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Crafty Composer, Memorable Memoirist

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Steve Pyke
In a new book, composer Philip Glass portrays himself as a global groundbreaker with a blue collar.

Philip Glass’ first music-business teacher was his father, who ran Baltimore’s smartest, sneakiest record store. Ben Glass taught his son that it was perfectly acceptable to break LPs as long as labels paid a dime for each damaged disc, that it was A-OK to buy four copies of a virtually unsellable collection of Schoenberg string quintets as long as they eventually sold. It was a priceless education for a future composer, keyboardist, ensemble leader, music publisher and, yes, record-label owner.

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The store/school stars in Glass’ Words without Music (Liveright), a new memoir that doubles as an open university. Crafty, scholarly and witty, Glass weighs in on weighing nails for Bethlehem Steel, listening to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, studying Eastern composition with Ravi Shankar, writing revolutionary operas and film scores, making ends meet as a cab-driving plumber, watching a painter-lover die painfully too soon, even the aural advantages of living in Manhattan (Asked what his music sounds like, he likes to say “New York”).

Glass doesn’t mention one of his favorite minor key characters. Every three years for over 30 years he’s played a benefit concert for the New Arts Program, the 41-year-old Kutztown cultural crucible. He takes a one-night break from his very prolific, very popular career to support a grass-roots, ecumenical organization that invites veteran creators to help budding creators make a living at expanding the boundaries of creativity—Glass’ global mission for six decades. He especially likes to support NAP founding director James Carroll, who supported him when he was supporting his family by moving furniture.

I’ve interviewed Glass before five of his 11 NAP benefits, including last month’s concert with flutist/saxophonist/composer Jon Gibson, an original member of the Philip Glass Ensemble and another Kutztown regular. He’s a quick, curious, quirky conversationalist; as in his music, he twists ideas into Rubik’s cubes. In previous chats we discussed everything from dance-club remixes of his mesmerizingly modulated works to satires of his seemingly broken-record repetitions (i.e., The Advanced Center for Treatment of Philip Glass Addiction). This time we roamed over “Words without Music,” a remarkably broad, curious guide to a remarkably curious, broad life. We began our talk in his father’s record store, where young Philip was checkmated by the man who taught him mental chess.

 I’m not the only one who loves that story in “Words without Music” about you buying not two, not three, but four copies of the Schoenberg string quartets to sell in your dad’s store, which made him wonder if you were trying to put him out of business by purchasing LPs that didn’t have a hope in heaven or hell of selling. What was his reaction when the last copy sold seven years later?

I had come back from college for Christmas and I went down to the store to see if the “Schoenbergs,” as we called them, were still there—and they weren’t. So I went to my dad and he said “What’s up, kid?” And I said: “Dad, Dad, the Schoenbergs—they’re all gone!”

“Okay, kid, do you get the lesson?”

“I didn’t know there was a lesson.”

“The lesson is: I can sell anything if I have enough time.”

You see, for a guy like him a record store is real estate. Every record takes up space and you’re paying rent for every record, so if records are not turning over they are not paying the rent. He didn’t want any dead wood in there. He liked other kinds of classical music—he liked Bartok and Shostakovich—but not Schoenberg. But then again not many people liked Schoenberg back then, did they?

When that last Schoenberg finally left the building, did your dad grudgingly admit that his son was Baltimore’s resident vinyl visionary?

He lived long enough to put a record of mine in his store but not long enough to hear it. I visited him the weekend before he died in an automobile accident; I had no idea it would be the last time I’d see him. There were all these things I wanted to ask him that I couldn’t.

You once told me that the small, scrappy New Arts Program somehow reminded you of your father’s small, scrappy record store. What impressed you about NAP’s support of you in the early years, before you became a full-time composer, when you were driving a cab and moving furniture and working as a plumber?

From the start James [Carroll] would pay artists in their 20s to 40s to come from New York—very few artists who live in New York are actually from New York; they actually come from places like Waco or Topeka—to Kutztown for a week or two to teach even younger artists. I remember that approach as not only novel but brilliant and necessary. Young people who are interested in art get a window into what the creative process is like—what the work is like, what the life is like. Often you can’t get that in school. In an academic environment certain facts are not discussed—like “How do you make a living?” Teaching is a noble profession, but it only gives you one slice of the pie.

