For all its manifold beauties, the classical music of the 20th century has yet to become popular in America. One sign of its failure to make a deeper mark on our culture is that except for Aaron Copland, the only American classical composer whose name is reasonably well known outside musical circles is Philip Glass. His deliberately repetitive compositional style is familiar enough to have been parodied on The Simpsons and South Park. In this sense, the doyen of musical minimalism is to classical music what Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol are to the visual arts: He is the one American composer about whom it is possible to make a joke in the expectation that educated people who are not musicians will get it.
Yet despite his own cultural ubiquity, Glass’s pieces are not all that widely performed in this country. While his stage works have been produced by the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, his instrumental music has yet to be taken up other than sporadically by any world-class soloist, conductor, or ensemble. It is no secret that virtuoso performers loathe his music, which they regard as monotonous and devoid of interpretative challenges. As a result, it is mostly known from the performances and recordings of modern-music specialists and his own Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as from its use in such films as The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show.
But whatever the long-term prospects for Glass’s music may be, no one now doubts its historic significance. One reason musical modernism finally collapsed under its own weight in the 1970s was that Glass and his like-minded contemporaries refused to kowtow to the anti-tonal regime of the postwar avant-garde musical monopoly. As a result, there is no longer a “mainstream” classical-music style. Instead, all compositional styles—including the minimalism of Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich—are deemed equally acceptable.
At 78, Glass has come of late to be seen as something of an elder statesman of American music. It stands to reason that so august and consequential a figure should finally have gotten around to writing his memoirs. What is more, Words Without Music: A Memoir1 is an engaging, even charming book, one of the most readable autobiographies ever written by a classical composer. And no matter what you think of its author’s music, the story that he tells therein will be of much interest to anyone who wants to know how the dogmatic modernism of the ’50s and ’60s gave way to the antinomian postmodernism of the ’70s and after—though whether or not the book converts any of its skeptical readers to the Gospel According to Philip Glass is another matter entirely.
Glass was born into a lower-middle-class family of Lithuanian Jews in Baltimore in 1937. His father, who owned a record store, had little formal education but was intelligent and musically sensitive and went to much trouble to give his son, who was both musically and intellectually curious, the schooling he had lacked. Young Philip studied flute at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and enrolled at the age of 15 in the University of Chicago, where his teachers included David Riesman. From there he went to New York’s Juilliard School and, in 1964, moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, a disciple of Igor Stravinsky who had taught such noted American composers as Copland and Virgil Thomson.
All this is noteworthy because many older listeners, upon first hearing minimalist music, came to the understandable conclusion that Glass was, in his own wryly amused words, “a kind of musical dunce” who knew nothing of how classical music was supposed to sound. To the contrary, he had been ruthlessly drilled by Boulanger in traditional harmony and counterpoint, and he was no less conversant with 20th-century classical music (which he had heard in his father’s record store).
Indeed, Glass started out by using the “12-tone” technique of organized atonality invented by Arnold Schoenberg, but he gave it up because he found the results insufficiently compelling: “When you listened, it was hard to remember the melody because it was hard to remember the harmony.” He was more interested in bebop, rhythm-and-blues, and early rock, whose “raw power” struck him as analogous to the “absolutely colloquial language” of such novelists as Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren, which he had read as a student in Chicago. But he seems never to have considered becoming a pop musician. His goal, rather, was to forge a brand-new “classical” style that would serve as a musical counterpart to the paintings of such visual artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.
Revealingly, it was not a composer but an avant-garde playwright, Samuel Beckett, who served as his main source of inspiration. Like so many of his contemporaries, Glass was “feeling the exhaustion of the romantic principle” that had hitherto driven the story-based dramas of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. For him, traditional classical music was also a storytelling art, one that uses tonal harmony to articulate and propel large-scale “narratives” that unfold over time. But Glass aspired to write music that would be similar in effect to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which scene follows scene in a way that bears no resemblance to the tightly wrought plot of a conventional play. Such a music, as he explains, would have “the coherence of rationality without the logic,” instead offering its listeners “an emotional high that came from being detached from the world of the rational and the dramatic.”
What would it sound like? It would, to begin with, be tonal, since Glass believed atonal “harmony” was insufficiently memorable. At the same time, it would have the “raw power” of the pop music that he loved, while also being anti-romantic and non-narrative. It would eschew harmony-driven storytelling in favor of the creation in the listener of states of ecstatic involvement not unlike experiencing “an exhilarating moment in a forest or watching a brilliant summer sky.”
If this latter description sounds religious, it is because Glass, a secular Jew with spiritual inclinations, had lately embraced Buddhism and become a practitioner of yoga. His newfound interest in Asian concepts of spirituality thus predisposed him toward the creation of an art of “transformation and transcendence,” and his religious and artistic concerns came together when, in 1967, he met the sitarist Ravi Shankar. Shankar introduced him to Indian classical music, which does not use harmony to articulate large-scale “narratives” but is instead a largely aharmonic, drone-based music in which melody and rhythm interact in a manner not dissimilar to that of the jazz that Glass loved.
