Book Notes: Words Without Music, by Philip Glass

Glass words musicComposer Philip Glass has written a memoir, Words Without Music. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) In this book, Glass tells about his life growing up in Baltimore, his experiences as a 15-year old at college, his life in downtown New York, and his music. Glass has had an interesting life, but, unfortunately, he’s no writer.

This book is the story of a musician, a well-known and successful composer, as he makes his own path with a new style of music. Glass takes a fair amount off time to describe his life growing up in Baltimore, and his experiences as a very young college student. But then, when he talks about his time in Paris, and his years in downtown New York, it seems like he’s just name-dropping, as the pages are full of lists of all the famous people he knew and met.

He gets into travel writing, describing in too much detail some of his trips to India and other places, but Glass is no travel writer; these sections are uninteresting. Finally, about two-thirds of the way through the book, he starts talking about the music. It’s around then that Einstein on the Beach, the work that catapulted him to fame, shows up. It was interesting to read about how Einstein was created and produced, and the oddity of Glass going back to driving a cab, after a long tour of Europe and two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

But, then, he describes the rest of his musical career briefly and succinctly, as if for liner notes, giving little attention to the rest of the music he wrote. There are longish sections about some of his major works – Satyagraha, Akhnatan, Koyaanisqatsi, and others – but he curiously ignores his symphonies (other than to liken himself to Bruckner), gives no insight into the other music he’s written, such as his solo piano music, string quartets, etc.

I found this book to be dry and distant, as though Glass really didn’t want to write it. And he’s not a good writer; whoever was supposed to edit the book clearly wasn’t allowed to make many changes. There are clunky sentences throughout, and the book skips back and forth in time in a jarring manner.

If you’re a Philip Glass fan, you’ll want to read this book. But if not, you won’t find much of interest in it. This is a man who has certainly had an interesting life, and who should be the subject of a biography. He’s just not the person who should write it.

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