Philip Glass - Words Without Music: A Memoir (4)

Philip Glass is one of my favourite composers of all time and certainly my favourite living composer. I arrived at this book because I was digging memoirs but wanted something that would carry on the philosophical thread of The Glass Bead Game. Words Without Music was astonishingly perfect.

My music education ended after high school, and I don’t profess to know anything about composition. I can’t explain my love for Glass’ music on academic grounds. I just really love it and would basically listen to it 24/7. 

That said, I know virtually nothing about the man. I think he’s related to radio’s Ira Glass. I think he’s based out of NYC. He’s still alive. That’s about it. 

Favourite Scene/ Quote

It’s not so much the quotes that stand out as the adventures and the perspectives. It would fit right in with a collection of Kerouac and beat-era road-trip-turned-religious-cultural-exploration books. He takes off to Europe to study music, then backpacks through India before returning to New York City. He lands a gig working on a movie with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, who introduce him to non-Western musical traditions for the first time. He tests the acoustics of Greek amphitheatres with Allen Ginsberg. He flies to London for lunch with Doris Lessing. 

There is the obligatory deconstruction of his major works, for fans of his music. He walks through the thinking behind his music, the ideas he was testing and exploring, with enough detail to make any process-nut happy. 

There is a vivid depiction of the NY art scene and its players in the 1970s (Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, for example). This part was the most surprising - how blue collar Glass and many of his artist friends seemed. They drove cabs, ran a moving company, cleaned houses, and did plumbing work to pay the bills. The moral of the whole books seems to be that plumbing is a very useful trade.

It worked out for Glass, who apparently spent a great deal of time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and frequently seemed to be fixing up one cottage or studio or another. 

That’s another favourite part - honestly, could you just imagine living in small town Cape Breton and hanging out with Glass and his friends every summer? I feel like there’s another story in there, waiting to be told by a Canadian storyteller.


Memoirs are problematic because, honestly, the authors can spin their lives however they want. But they can also do what biographies can’t: they can take you inside the author’s mind and show you a thought process. This is so fascinating when the author is someone who has been chewing on an idea for a long time, experimenting, and reflecting. 

What’s Next?

I know exactly what book I want to read next, but I want to read the print version, and I’ve just cracked Margaret Atwood’s Survival so it needs to wait. Something completely different, I think.