At 416 pages, there's a lot to digest in Philip Glass's newly-published, long-awaited memoir Words Without Music. Here are ten fascinating tidbits from the book.
Glass's cousin Ira Glass used to think that Philip's dad was Ira's grandfather.
The book's only mention of Philip's famous cousin Ira Glass — host of This American Life and 22 years Philip's junior — comes on page four.
My father [Ben] was very physical and muscular: about five foot ten and 180 pounds. A dark-haired, rough-cut handsome man, he had several different sides to him: a gentle side, a tough side, a self-made businessman side. His gentle side showed in the way he looked after children — not just his own, but other people's children, too. If the fathers were absent, he would go over and spend time with the kids int he family, so much so that for a long time my cousin Ira Glass thought that Ben was his grandfather, because when Ira's grandfather wasn't around Ben would go over and play grandfather.
Glass dug Claes Oldenburg's The Store.
As a young man in New York, Glass fell in with a multidisciplinary crowd of artists; among his adventures was a visit to Claes Oldenburg's seminal installation The Store, artifacts from which were recently seen at the Walker Art Center as part of an Oldenburg retrospective.
In 1961-62 I remember going with John [Rouson] to Claes Oldenburg's The Store in a first-floor railroad apartment on East Second Street. In each room — they were strung out one after the other, like railroad cars — was a happening or an installation, or both. In one room you might encounter a long-legged girl in fishnet stockings handing out marshmallows and hugs to the spectators who wandered casually and carelessly between the rooms. Or perhaps a room of mirrors with flashlights and candles. These were the early days of happenings. I loved everything about them, the weirder the better. And, I must say, I feel the same way today.
Glass's father estranged himself for nine years when Glass married a Catholic.
"Even though I was from a Jewish family and JoAnne was from a Catholic one," writes Glass about his first marriage, in 1965, "I didn't think very much about it because my father's two brothers, Lou and Al, had both married Gentile women."
When his father heard of the Gibraltar marriage, though, he wrote his son a terse letter: "You are not allowed to come into the house again."
Glass's father didn't see or speak to him for the next nine years. Finally, in 1974, Glass's cousin Norman invited Glass and his two children to Baltimore, where the senior Glass buried the hatchet: "You remember that letter I wrote you? Let's forget it."
Norman, Glass's cousin, later explained that the move had been Glass's father's "revenge" on his wife, who had barred Lou and Al from their house after their marriages.
Glass had a tense, emotional moment with Nadia Boulanger when he quit studying with her to go to India.
Glass studied music technique — though never actual composition — in Paris with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger. After two years of training, Glass decided to leave and travel to India, having developed an interest in that country's music and culture. "My student days had to be over," Glass writes. "I had no intention of being one of those unable to leave, ending up at best teaching counterpoint at some lycee in Paris. I also knew that without [Boulanger] and what I had learned I would not have been able to do anything."
Boulanger, though, insisted that Glass stay. "You have to stay with me for a total of seven years," she declared, "and, if not seven, then five, and if not five, at least three."
When Glass replied simply, "I am leaving," he remembers, Boulanger "seemed to physically relax. She had let go. To my complete surprise, she embraced me. I was not only shocked but moved. I saw a tear in her eye. Or maybe it was mine."
Glass almost bumped into the Beatles in Bombay.
In 1967, Glass and his wife were staying at a Salvation Army in Bombay. "The Salvation Army was on a little street right behind the Taj Mahal Hotel," writes Glass, "where the Beatles were said to be staying. I was also told that [Ravi Shankar] was there, but I didn't look him up at the moment because there was a huge amount of security around the hotel that arrived with the Beatles. I guessed that I wouldn't even make it to the front desk."
Richard Serra got Glass into the moving business.
When Glass returned to New York, he and many of his fellow creative types — visual and musical — worked at jobs like moving and plumbing and cab-driving (all of which Glass did, in turn) to pay the rent while they experimented with their art. Glass recounts the story of when Richard Serra, who Glass knew from Paris and who would become one of the most important sculptors of his generation, met him at the pier in New York.
Richard announced, "Don't worry. I've got your truck."
"What do you mean, you've got my truck?" I said.
"Well, I've been moving furniture, but I just got a little teaching job, and I'm going to be working for the Castelli Gallery. I don't need to move furniture anymore, so here's the truck."
Glass once punched a stage-crasher right in the mouth.
Glass remembers that some of the experimental music he and his peers were debuting in the 1970s was less than well-received by "music deniers" who would try to disrupt performances. On one occasion, things got physical between Glass and a man who tried to mess with Two Pages.
Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging on the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing again, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five to six seconds.
The sung notes and numbers in Einstein on the Beach were a mnemonic device that Glass spontaneously decided to make the actual lyrics.
Some of the most infamous passages of Einstein on the Beach, the 1976 opera that made Glass's name, involve a chorus simply singing repeated numbers and, by their names, notes. In Words Without Music, Glass explains that the lyrics started as a device to teach the melodies to the singers, and became the permanent lyrics during a spontaneous conversation with director Bob Wilson.
One morning Bob came by to hear the chorus and was listening to one of the Knee Plays. By then the singers were doing quite well with the numbers and the solfege. At a moment when we were taking a break, Bob asked, "Are those the words they will be singing during the performance?"
That hadn't been my intention at all, but with only the slightest pause I replied, "Yes." And that is how the lyrics for the choral music in Einstein came to be.
Martin Scorcese arranged a special screening of Taxi Driver for Glass, because he didn't see it in theaters — because he was a taxi driver.
While Glass and director Martin Scorcese were working together on Kundun (1997), Scorcese started talking about his classic 1976 movie. Then, suddenly, the director stopped and said,
"Wait a second, have you seen Taxi Driver?"
"No, I didn't see Taxi Driver."
"You didn't see Taxi Driver?"
"Marty, I was a taxi driver. During the time when you were making that film, I was out driving a hundred miles a night in New York City. On my night off, the last thing I was going to do was see a movie called Taxi Driver."
"Oh my god, we've got to fix that. I'm going to have a special screening for you."
As it happened, Glass ended up seeing the film before the special screening. "The first thing I thought," he writes, "was Good lord, it's exactly like the people I knew who worked at Dover Garage!"
Glass saw Allen Ginsberg on the week Ginsberg died.
Glass remembers visiting Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the hospital on the day before he died in 1997. The two planned to have lunch two days later, but as Glass left, Ginsberg gave him a special goodbye anyway. The following day, Ginsberg suffered a stroke, and died a few days thereafter.
"As I was about to leave," writes Glass, "he turned me around and kissed me on the cheek. 'I am so happy I knew you,' he said."