Words Without Music: A Memoir (Phillip Glass)

As I went through this beautifully written book, I highlighted passages that stood out to me, so I could refer back quickly.  There is obviously much more to glean by obtaining the book, which I highly encourage. 


            This is an auto-biography, or in his own words, a memoir.  Although considered one of the most influential composers of our time, the book was written with humility and ‘transparency’ (no pun intended, regarding his name). 

            Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  His parents were Jewish immigrants.  His father owned a record store and his mother was a librarian.  He began taking violin lessons at the age of six, and took up the flute by age twelve, studying in the Preparatory Division of Peabody. 

            Glass writes, “My father was self-taught, but he ended up having a very refined and rich knowledge of classical, chamber, and contemporary music.  Typically he would come home and have dinner, and then sit in his armchair and listen to music until almost midnight.  I caught on to this very early, and I would go and listen with him.”

            At the age of 15, he entered an accelerated college program at the University of Chicago.  He later studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti, and attended the Aspen Music Festival.

            “In the summer of 1960, four years after I had graduated from Chicago, Copland was a guest of the orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I had come from Juilliard to take a summer course with Darius Milhaud, a wonderful composer and teacher…I had one lesson with Aaron Copland and we had a disagreement and he basically kicked me out.”

            While in Chicago, Glass enjoyed listening to jazz, particularly Charlie Parker, and when he was in New York, he would frequent jazz concerts.  “As a Juilliard student I would write music by day and by night hear John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, Miles Davis and Art Blakey at the Café Bohemia, or Thelonious Monk trading sets with the young Ornette Coleman.”

            According to Glass, he states that he began writing music because he wanted to know the answer to the question, “Where does music come from?”  Throughout his life, he continued to ask this question of people he respected.

            Among the contemporary classical composers he enjoyed and in whose music he immersed himself were Alban Berg, Harry Partch, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, and Morton Feldman.  “In time, and much later, I came to love the music of Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, and even Pierre Boulez, but in 1957 I was listening to Charles Ives, Roy Harris, Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thompson, and William Schuman.”

            While living in New York City, he worked various jobs to support himself.  Among his various occupations were working at a steel mill, being a plumber, and a taxi-cab driver. 

He knew that his musical skills were not yet what he needed them to be.  “I was painfully aware of how defective my basic skills were.  Whatever I had accomplished in playing the flute or piano, and especially in composition, was the result of youthful enthusiasm.  In fact, I had a very poor grasp of real technique.”

            “I realized right away that I needed to quickly develop impeccable work habits….I first needed to improve my piano playing very quickly…The discipline needed for composing was a different matter altogether and required more ingenuity.  My first goal was to be able to sit at a piano or desk for three hours.  I thought that was a reasonable amount of time and, once accomplished, could be easily extended as needed.  I picked a period of time that would work most days, ten a.m. to one in the afternoon.  This allowed for my music classes and also my part-time work at Yale Trucking.” 

“The exercise was this: I set a clock on the piano, put some music paper on the table nearby, and sat at the piano from ten until one.  It didn’t matter whether I composed a note of music or not.  The other part of the exercise was that I didn’t write music at any other time of the day or night.  The strategy was to tame my muse, encouraging it to be active at the times I had set and at no other times…The first week was painful- brutal, actually…Then, slowly, things began to change.  I started writing music, just to have something to do.  It didn’t really matter whether it was good, bad, boring, or interesting.  And eventually, it was interesting.  So I had tricked myself into composing…somehow…It probably took a little less than two months to get to that place…From then on, the habit of attention became available to me, and that brought a real order to my life.”

            Glass recounts that while at Juilliard, studying with Persichetti, he noticed a “division between music theory and music practice…Making the practice of music and the writing of music separate activities was poor advice.  It’s a misunderstanding about the fundamental nature of music.  Music, is above all, something we play, it’s not something that’s meant for study only.  For me, performing music is an essential part of the experience of composing.  I see now that young composers are all playing.  That was certainly encouraged by my generation.  We were all players. That we would become interpreters ourselves was part of our rebellion.”

