concert in Europe:
Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging at the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing agin, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five or six seconds. My assailant didn’t come back and I was able to complete the performance.

On the writer Yukio Mishima:
For all the writers I personally know, writing is a way of accommodating themselves to the world, of making the world a bearable place in which to live. Mishima became a writer in order to make the world understandable to himself. That's very different from having an agenda, let's say, an existentialist agenda that has an ideological or theoretical basis. Mishima's solution derives from his experience, and in that way, he resembles Celine and Genet, writers who were not political writers but who were working out the crisis of being alive, the crisis of experience itself.
Profile Image for Magdalena.
Author 36 books130 followers
May 15, 2015
As one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass transformed the landscape of modern music. His work is Renaissance-like in its scope; the breadth of his projects a wide sweep that encompasses Opera, film scores, symphonies, music theatre, concertos, and the list goes on. To call him a musical genius would be easy. What’s not so easy is to track just how much work there is behind the exquisite music he’s given to the world—not some extraordinary inspiration—just hard yakka and lots of it. If something caught Glass’ interest—and almost everything interests him—he would begin a course of study that involved hours and hours of deep, regimented study and practice. There are never any short cuts. Travelling to remote places to spend time with various teachers, beginning a myriad of projects, taking hold of nearly every opportunity that came his way to grow and learn by studying, practicing and drilling are what characterises Glass’ approach to his craft. I opened the book thinking I’d read an autobiography of a great composer. Instead, I found a deeply introspective story of a man whose work has grown out of a desire to understand life from the inside—at the point where the atoms move.

The book begins with Glass’ young years in Baltimore, where he grew up, the son of well-educated Jewish Lithuanian migrants. His mother Ida was an English teacher/librarian and his father Ben owned a record store. Though they didn’t approve of his desire to become a musician, Glass’ parents paid for music lessons, which began early when a young Glass would take the streetcar to Peabody Conservatory to study flute. When he was eleven, he began to work in his father’s store. The book progresses in a reasonably chronological fashion, through his early schooling and the start of a lifelong love of music, his early entry to the University of Chicago where he obtained a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, his studies at Julliard, with Ravi Shankar, in Paris with Nadia Boulinger on a Fulbright Scholarship, his visits to India and Nepal to study Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, his time in a very Bohemian New York’s East Village, his work in the theatre with his then wife Joanne Akalaitis, his immersion in the world of Art, the creation of his operas, his film scoring and his time with his second wife Candy Jernigan.

Throughout this period, Glass not only throws himself wholeheartedly into his work, but also into his spirituality, and into earning a good living. He takes on all sorts of ‘day jobs’ and not only does them well, he seems to take great pleasure out of doing them exceptionally well—whether that’s moving furniture, teaching himself plumbing on the job (!), driving a taxi, or helping his dad out in the record store--there’s an attention and interest shown to everything that turns the work into almost an art. In fact, if there’s one theme that can be found throughout the book, it’s this kind of mindfulness—the art of paying complete attention – whether that be fixing a broken sink, working at a composition, or listening to a challenging piece of music:
The mechanics of perception and attention tied you to the flow of the music in a way that was compelling and that made the story irrelevant.

When you get to that level of attention, two things happen: one, the structure (form) and the content become identical; two, the listener experiences and emotional buoyancy. Once we let go of the narrative and allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level. (221)

The story itself is compelling and would probably have been so even if the book weren’t so well-written: there are several love stories, lots of famous names and collaborations, travels to interesting places, and a very wide range of influences and references from literature, art, music, dance and theatre. Glass, however, writes beautifully, exploring, always, the deeper and universal implications of his experiences. The prose is beautiful to read—both simple and powerful.  Glass’ recounts are more than just memoir.  He is generous in that whatever he writes is always aimed at finding a deeper and collective meaning in his individual experiences. There is so much to learn here, not just about Glass, but about ourselves—how to live, how to learn, how to create. Towards the end of the book, Glass talks about his work on The Cocteau Trilogy in which he says, of Cocteau, that he “is teaching about creativity in terms of the power of the artist, which we now understand to be the power of transformation” (378) The same can be said of Words Without Music. Glass fans will love it of course, and there are detailed deconstructions of most of Glass’ big works: from the making of to the meaning of. However, Words Without Music is a book for all readers—the lessons it provides and the journey it takes us on, is both beautifully expressed and universally applicable.
Profile Image for Marcello S.
505 reviews209 followers
June 6, 2017
Consultando un comune manuale di storia della musica il nome di Philip Glass compare molto spesso per ultimo, in fondo, assieme a quello del compare Steve Reich. Si potrebbe dire che Philip Glass è l’ultimo grande compositore colto occidentale unanimemente riconosciuto.
E si, fa un certo effetto.

Qui ci racconta della sua famiglia, degli studi alla Juilliard e a Parigi, del viaggio in India (il primo di molti) che ha cambiato il suo modo di vedere e pensare la musica. Dei lavori come idraulico e tassista (!) che ha dovuto fare fin dopo i quarant’anni per arrivare a fine mese.

Di solito tornavo a casa per l’una e mezza, scrivevo musica fino alle cinque e mezza o le sei, stando su tutta la notte. Poi accompagnavo i bambini a scuola, dormivo fino alle due del pomeriggio e ritornavo al garage entro le tre. Composi gran parte di Einstein on the Beach di notte, dopo aver guidato il taxi. I giorni in cui non lavoravo avevo tempo di scrivere musica di giorno e anche di pulire la casa e occuparmi di altre cose, come organizzare le tournée.

C’è molto del suo amore per New York, spesso la vera protagonista del libro. La New York delle gallerie d’arte e dei loft che diventano residenze per artisti, dei Richard Serra, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Rauschenberg. Un luogo e un periodo irripetibili dove nascono le sue prime composizione (Music in Similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts, Music in Twelve Parts).

Nel comporre questi brani misi il linguaggio musicale al centro, e per «linguaggio» intendo la decisione che prendi attimo dopo attimo quando componi una nota di musica. Perché la cosa potesse funzionare avevo bisogno di trovare una musica che catturasse l’attenzione. Invece di usare una «storia» iniziai a usare un processo che si basava sulla ripetizione e il cambiamento, il che rendeva più facile capire il linguaggio perché l’ascoltatore aveva il tempo di contemplarlo nonostante si muovesse così velocemente. Era un modo per attirare l’attenzione sulla musica stessa piuttosto che sulla storia che la musica poteva raccontare. Nelle sue prime composizioni Steve Reich faceva la stessa cosa con il phasing o sfasamento, mentre io la facevo con le strutture additive. In entrambi i casi il processo rimpiazzava la narrazione e la tecnica della ripetizione diventava la base del linguaggio.

E poi, quasi verso la fine, c’è una delle poche immersioni nella vita davvero privata di Glass.
E’ un capitolo bellissimo e inizia così:

Durante i dieci anni che passammo insieme, io e Candy avevamo sempre la sensazione che qualcosa ci avrebbe diviso. Non sapevamo cosa sarebbe stato, ma sapevamo che sarebbe successo. (…) Incontrai Candy Jernigan nel 1981, su un volo Amsterdam-New York. Io avevo appena finito di lavorare in Europa, mentre lei stava tornando a New York da Berlino. Candy era già seduta quando arrivai al mio posto di fianco a lei; era intenta a leggere una rivista, facendo finta di niente.

Magari non l’autobiografia più letteraria o poetica che abbia letto ma si percepisce un’estrema onestà intellettuale.
Alla fine è solo la vita del più grande compositore vivente.
Determinata, onesta e fuori dagli schemi. [74/100]
Profile Image for Mario.
317 reviews35 followers
June 6, 2021
No terminé. Hay algunas anécdotas sobre sus viajes que me parecieron interesantes, y sobre todo cómo fue introduciendo eso a la música que componía. El resto, no. Seguiré disfrutando su música, y nada más.
Profile Image for Shauny_32.
40 reviews4 followers
July 23, 2015
I've always appreciated the work of Philip Glass so it was about time I got to know the man better. Turns out he can be quite obnoxious.

There are moments where I cringed at his massive ego and pretentious attitude. He describes his divorce in one paragraph in the entire book mumbling something about pursuing someone else who leaves him anyway.

But thats ok because he has some great stories to tell regarding his adventures throughout India and Nepal and name drops some impressive artists that he has associated himself with. And to be fair, near the end of the book he makes a moving tribute to someone special to him.

