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Micah Reader in December 2016 by Brenda Levenson
Philip Glass’s music may be an acquired taste for some of us, but his memoir published in 2015 does much to “help us understand it,” observed our readers who commented on the composer’s “extraordinary mind and creativity.”
Philip Glass has become a member of today’s musical establishment, traveling the world over, and performing at the prestigious Festival of Avignon and more. But success did not come easily. The difficult times of his earlier and even mature years came as a surprise to our readers, who admired the candor and honesty with which he describes the variety of low-level jobs he took as a way to survive, including house cleaner, plumber, mover and taxi driving, which he says he abandoned only when it became too dangerous. Rather than embarrassment, he shows only the confidence that some day his music would be accepted.
Disregarding his parents’ disapproval of his choice of a career, Philip Glass applied and entered the Juilliard School in New York. After graduating, he went to Paris where he studied under the formidable Nadia Boulanger who, he writes, “changed the very way music was taught in the United States,” adding that Virgil Thomson “had studied with her and famously remarked, ‘every town in America has a drugstore and a student of Boulanger’….her enduring gift to American music must include the many fine teachers she trained, Albert Fine being one of them.’”
Some of our readers commented on Glass’s “narcissism,” a word, ironically enough, he applied to Sartre and Camus! And yet, his collaboration with fellow musicians, film makers and others speak of a man who mastered his ego when necessary. When composing music for a film, he does it while the story is taking shape under its director, thus integrating the two elements, rather than waiting till the film is completed, as others do. “The music was not meant as a musical decoration of the film. It was, in fact, used to help articulate the film’s structure,” he explained. Listening online to the music that serves as background to the 2002 movie The Hours (adapted from a novel by Michael Cunningham) makes one better understand Philip Glass’s words, the haunting notes reflecting the fate of three women inspired by Virginia Woolf’s book Mrs Dalloway.
Having written concerti, symphonies and more, Philip Glass sees himself as a “theater composer”. Noting the changes that operas have undergone, from the first opera ever performed, Monteverdi’s Orpheus in 1607, to Mozart in the 18th century, Wagner in the 19th and Stravinsky in the early 20th century, we might take his observation as meaning that his own music may some day survive in the same way as that of his predecessors, in spite of the mixed reactions of today’s audiences to contemporary composers such as himself, Pierre Boulez and others. Glass also came to realize that “the activity of playing was itself a creative activity.” His words explain the liberty conductors take in their interpretation of Beethoven, such as “Furtwängler [who] was the master of SLOW. Toscanini, in contrast, was very fast. In their readings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they could be twenty minutes apart in terms of the timing of the piece.” The impatient listeners among us would do well to select concerts and those conducting them accordingly!