Book Review: Read My Lips
Famed Austin composer appraises the autobiography of Philip Glass, father of the modern classical avant-garde
Reviewed by Graham Reynolds, Fri., May 29, 2015
Words Without Music: A Memoirby Philip Glass
Liveright Publishing Company, 432 pp., $29.95
Philip Glass' Words Without Music starts out as a straightforward memoir, with scenes from childhood progressing through high school, college, and on up. Soon, however, the book opens a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful window into the composer's brain. From art, performance theory, and music analysis to philosophical and poetic musings as well as personal anecdotes both funny and moving, the text captivates. Skeptics could question Glass' humility or self-awareness, but overall he's refreshingly honest and open. His two most important teachers are pivotal characters: the intense and fascinating Nadia Boulanger, perhaps classical music's most famous educator, and charismatic bridge-builder Ravi Shankar, who introduces Glass to Eastern musical concepts. Later, on the composer's first European tour, an audience member is so angry that he jumps onstage and runs to the piano to join Glass, who punches him in the jaw and continues with the concert. Elsewhere, the author describes his life-changing exploration of Tibetan Buddhism, from his first adventure-filled trip to India, to the incorporation in his music of what he gleaned. There's also the electric East Village of the Sixties and Seventies, and the experimental theatre and visual art scenes that influenced Glass so much. We even learn how his work was paid for, with a surprising amount of candor about fees, massive debts, and waiting until the age of 41 to finally make his living through music. Lastly, he gives detailed insight into his deepest artistic passion: his operas. For myself, a composer, Words Without Music: A Memoir feels like it was written for me. I would make it required reading for any student composer. Even then, the book's appeal goes far beyond composers. It's for anyone seriously considering how and why art is made.