He lived in the same neighbourhood in paris for a while as Samuel Beckett and mentions his works. This is someone I have clearly neglected as I have started readinmg one of his works for the first time and have instantly fell in love with it.

So basically, this book is a mixed bag. If you can tolerate some of the self-rightous, ego-thrusting moments, there are many great moments, that are great as a method of reference regarding travel, literature and other artists.
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews73 followers
July 6, 2019
Took me 6 weeks to read this memoir but I enjoyed it & feel like I learned so much . . . not really about music, which I remain hopeless about, but Glass had so many other interests that come through in this book: education, New York City, literature, art, theater, travel, yoga, spirituality, etc. And somehow, he seems to have known everyone in those worlds.
A native of Baltimore, went off at age 15 to college at the University of Chicago (back when it had the "Great Books" program of study), then worked in a steel mill for a year to earn money for Julliard, later off to Paris for more study, rode a motorcycle to India to study with the yogis in the mid-1960s & was therefore exposed to world music. Came back to NYC & supported his family as a taxi driver, mover, assistant plumber, helped set up art installations, etc., and then finally in his early 40s, started being able to support himself with his music. Wrote operas, symphonies, did film scores and immersed himself in everything. He's a talented writer, too, this reads smoothly and totally kept my interest through seven decades of his life.
Profile Image for Francisca.
210 reviews93 followers
February 22, 2017
Philip Glass, uno de los compositores minimalistas más entregados a la música que ha habido en el mundo, entrega en este libro editado por Malpaso un repaso exhaustivo sobre su memoria. Aunque se llame Palabras sin música, Glass recorre en esta obra una larga melodía sobre su vida, sobre el arte y, sobre todo, sobre la música. Y es que, desde bien pequeño, Glass estaría influenciado por ella. Su padre, Benjamin Charles Glass, tenía una pequeña tienda de discos en la que Glass crecería y su madre, Ida, le acercaría y apuntaría a clases de violín y piano. Desde bien pequeño hasta bien entrada la madurez, sus pasiones serán la música y la ciencia. Para él los científicos son visionarios y poetas. Así, Philip Glass hace un recorrido sobre su infancia y sobre cómo la música llegó a su vida para quedarse.

Lo que el compositor aprendió del jazz se convirtió en parte de su propio lenguaje. Este influiría enormemente en su música y su hacer. Además, Glass empezó a componer por accidente, no porque se le impusiera en su carrera. El músico no lograba encontrar respuesta sobre el origen de la música, ni siquiera en los libros ni en músicos amigos, así que qué mejor manera que componerla para saber cómo se originaba.

En el libro se detalla con pelos y señales a todos aquellos músicos y artistas que irá descubriendo a lo largo de su vida. De hecho, la música de Glass empezaría por trasladarse a las obras de teatro de Beckett. Todo el ímpetu que tiene por y para la música se halla reflejado y plasmado aquí, con nombres y lugares. Glass cuenta todo tipo de anécdotas las estancias que tuvo en las ciudades en las que vivió. Lugares como Baltimore (su ciudad natal), Chicago, Paris, Pittsburgh… Todos ellos influirían irremediablemente en su hacer musical y en todos ellos encontraría algo que aprender. De hecho, su facilidad para hacer amigos es evidente y conocería a grandes músicos que participarían en sus proyectos, como el gran Ravi Shankar. Glass visitaría muchas veces la India y, como influencia, llevaría Oriente a su música y a su vida. El autor es y ha sido una persona muy espiritual y ha seguido diferentes tradiciones, como el hatha yoga, el budismo tibetano Mahayana, el taoísmo o la tradición tolteca del centro de México. Es, de hecho, un profundo estudioso de todo ello, y eso, en cierta manera, se puede ver reflejado en su música.

Glass colaboró -¿o también deberíamos decir colabora?- con infinidad de artistas de diferentes campos, lo cuál, desde luego, le traería mucha riqueza profesional así como personal. Pese a que su figura como músico ha estado presente a lo largo de su vida, fue en su estancia en París donde empezó formalmente a vivir de la música, pese a que trabajaría también como taxista en sus 30, con el fin de tener más independencia y poder ver más a su familia; no sería hasta pasados unos quince años, más o menos, que podría vivir totalmente de ella. Es inevitable pensar que fue así para un compositor tan sublime, que empezaría a vivir de ello más tarde que temprano, pero que en cierto modo eso le hizo ser como es ahora mismo y nos ha sabido aportar su música de diferentes maneras en todas sus etapas.