The encounter between the two men was the final ingredient in the recipe of minimalism. Starting in 1968, Glass began to write a series of “high-concept” instrumental pieces with titles like Music in Fifths and Music in Similar Motion in which he worked out his new concepts of musical composition. These pieces consisted of endlessly repeated melodic fragments and extremely simple, slowly shifting chordal patterns that were organized into driving rhythmic cells, chugging along without pause for lengthy periods of time (Music in Fifths is 23 minutes long). The instruments that played them were amplified in the all-enveloping manner of the bands that Glass was hearing at then-popular rock-and-roll clubs such as Fillmore East.
The effect of these pieces, as Glass intended, is not “narrative.” Instead of understanding them as sonic “stories,” one experiences them, just as one might look at an Alexander Calder mobile or walk through an earthwork “sculpture” like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. They are, in the words of Tim Page, Glass’s earliest and most loyal critical advocate, “music that one could dwell in…a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.” As such, they fulfill the goal that Glass sums up in his book: “The music world now could say, ‘This is the music that goes with the art.’”
To everyone’s surprise, this austere music found passionate fans among younger listeners who had hitherto shown no interest in any other variety of postwar classical music. What was the source of its appeal?
Glass points to one key reason when he describes his early music as “addictive and attractive.” Bluntly, “You could get high from it, and people did.” It is no coincidence that he formulated his musical concepts in the ’60s, at a time when they were both postmodern and countercultural. The incantatory, repetitive style of his electronically amplified music was not dissimilar in effect to that of the rock-and-roll with which his baby-boom fans were closely familiar—and to which many of them liked to listen while under the influence of mind-altering drugs. In addition, it was harmonically simple enough to be intelligible to listeners suckled on three-chord pop songs who were unfamiliar with the greater complexities of classical music.
Moreover, Glass’s stripped-down music was (and is) determinedly, even relentlessly tonal, which also made it attractive to those who had grown tired of the claustrophobic “maximalism” of 12-tone music. It brushed away the ugly clutter of late modernism, which had started by challenging its audiences and ended by defying them to make sense of it:
What I embraced was the way [Samuel Beckett] swept past the cobwebs of so-called modernism and just got rid of it. Dumped it. Cleaned the table off and said, “Okay, what’s really here?”
In addition to all this, the fact that Glass’s music contains no fully developed melodies or strongly directional harmonic arcs—that it is, in a sense, all background and no foreground—makes it ideally suited to use in films and on stage, where the emotion-arousing effects of visible action can be heightened by a discreet musical accompaniment that helps focus the viewer’s attention by shutting him off from the distracting sounds of the “real” world. Bernard Herrmann’s non-melodic scores for such films as François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo function in much the same way as do Glass’s film and stage music, albeit on a far higher level of harmonic sophistication.
This explains why Einstein on the Beach, the five-hour-long opera in which Glass collaborated with the avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson, first brought Glass to the attention of a wider public. His music proved to be the perfect accompaniment for Wilson’s dreamlike stage pictures, and the 1976 premiere of Einstein at the Metropolitan Opera House made him a pop-culture idol. He has remained one ever since.
But what happens when Glass’s music is played in the concert hall—when it is, in other words, moved from background to foreground? Can it hold the attention of listeners who approach music not as sonic stage décor or an aid to meditation but as a fully independent expressive statement in its own right? Since 1976, Glass has turned out dozens of instrumental works, including 10 symphonies and six string quartets. I have yet to hear one that struck me as anything other than excruciatingly boring.
To be sure, they typically open with arresting introductory gestures, as in the case of the much-performed Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (2000), with its clamorous pounding and swells of orchestral sound. But these gestures soon lead to the empty acreage of grammar-school harmonies and clickety-clacking rhythms that are Glass’s stock-in-trade. And unless the tradition-minded listener is willing to scrap his expectations and embrace a music that deliberately frustrates his desire for narrative development, he will first be numbed, then enraged.
It is for this reason that Glass’s music is still a source of controversy. Indeed, its initial popularity now appears to have been something of a fad, and though the vocabulary of minimalism has long since been absorbed into the language of 21st-century classical music, Glass’s own pieces have yet to attract any substantial number of converts among the music-loving public at large.
Part of the continuing resistance to Glass’s music lies in the fact that it raises the question of what one thinks music is for, and answers it in a way that many concertgoers find unsatisfactory. Is music a means to an end, or the end in itself? Do you, the listener, use it in order to induce in yourself an ecstatic state of consciousness, or do you engage with it, as you might engage with, say, the “Unfinished” Symphony or The Brothers Karamazov? Most listeners opt for engagement over functionality. But it is necessary to remember that they are both legitimate goals of art, just as the narrative-based organization of Western classical music is neither innately natural nor historically inevitable. The mere fact that Glass writes music for a reason different from Schubert’s does not invalidate the results.
The problem is that Glass’s music fails to do what I believe all great music does, which is to structure time in a profoundly meaningful way. We look at a painting, even a complex and crowded canvas like Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” and then move on. Not so a piece of music, with which we must spend a period of time fixed in advance by the composer. If it is not sufficiently eventful to hold our attention throughout that time, then it is not successful—and that is where Philip Glass falls short. To borrow Tim Page’s meteorological metaphor, Glass’s non-narrative music is like a cloudless day: One can only contemplate it for so long without wanting to go inside and read a book.
1 Liveright, 288 pages