Words Without Music is a charming memoir for anyone to pick up, even without knowledge of Glass’ work.
Modern composer Philip Glass is not only one of the most prolific and acclaimed composers of his generation, but also one of the most controversial. Not only was he an integral artist in the school of musical minimalism, which found new realms of sound through repetitive, complex rhythms rather than clear themes and melodies, but he also became the movement’s most visible star through popular operas like Einstein on the Beach and singular musical scores for films as varied as Koyaanisqatsi, The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show. As he grew as an artist, his devotion to that subversive style dwindled, and he began composing more conventional pieces. Even still, he’s known more than anything as a minimalist. Among other things, Glass brought a broad accessibility to minimalism and classical music that his contemporaries didn’t — perhaps his defining characteristic.
This rich artistic personality is what informs his memoir Words Without Music. Narratively, Glass is hardly a minimalist; he covers his early life in Baltimore, his college years in Chicago and Julliard, his life in Paris and New York, and the story behind most of his greatest compositions. His sense of structure expands as he goes on, weaving later wisdom into his youthful stories as he can, but never losing the accessibility that he’s known for. In Words Without Music, he achieves this with a simplicity of language that allows him a warm and casual tone that makes his stories both digestible and charming. In his compositions, Glass splits time between being a nuanced minimalist and a sweeping, romantic traditionalist; in his prose, both sides are reflected equally. Words Without Music shows him to be, among his many talents, a graceful storyteller.
Part of this is because, unlike so many musicians who step out into writing, Glass isn’t guarded or conflicted about his life. At his mature age, Glass has the kind of clear, focused mind that comes from experience. He’s also open about it: he explains the circumstances behind losing his virginity, for example, an interesting and unusual anecdote that he is unembarrassed to share (though he spares the sordid details).
Among the most compelling sections of the memoir, besides Glass’ varied and evocative anecdotes, are his moments of reflective wisdom — on the art world, city living, creative strategies, familial relationships, etc. “The world of painting expected innovation and new ideas,” Glass says in the book, “But in the world of music, which was a much more conservative environment, there was no cachet at all in having new ideas… This was a liberating moment for me.” This passage concludes a brief section where Glass recalls living among the artistic landscape of New York in the early ‘60s, a bold, subjective revelation that sits beside his words of objective memory. Glass has a spectacular talent for pulling insight from his many tales and making them connect in relevance. Words Without Music is not just revealing as a result, but also a stunningly breezy, compelling and enjoyable read.
Glass may not be the most exciting or strange personality in the music world, but he’s no less a talented artist and a smart storyteller. Words Without Music is a charming memoir for anyone to pick up, even without knowledge of Glass’ work, to simply hear a man of artistic skill and experience discuss his peculiar path through life from a modest Baltimore background to one of the greatest music schools in the world to Europe and beyond. Glass’ talent for approachability truly seems to be the constant in his artistic work, and Words Without Music, more than maybe any other piece of his, benefits from it the most.