Prácticamente al final del libro, la pregunta vital de Philip Glass pasa del dónde venía la música al qué es la música, por lo que el autor intenta explicarla a través de todo su libro y en base a su experiencia como músico, tanto interpretativo como compositivo. De hecho, lleva a cabo un análisis de sus composiciones, haciendo hincapié en las diferentes partes que la componen y haciendo también un especial énfasis de los diferentes espacios en que las tocó. Resulta inevitable observar que la vocación de Glass ya se hallaba presente en ella desde antes de nacer, que la predisposición hacia la música ya la tenía, por lo que nosotros podemos decir que es en su música donde hallamos el origen y es en ella donde podemos percibir qué es, simplemente escuchándola y dejándonos llevar.

En definitiva, estamos ante un libro que explora la vida y experiencia musical de Glass de un modo ameno y seductor, que nos conduce por todos los terrenos que su música ha recorrido. Como apunte, se hace necesario escucharle entre lectura y lectura, para adentrarnos más en él, para sentir su pasión y su espíritu de modo directo y sin rodeos. Pareciera que su título Palabras sin música fuera erróneo, pues es la música el eje principal de todo, quizás lo ideal sería poner “sobre la” en vez de “sin”, pero no le hagamos feo, porque este libro es una joya sobre su memoria y legado.
Profile Image for Lucy Connelley.
3 reviews3 followers
June 26, 2021
Rarely does a book inspire me this much that I want to become the main character. Unfortunately I lack the skill and grace Glass does with musical instruments and song writing..... but I can dream and for me that is the best a book can do. Glass is such a fascinating man and to be a fly on his shoulder as he takes us through his life was a very enjoyable ride, and one I might just do all over again. In his closing chapter 'closing', Glass states: "My brain thinks music. It doesn't think words. If I were thinking words, then I would try to find music to fit the words." I mean what a man! whilst reading there were times when I felt Glass was writing music to fit in with my life, a viola solo when I slip on a step, a continuous clonk on the piano when I walk to work, it was very enjoyable. You should read this biography, I mean why else are you reading this review?
Profile Image for Samuel.
461 reviews13 followers
July 12, 2016
Philip Glass is my favourite composer. I have no expertise or formal education in music, nor can I play an instrument. But there is something immediate and intimate that I feel with Glass' music; some kind of natural connection and fascination with it. I feel the same about a lot of minimalist and 20th Century music, but especially with Glass.

This thoughtfully-written autobiography illuminates his life, work and growth as a composer, influenced by the changing world around him and the artists he met and built friendships with. He dwells particularly on his captivating and often amusing encounters with great artists and creatives such as Nadia Boulanger, Ravi Shankar, Doris Lessing, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Wilson, John Cage, Jasper Johns and, of course, when he had Salvador Dalí in the back of his taxi.

What remains palpable is Glass' passion not just for all kinds of music, but for all kinds of artistic expression. He writes at length on his favourite works of visual art, film and literature and how they inspired him to try and communicate their essence through his own music.

One striking quote comes towards the end of the book when Glass ponders on how he creates his music:

'Now when I'm writing music, I'm not thinking of structure; I'm not thinking of harmony; I'm not thinking of counterpoint. I'm not thinking of any of the things I have learned.

