Words without Music

25 01 2019

Philip Glass’ most recent autobiography, Words without Music, was a bit of a disappointment to me, and a bittersweet read because I realized that, in a sense, I have sort of moved on from his music. Longtime readers might remember that Glass was one of my first big musical obsessions as a teenager. I even wrote a review of Music in Twelve Parts for my high school newspaper of all places. Glass got me through some pretty rough patches. I remember specific pieces that accompanied me through certain episodes in my life, how I was hunched over listening to early Philip Glass coming out of my boombox cranked to full volume, and how I would go out of my way to see Philip Glass’ music live when his ensemble was in town. Even my lukewarm appreciation of his opera Appomattox at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco was still a memorable experience nonetheless. 

So I jumped at the chance at listening to an audio book of his memoir. There are good parts of the book. I think the stream-of-consciousness ending is particularly effective and lyrical. Contrasting his lower middle-class upbringing in mid-20th century Baltimore to conditions today was particularly interesting at least for the first few pages. Overall, however, the memoir meandered too much, focused on rather uninteresting episodes in his life (spending an inordinate amount of time talking about his time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago), and omitted some rather obvious things / people in his life entirely (the last wife he divorced somewhat scandalously in his seventies). To be a bit crass, it is precisely how a man of almost eighty would tell a story. I felt that his memoir hid more than it revealed.

For some reason, I remember finishing the audio book in the early morning on a sleepless night. Perhaps then or now, I imagine that, as I get older, I need Glass’ music and all music less and less. Maybe I don’t have much time for it, maybe I have become less romantic over the years. Contrary to popular belief, it is men who are the romantics, the foolish dreamers. It takes time and a weakening body to beat that out of you. I won’t say that the poetry and music is silenced; that is a rather melodramatic way to put it. It just gets muffled a bit. It’s analogous to old people who think that food tastes bland or who just want to stay in on a sunny day. I am not quite there yet, but I am getting a tad sympathetic.

It’s possible that one day I will change my mind. But I can always think back to those long hours in front of my boombox as an anti-social youth, reading philosophy books I barely understood while listening to Music With Changing Parts, or the times when I walked out into the cold night after viewing one of his touring operas, feeling like my feet barely touched the ground. Perhaps those will stay with me as the time passes, as the years turn into decades, those walls of repeating sound that for me once pointed to the promise of a wider world.


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