            Glass continued to challenge his ability to write for orchestra, “My…study of the orchestra came through a time-honored practice of the past but not much used today- copying out original scores.  In my case I took the Mahler Ninth as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full-size orchestra paper.  Mahler is famous for being a master of the details of orchestration, and though I didn’t complete the whole work, I learned a lot from the exercise.”

            Glass, as stated above, came to understand the importance of the role of the performer, or the interpreter of other people’s music.  “I saw that the activity of playing was itself a creative activity and I came to have a very different idea about performance and also a different idea about the function that performing can have for the composer.”

            “The activity of the listener is to listen.  But it’s also the activity of the composer.  If you apply that to the performer, what is the performer actually doing?  What is the proper attitude for the performer when he is playing?  The proper attitude is this; the performer must be listening to what he’s playing.  And this is far from automatic.  You can be playing and not pay attention to listening.  It’s only when you’re engaged with the listening while you’re playing that the music takes on the creative unfolding, the moment of creativity, which is actually every moment. That moment becomes framed, as it were, in a performance.  A performance becomes a formal framing of the activity of listening, and that would be true for the player as well.”

            Glass had the opportunity, through a Fulbright scholarship, to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  He attributes the formation of his compositional technique to her influence and training. 

            He travelled to Paris with JoAnne, who came from a Catholic background.  They were married while being in Europe.  Upon their marriage, he received a letter from his father stating, “You are not allowed to come into the hose again.”  After his father had passed away, Glass went through years of counseling to try to understand why his father had stopped talking to him.  His cousin, Norman, finally explained it to him.

            “What happened was this.  When your uncles Lou and Al got married to Gentile women, your mother wouldn’t allow them into the house anymore.  So Ben (Phillip’s father) wasn’t able to see his brothers in his own home.  That was a big blow to him because he was very close to them, but that was the rule and they never did come to the house again.  When you go married some years later, it was your father’s chance to get even.  It was as if Ben were saying that if he wasn’t allowed to see his brothers, he was going to make sure that she couldn’t see her son.  When you married JoAnne, a Gentile woman, it was your father’s turn.”

            Glass relates, “What made my father’s letter so incomprehensible to me, and probably why I didn’t understand it until Norman’s explanation, was that neither my father nor my mother had much interest in traditional religion.  Atheism was a way of life in our family.  As far as I know, my father only went to Temple twice- to see my brother and then me do the bar mitzvah rites.  The fact is that the trouble in our family was not about religion.  But it was the kind of dispute that sometimes happens within a family, and unfortunately it happened in mine.”

            While in Paris, Glass was able to compose in theaters, which became the basis for his later work in opera, dance, and film.  “The theater suddenly puts the composer in an unexpected relationship to his work.  As long as you’re just writing symphonies, or quartets, you can rely on the history of music and what you know about the language of music to continue in much the same way.  Once you get into the world of theater and you’re referencing all its elements- movement, image, text, and music- unexpected things can take place.  The composer then finds himself unprepared- in a situation where he doesn’t know what to do.  If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new.  As long as you know what you’re doing, nothing much of interest is going to happen.”

            Glass had become interested in the music of India, and while in France, he came in contact with Ravi Shankar, working on the film score of Chappaqua.  Glass recounts, “The ‘problem’ occurred with the very first piece we recorded.  Immediately Alla Rakha interrupted the playback, exclaiming very emphatically that the accents in the music were incorrect…I began writing out the parts again, grouping and regrouping the phrases to get the accents the way they were supposed to be heard, a very tricky business…In the midst of all this and in desperation, I simply erased all the bar lines, thinking I would just start all over again.  There before my eyes I saw a stream of notes, grouped into twos and threes.  I saw at once what he was trying to tell me.”

            “A few moments later I saw there was a regular sixteen-beat cycle that governed the whole of the music.  Later I learned…that this was called a tal and that this tal in sixteen beats was called tin tal and finally, the very first beat of the tal was called a sam (downbeat).  All this is something any world music class would learn at the beginning of the first class on Indian classical music.  But learning it a t such a public, high-pressure event gave it a special, unforgettable meaning.  I didn’t realize at the time the effect it would have on my own music.”

            Glass recounts that “Mademoiselle Boulanger was certainly one of the most remarkable people I had ever met…Her music studio was quite large.  It had a small pipe organ and a grand piano.  On Wednesday afternoon there was a class that was open to all her current students, whose presence was required.  In addition, any former students who lived in Paris or happened to be there were welcome.  It was customary for the room to hold up to seventy people on most Wednesdays.  There would be one topic for the whole year.  During the two academic years I was there, we studied all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, Book I, in the first year, and the twenty-seven Mozart piano concertos in the second.  We were also expected to learn and be able to perform the ‘Bach prelude of the week.’  Typically the class would begin with Mlle. Boulanger calling out, without as much as looking up, the name of the one chosen to perform that morning.  ‘Paul!’ ‘Charles!’ ‘Phillip!’  God help you if you weren’t prepared or, even worse, not present.”

            “If someone said, ‘Mademoiselle Boulanger, I’m not a pianist,’ she would say, ‘It doesn’t matter, play it anyway.’  People who were violinists or harpists or whatever would have to sit down and demonstrate that they had learned it.  If they couldn’t really play it, if the person didn’t have a piano technique, the notes would still have to be in the right place.  It wouldn’t be a good performance by any means, but you were supposed to overcome the difficulties.”

            “I would have a private lesson with her a week and we would begin with first-species counterpoint- that is, the very beginning of the study of counterpoint.  Then I would come to the public Wednesday analysis class, another private lesson with her assistant, Mademoiselle Dieudonne (for Renaissance music, sight reading, and solfege) and, finally, every Thursday morning, a class with five or six of her other private students.  During the private lesson, when time allowed, she would herself take care of training in figured bass.”

            “I was expected, within the first month, to master all seven clefs, and thereafter I should be able to transpose music from and to any other key at sight.  I accomplished this through brute memorization.  I read music using all the clefs over and over again until it seemed easy.  Moreover, another weekly exercise was to thoroughly learn a four-part Bach chorale in open score.  That involved three or four clefs already, so only three clefs were left to learn from scratch, as it were…I was expected to bring in twenty pages of completed exercises for each weekly lesson…normally, four weeks of exercises would be required before graduating to second-species, which introduced the practice of alternate entrances of lines.  Then, you would continue the process with third-species, fourth-species, etc., until you reached eight lines of music, maintaining as much as possible the independence of each line.  The baroque period is replete with examples of this kind of composing, Bach’s Art of Fugue being perhaps the most famous example.”

            “In Mlle. Boulanger’s training there was no disconnect between foundation studies and professional achievement…Virgil Thomson had studied with her and famously remarked, ‘Every town in America has a drugstore and a student of Boulanger.’  Indeed, she had thousands of students, though perhaps only a handful became well-known for their music.”

            “What Mlle. Boulanger taught was how to hold a hammer, how to use a saw, how to measure, how to visualize what you were doing, and how to plan the whole process.  And when you had learned all that, you could build a really good table.  She thought her training was simply about technique.  Basically, when you left her, if you had studied with her diligently, you would end up with a toolbox of shiny, bright tools that you knew how to use.  And that was a tremendous thing.  You could build a table, you could build a chair, you could put in a window- you could do anything that was needed.”

            “For sure, the most difficult class was the Thursday morning encounter (among ourselves, we referred to it as the Black Thursday class).  There were six or seven of us expected each Thursday…We all arrived one Thursday to find a simple melody written out in tenor clef on the piano.  It was suggested to us that is was the tenor part of a four-part chorale. We were all familiar with the Bach chorales, having been expected to master one of them each week.  That meant being able to sing any one part and play the remaining three.  But this exercise was different.  The first of us chosen would, looking at the tenor part as a reference, sing an alto part that would fit.  Then the next one chosen had to sing the soprano part that fit with the given tenor part and the alto part which had just been sung, but not written down.  Finally, the last one chosen had to sing the bass part that fit with the given tenor part and also fit with the alto and soprano parts, both of which had been sung but not written down.  Mlle. Boulanger always said, before any of us tackled the bass part, that this was the easy one, since the notes of the other three parts had been already determined.  Of course, it was ‘easy,’ provided you remembered, as well, all the other sung parts.”

            “It goes without saying that all the rules of voice leading applied.  No parallel octaves or fifths were allowed, either open of ‘hidden.’  The ultimate objective of counterpoint is to combine different voices in ways that preserve their independence, while at the same time following a strict protocol in terms of interval relationships.  Parallel moving octaves or fifths, either open of hidden, are not heard as independent voices, but as functionally identical with each other.  That destroys the sense of independence, whereas real counterpoint ensures it.”

            “I never studied composition with her.  Once I asked her whether that could or would be part of my training and she told me that she had such respect for composers and their vocation that she dared not advise them on their compositions.  She was afraid, she said, that she might unintentionally misadvise or otherwise discourage them.  So she concentrated on pure technique.  Though, personally I have to say that is was much more than that.”

            “One afternoon…I brought her a fairly long and complicated harmony exercise.  She paused at the end of her usual reading and told me that the resolution of the soprano part on the tonic (or root) of the chord was incorrect.  By then I knew the rules of harmony top to bottom…I insisted it was correct.  She reiterated that it was wrong.  I persisted.  Then, before my eyes, she performed an amazing feat of musical erudition.  She reached behind the music rack of the piano, picked up an edition of Mozart’s piano music…She turned to a middle movement of one of the piano sonatas and pointed to the upper note in the right hand.  ‘Mozart, in the same circumstance, resolved the upper note on the third, not the tonic.’  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  After two years of solid application to the rules, they had suddenly been set aside…We sat quietly for only a moment and I understood, suddenly, that somewhere along the way, she had changed the point of the exercise.  I had though she was teaching technique- the how you ‘do’ or ‘not do’ in music.  But that was over.  She had raised the ante.  Now we were talking about style.  In other words, there could be many correct solutions to a musical problem.  Those many correct solutions came under the rubric of technique.  However, the particular way a composer solved the problem, or (to put it another way) his or her predilection for one solution over several others, became the audible style of the composer.  Almost like a fingerprint.  Finally, to sum this all up, a personal style in a composer’s work makes it a simple matter for us to distinguish, almost instantly, one composer from another…Style is a special case of technique…beyond a shadow of a doubt, an authentic personal style cannot be achieved without a solid technique at its base.  That in a nutshell is what Madame Boulanger was teaching.  Not as a theory, because theory can be debated and superseded.  She taught it as a practice, a ‘doing.’  The realization came through the work.  Her personal method was to just band it into your head, until one day, hopefully, you got it.  That’s how, in the end, I understood my work with her.”

            Upon his return to New York, he made a number of new contacts and friends that would help him launch into the beginnings of his career.  “John Cage liked me personally, but sometimes we would have conversations in which he would shake his head and say, ‘Phillip, too many notes, too many notes, too many notes.’  I would laugh, and replay, ‘John, I’m one of your children, whether you like it or not.’  In spite of his comments about ‘too many notes,’ we got along fine.  He finally found a piece- my 1979 opera Satyagraha- he liked, and he made a point of telling me.  He mentioned to me several times that it had made an impression on him.”

            As Glass began forming his own style, he describes his process: “In composing these pieces, I made the musical language the center of the piece.  By ‘language,’ I mean the moment-to-moment decision made when a note of music is composed.  To make that work, I had to find a music that would hold your attention.  I began to use process instead of ‘story,’ and the process was based on repetition and change.  This made the language easier to understand, because the listener would have time to contemplate it at the same time as it was moving so quickly.  It was a way of paying attention to the music, rather than to the story the music might be telling…There is a psychology of listening involved in this.  One of the most common misunderstandings of the music was that the music just repeated all the time.  Actually, it never repeated all the time, for if it did, it would have been unlistenable.  What made it listenable were precisely the changes…In order to make it listenable, you had to change the face of the music- one, two, one-two-three- so that the ear could never be sure of what it was going to hear.  If you look at ‘Music in Similar Motion’ or any of the other earlier pieces, what is interesting about them is how they don’t repeat.  To miss that point is like going to a play and falling asleep but waking up for the intermission.”