I'm not thinking about music, I'm thinking music.'
Profile Image for Karine.
171 reviews9 followers
September 8, 2021
Boeiende mens, boeiend leven, boeiend boek. Maar jammer genoeg voor mij op een bepaald moment weer onbegrijpelijk wanneer het te technisch werd. Wat had ik graag zijn intelligentie en muzikale begaafdheid meegekregen. Erg meegevoerd door zijn jeugd in de VS, zijn reizen door Europa en het Midden-Oosten, zijn ethische en esthetische visies. Het 'muzikale' gedeelte met uitvoerigere besprekingen van de concerten en opera's ga ik mondjesmaat lezen wanneer ik het betreffende stuk beluister om zo ook aandachtiger te leren luisteren.
Profile Image for Chris.
564 reviews112 followers
August 27, 2015
Glass schrijft net zo verraderlijk helder als zijn muziek wel eens durft te klinken, maar achter zijn no-nonsense stijl schuilt het rijke, door kunst, reizen en ontmoetingen beïnvloed en doordrongen leven van een open geest die in alles wat hij doet op de intuïtie van zijn eigenzinnigheid vertrouwt. Al bijna 80 jaar zoekt hij naar het antwoord op de vraag 'Wat is muziek?' en vond telkens nieuwe antwoorden. Nog meer dan ik er zelf al jaren van overtuigd was, verdient zijn muziek een ruimer publiek dat leert luisteren voorbij het vooroordeel van makkelijk minimalisme. Als luistertip beveel ik daarbij graag de kortgeleden verschenen cd 'New Seasons' aan, waar topviolist Gidon Kremer zich met virtuoze toewijding aan Glass' tweede vioolconcerto 'The American Four Seasons' waagt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDs8n...
Profile Image for Ray.
2 reviews
January 6, 2015
A fascinating account of one's journey as a life-long student of music, art, religion and life. Glass' path to a celebrated composer reinforces Gladwell's "10,000-Hour Rule" to the nth degree.
Profile Image for Michael.
39 reviews1 follower
June 13, 2015
I got to live with Philip Glass while reading this book and did not want to walk out the door. An amazing unpretentious artist.
July 21, 2019
When a world renowned composer cleverly titles his memoir “Words Without Music,” it piques your interest. After all, isn’t a composer a storyteller at heart?

Philip Glass certainly is and his memoir is at once both insightful and instructive. He warmly invites us, over the span of 400 pages, to inhabit a wonderfully fluid, curious, and non-traditional mind. In his mid-seventies at publication date, Glass colorfully explains his thought processes as he moved from traditional classic music to an experimental style. It’s no secret that his concerts stirred up such intense and conflicting passions that many attendees noisily stormed out in red-faced indignation. For Glass it was all taken in stride—he was never subdued into submission.

His memoir reveals how focused he was on preparation and training. As a child of Baltimore in the 1940’s, he instinctively knew that he could not skimp in any areas. By 1952, he left home at 15 for the University of Chicago where he realized that ascension to the highest artistic levels could be obtained through not only music courses but also in reading great books. He often refers to his selected reading as one of the “primary sources” for his music. Literary influences included Shakespeare’s historic plays, Darwin for biological sciences, Galileo for physics, and Avogadro and Dalton for chemistry. So it should come as no surprise that one of Glass’s most celebrated operas is titled Einstein on the Beach.

Throughout his rise, he faces financial difficulties. Even in his forties, he finds that he often has to labor as an illegal plumber, construction worker, dock hand, or taxi driver to fuel his musical passions. He’s very sanguine about it. Never the victim, he was content to have money to pay for basic necessities which included advanced studies at Juilliard. Following his graduation from the music conservatory he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris with the world-renowned teacher and conductor Nadia Boulanger. One tough cookie, he thrived under her mentorship.

Another major influence on his musical path was the great Indian musician Ravi Shankar (who many of us remember as a major influence for George Harrison and the Beatles). Shankar not only inspired Glass’s music but also his travels. Soon he was spending time in Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet, northern India and Central Asia. All of these new-found sounds and places had an influence on his composition — effectively unmooring him from the traditions of Europe.

He married and settled in New York City where he became involved in theater, film, the creation of the Philip Glass Ensemble while also composing a bounty of concertos, operas and new performance pieces. Still he’s driving a cab. Perhaps the most astonishing story is this one: In November of 1976, much to Glass’s astonishment, the Metropolitan Opera and the Byrd Hoffman Foundation book Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach (which was touring in Europe to “huge support and rowdy dissent”) for two consecutive Sundays. There had been little promotion - as Glass quips, “no wind pushing the sails,” yet both performances, with approximately 4,000 seats available, were sold out! With 8,000 seats sold, it would be reasonable to believe that you had finally arrived. Not so fast. Following the successful performances Glass and his collaborator were informed “the great success of Einstein notwithstanding, the tour was $100,000 in the red.” There would be no payout. A few nights later Philip Glass, who had just sold out not one but two performances at the Metropolitan Opera, was driving a cab through the streets of New York — nonplused and undeterred.

There are some interesting personal details included. Marriage, divorce, new partner, tragedy. Not a lot of detail but it does tie the story together. Primarily, it’s the story of creative passion, a deep curiosity, drive and tireless energy. It’s also a story that illustrates how friendships spark creativity — people such as Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, Yuko Mishima, the Dalai Lama, Dennis Russell Davies and more.

If you visit philipglass.com you’ll discover that Glass, now at 82, is still going strong. King Lear is currently on Broadway with original music by Philip Glass, he recently finished up two evenings in Paris with “Philip Glass and friends," and moved on to performances in Barcelona, and then Stockholm for a 50 year celebration of the Philip Glass Ensemble, soon to be followed by two world premieres. His passion appears to be undiminished.

Next time you take an evening cab in New York City, be sure to tip your driver. He may be the next Philip Glass. Or even Glass himself.
September 30, 2018
While the life of an artist being unusual is not a surprise, I did not expect a leading modern day composer to have spent serious time as a taxi driver, a plumber and as a worker in a steel plant. Glass's story, his focus on his unconventional music and a similar life is a worthwhile read. His prose is measured, and he portrays someone who is in control, keeps things in balance, even while the life he leads might not be the norm. While the story of his life is quite interesting, you get the feeling that the same qualities, being self-assured and being in control, has led to Glass choosing to share things that he would like us know and thinks will be of interest to us, rather than baring more and letting us decide. Of course, I get the impression that many aspects that he chose not to share - his wife, the divorce and the kids, might be due to a respect for their privacy. But, there are many other aspects of why he chose to be a vegetarian or why his interest in Tibetan philosophy kept increasing are never explained. This is another good book of how a person relates to his vocation. Glass's focus on his work and his beliefs come through well through the story, but I wish he had explained his feelings and thoughts more.
Profile Image for Ji.
159 reviews39 followers
January 28, 2020
A long book but if it's worth the while if you like PG's music. I went to The Hours immediately after finishing the book, just to re-experience the soundtrack once again. It felt so right.

This book reminded me of "Hand to Mouth", a memoir of Paul Auster on how he suffered through his early years as an artist. Based on the book though, PG has handled his situation gracefully by driving a cab for many years. He earned exactly the amount of money he needed to build his music career when nobody wants to pay to listen to his music. In a way, you can say that the book is a financial accounting of how a musician managed to survive through years of nobody. In that way, it's an educational book.

It's also educational in the way how PG thinks about composing music. Sadly this is not the emphasis of his writing, and you've got to wait till the very end of the book to get a glimpse of these thoughts. Nonetheless I found these the most valuable part of the book. PG talks about music as a kind of language, just as painters paint using the language of colors and shapes. It's enlightening to think about arts in this way.
Author 3 books1 follower
December 17, 2018
This is exactly the kind of artist memoir you wish everyone you care about would write. Full of fascinating anecdotes, and a full history of his development, especially of the early days -- the period when, it seems, artists truly find a way to articulate who they are -- this is also a testament to artistic perseverance. For instance, it took Glass TWENTY-TWO YEARS before he was able to really support himself as a musician. Even after Einstein On The Beach had been performed at the Met, he still had to drive a cab for two more years until he could finally call it quits. In the meantime, he was forging relationships with a virtual Who's Who in the New York Art scene, including a marriage to JoAnne Akalaitis, working as Richard Serra's assistant, doing projects with Allan Ginsburg, and a whole host of others. This is a fantastically entertaining and inspiring book. If you like Philip Glass' music, and want to know more about how it came about, you'll love it.
Profile Image for CholoSoy.
4 reviews2 followers
July 7, 2017
I was very close to quit the book just minutes after I started, I didn't like those back and forwards, most of the contain seemed almost irrelevant. I was so wrong!!! and I fortunately continue until I began to understand the relationship between Phillip growing up and his career as a musician, composer, etc; the way he relates those experiences with his work and how he learned and re learned from the people, masters, teachers he met. I am so glad I finished the book.
Profile Image for Karlton.
356 reviews12 followers
September 1, 2017
This is a very inspiring memoir by one of my favorite composers. It exceeded my expectations. It is inspirational, self-aware, and filled with information about his music. I love how in depth he goes into the making and construction of the following works: The Einstein Trilogy, the Qatsi Trilogy, and the Cocteau Trilogy. My only complaint is that he doesn't go into such detail on more works. Still, I was very happy with this book, and may seek out a print copy for my very own.
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