Book review

‘Words Without Music’ by Philip Glass

Chad Buchanan/Getty Images/2007 file

When I first spoke to Philip Glass, for my college newspaper in 1987, he had just been named the “hottest composer in the world” by Time magazine. “In comparison to being the hottest rock star in the world, it’s a decimal-point difference,” he told me. “I’ll sell 200,000 records, and they’ll sell 2 million.”

A subsequent interview occurred almost exactly 20 years later in 2007 on a Manhattan playground. The subject was Glass’s two newest opera productions. Glass, who had turned 70 that year, was in charge of watching his youngest sons, then aged 3 and 5, that day. The conversation was characteristically generous, wide-ranging, and provocative. Clutching a recorder, I tailed my subject, while he tailed his tots.

Those two encounters with Glass came to mind while I read “Words Without Music,” his new memoir. At 432 pages, the book is well-supplied with droll observations and plainspoken assessments regarding the details of a career that has been as remarkable and noteworthy as any in American music — indeed, in American culture. And, as in the playground episode, the portrait that emerges from this selectively revealing reminiscence is that of an artist who has never shrunk from the quotidian requirements of living life while in pursuit of that distinguished career.


As in Glass’s operas, time is slippery in “Words Without Music.” A narrative arc is clear enough at the onset: After quoting his mother Ida’s advice after his college graduation, straightaway — “If you go to New York City to study music, you’ll end up like your Uncle Henry, spending your life traveling from city to city and living in hotels” — Glass backs up to describe his childhood among a close-knit, industrious Jewish family in Baltimore. Working alongside his father and brother in a shop that morphed with the times from repair shop to record store, Glass recognized early on a link between music and commerce.

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Time and again, Glass’s conversational flow gently nudges the reader out of a strictly historic thread. Momentary discursions punctuate the book’s first part, which runs from Glass’s Baltimore childhood through his early and precocious college education in Chicago, and his rigorous musical training at the Juilliard School in New York City. Musing on a lack of natural affinity for stringed instruments, for example, Glass says that his observation now seems paradoxical in light of the symphonies, quartets, and sonatas he went on to compose much, much later.

The first section’s climax comes in Paris, where Glass studied with the legendary Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar, and then with the formidable pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. “One taught through love and the other through fear,” Glass writes of his two principal guides, respectively. “And, between teaching with love and teaching with fear, I have to say the benefit of each is about the same.”

After a strong start filled with fascinating kernels of trivia (Al Jolson was a blood relative!), juicy meetings with significant artists and future collaborators, and a flourishing if unorthodox domestic life with the theater artist JoAnne Akalaitis, Glass’s first wife, “Words Without Music” loses momentum. An extended detour via the Middle East to Pakistan, India, and Tibet, in search of spiritual guidance, is enchanting for the workaday slog of getting from point A to point B. But what prompted a secular American Jew’s quest into unfamiliar spiritual practices remains opaque, even after a present-day peroration that briefly acknowledges the disciplines Glass has embraced since.

The book gathers steam again in the second section on Glass’s return to New York City. His descriptions of developing his hypnotically rhythmic, instantly recognizable style, forming his band, and pursuing his career inexorably toward the watershed compositions “Music in 12 Parts” and “Einstein on the Beach” — even as he paid the bills as an unlicensed plumber and a taxi cab driver — form the headiest portion of “Words Without Music.” Indeed, no admirer of Glass or student of American art can afford to miss this detailed account of not just a single composer, but of an entire artistic milieu — Richard Serra, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and numerous others — forged new paths and strategies for preservation and promotion.


Faced with the riches presented in the New York section, the reader is almost certain to be disappointed to some extent by the book’s third and final part. As if switching from memoirist to cartographer, Glass devotes chapters to his work in the opera house, for film, and to the Cocteau trilogy that fused those genres.

Those topics are not without interest. But from that point until a poetically charming final chapter of fleeting memories, the details that enriched the previous sections go missing. The infidelity that ended Glass’s marriage to Akalaitis flits past in a single line, for example. Prominent recording contracts, without which Glass’s music might not have spread as far and as fast as it did, go unexamined. And while third wife, Candy Jernigan, is the subject of a late chapter and some of Glass’s most touching reminiscences, his second wife, Luba Burtyk, and fourth, Holly Critchlow — mother to the boys I’d watched in 2007, cited in the book’s dedication alongside Glass’s older children by Akalaitis — go unacknowledged.

So, too, for the most part, do the most recent decade-plus of Glass’s life and work. Honest and candid as “Words Without Music” had felt previously, the home stretch shows, somewhat frustratingly, that the composer’s evident transparency remains selective.

Steve Smith can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect page count.