Now, if you complain to your family, “I’m working very hard but I can’t sell my paintings,” you know what they say? “Who asked you [to paint for a living]?” And they’re right: No one asked. And that’s the point. When the motivation becomes personal, it becomes what drives you. It carries you along, even when nothing else, or no one else, will.

That philosophy fits squarely with what you call your I-don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks gene.

You have to have that gene. Most people are not allowed to have that gene; all they care is what other people think. So they get out of the arts into something like politics, radical or conservative. One of the things we tend to forget in America is that we’re not as homogeneous a society as we think we are. There are all sorts of funny things going on under the surface; there are dance companies in Harlem or Bushwick that have space for 30 people and they’re always playing to full houses and that’s tremendously healthy.

Some people will end up in the arts and, believe it or not, some are in Kutztown. I’ve met more than a few of James’ students in New York; he’s become quite a pathway from Kutztown to New York. After all these years some people still think: Who is this funny guy out there in Kutztown, and why is he still doing this after all these years? He’s doing it because he has the idealism that an artist needs to survive and thrive.

Most people would say: “What’s so special about Kutztown? It’s in the middle of nowhere.” Well, I’ve been there many, many times, so it’s not in the middle of nowhere for me. I have many friends there. James has surrounded himself with accomplished artists; he himself is an accomplished artist. I know his wife Joanne; she usually makes lasagna for me. Kutztown is a sweet place in many ways.

Your autobiography Music appeared in 1987, the same year you christened your first violin concerto. You wrote the concerto so it would have appealed to your dad, who loved violin concertos by the likes of Mendelssohn and Brahms. And yet it’s one of your rare autobiographical compositions. Why have you been so reluctant to put yourself in the middle of your music?

In a funny way people say everything you do is autobiographical. Great writers like Somerset Maugham are always talking about how their writing is all about their lives. Music is a little oblique; it doesn’t reveal itself directly. I find myself writing bits of songs I like into the counterpoint. I know no one will find them. It doesn’t matter. It’s a form of self-expression; we [composers] do it to amuse ourselves.

Autobiography in music is far more prevalent than you might think. When I first started the [Philip Glass] Ensemble, I was playing the flute. I don’t play it anymore; I found someone who plays it much better than me. But when I was writing flute parts for myself I based them on memories of playing flute as a kid.

We [composers] don’t bother to go into autobiographical details because we think most people are not interested and they might not be able to follow the discussion because it’s too technical. What I think I succeeded in doing in the book is avoiding things too technical. I have a friend who was a reader and when I would get too technical he would say “Nope.”

Did writing the book provide you with any significant clarifications and revelations?

You know, I didn’t have any journals to rely on when I wrote the book; I wrote everything from memory. I would remember a year when I wrote a piece: in 1976 I finished [the opera] Einstein on the Beach; in 1981 I finished [the film score for] Koyaanisqatsi. And it would remind me of other things I did around that time. I call it assertive memory, and it allows me to reconstruct a tremendous amount of material.

One day I realized I couldn’t remember what I had done that day and I said: “What?” I decided that every night I would go backwards over what I had done that day. To recapitulate your life every day is a really powerful way of reinforcing your memory; it’s a very nourishing process.

Why did you have to write Words without Music? Was there something you left out of your autobiography? Did you want to clear up misconceptions about your work and yourself? Was there something you needed to tell your kids?

The memoir was actually an accident. A friend of mine, a musical editor, was going to write a coffee table book, “Conversations with Philip Glass.” But the publisher was not interested in conversations with me; he asked my friend why don’t you get Philip to write a book? I had written one in the '80s but it was much more conventional, with much more formal analysis.

I decided I wasn’t going to write something really personal like Testimony by Shostakovich. It’s full of the pain and suffering of his existence. I’m not interested in writing about pain and suffering. Everybody has suffering; why is mine so different than yours? I wanted to write a book that gave a picture of the world I lived in, that would appeal to people who came to my concerts and wondered “Who is this Philip Glass?”

I had a role model, a book called The Memoirs of an Amnesiac. It was written by Oscar Levant, this great pianist who used to play for George Gershwin. He was a very funny guy who created an excellent picture of what it was like to work in Hollywood. I wanted my book to be like his: full of information and entertaining.

You know, I would love to talk to you longer but I have to go back to work.

This article is from the October 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More information.

Geoff Gehman is the author of the memoir  (SUNY Press).The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons