Forty years ago the composer Philip Glass’s minimalist aesthetic made him a radical outsider. Now he is one of modern classical music’s bestselling artists.by Alexandra Coghlan / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
Words Without Music by Philip Glass (Faber & Faber, £22.50)
In a 2011 New Yorker cartoon a man and a woman sit in two upright armchairs, adrift in a giant interior with an oversized canvas—a single wavy line—on the wall. The caption reads: “Only the rich can afford this much nothing.” There has always been the suspicion of emperor’s new clothes about minimalism. But the artists, architects and musicians of the movement have taken the satire smiling. People can joke as much as they like as long as they keep buying the music. And buying we certainly are. Despite his style being described as “broken-record music,” “going-nowhere music,” even “anti-music,” the minimalist Philip Glass is one of the classical world’s bestselling living composers.
A new memoir by Glass, Words Without Music, invites us to go back to the original pulse of minimalism—New York City in the 1960s. Together with La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, Glass was one of the movement’s first-generation “Fab Four.” All were innovators, but Glass had greater popular appeal and an instinct for the direct. He is celebrated for his triptych of operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten as well as his Oscar-nominated soundtracks for Kundun, The Hours and Notes on a Scandal. The critic Tom Service calls him the “most influential composer across the whole range of the musical world, from film scores to music theatre, from rock and pop to new music”; or, as the music journalist K Robert Schwartz has it, he is quite simply a “mass-culture phenomenon.”
Words Without Music is Glass’s second autobiographical book. In Opera on the Beach (1987), he looked back over the steep arc of his early career, from his studies at the Juilliard School in New York (1958-62) and later in Paris with Nadia Boulanger—whose students included Aaron Copland and Daniel Barenboim—his formative encounters with Ravi Shankar, to his return to New York and rise from the avant-garde fringe to popular success. This second book—a companion volume? sequel? variation on a theme?—goes over similar ground.
For an artist wedded to abstraction, Glass tells a good tale—lively and intimate, if prolix. Born in Baltimore in 1937, he was the son of a…