            “The mechanics of perception and attention tied you to the flow of the music in a way that was compelling and that made the story irrelevant.  When you get to that level of attention, two things happen: one, the structure (form) and the content become identical; two, the listener experiences an emotional buoyancy.  Once we let go of the narrative and allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level.”

            In the early beginnings of his concert life, the size of his audiences were small.  For his first concert at Queens College on April 13, 1968, he remarks, “though the concert was beautifully played and very rewarding for Dorothy , Jon, and myself, the fact of the matter was that there were only six (six!) people in the audience- one being my mother, Ida Glass herself…It would be over eight years before Ida came back to New York, in November 1976, when Einstein On the Beach was at the Metropolitan Opera.  This time there was an audience of almost four thousand people- all the seats plus standing room were sold.”

            Glass further describes his compositional technique for ‘Piece in the Shape of a Square.’  “For the unfolding of the music I was still using additive and subtractive processes, but instead of repeating one note or a group of notes, the music continued to add notes to an ascending or descending scale until a complete scale was reached.  When we were both halfway around the square, the music we were playing began to do a retrograde (going backward), repeating itself in reverse.  It’s as if you counted to ten, and then counted back from ten to one again.  In the extreme parts of the piece, the music was at its most diverse, and as Jon and I began to approach each other toward the end, the music became more similar, arriving finally, in this way, at its beginning.”

            Glass discussed the term, Minimalism.  “Minimalist music was simply transferred to us, in spite of the fact that it referred to a generation that was, roughly speaking, eight to ten years older than us, which at the age was the difference between being twenty-eight and thirty-eight- the difference between being someone who had an established career and someone who was still loading trucks on Twelfth Avenue…What I wanted was a high-concept music that was aligned with a high-concept theater, art, dance, and painting.  My generation of people- Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Meredith monk, Jon Gibson, and another dozen or so composers- were writing and playing music for the dance and theater world.  It seemed to us that for the first time, a music world that was equivalent to the world of painting, theater, and dance began to emerge.  The music world now could say, ‘This is the music that goes with the art.’”

            Glass used to attend concerts at the Fillmore East, and loved hearing bands like “Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa…and I was totally enamored with the sight and sound of a wall of speakers vibrating and blasting out high-volume, rhythmically driven music.  I knew that music.  I had grown up with it.  I had like it when I was a kid, and when I heard it coming out of my own speakers, I said, ‘This is good.’  Yet I also knew that rock ‘n’ roll was anathema to classical music people.  They would never accept music that was amplified and with the kind of bass lines I was running.  I knew that was going to make a lot of people angry, and I didn’t care…It seemed like a completely natural progression to me, coming from Boulanger and Raviji and Alla Rakha, then returning to the United States and meeting rock ‘n’ roll head-on.  In terms of the image of the sound, the fact that no one was doing it in experimental concert music not only didn’t bother me, it interested me.  In Europe, what was being presented as new music at that time was intellectual- abstract, quite beautiful, but with very little emotional punch to it.  I wanted music that would be the opposite of that.”

            In writing this kind of music, Glass needed to come up with a solution for what would be endless pages of sheet-music.  “I realized there was a music problem I needed to address immediately: finding a concise solution to notating pieces of music of fairly long duration with as few page turns as possible…I solved the problem by inventing an additive, progressive system.  If I had a phrase that was five notes long, I could add a multiplier- for example, x5- next to it.  Whenever the phrase was changed, either by adding or subtracting a note, I would then add a new multiplier as needed… ‘Two Pages’ was an eighteen-minute work in which a line of music was pulled in and out of shape through adding and subtracting notes from an original theme, thereby determining the overall shape of the music.  This was the first piece where the multiplier system was used.”

            Even though Glass was known in New York as a successful composer, to make ‘ends meet’ he still had his job as a taxi-cab driver.  “Driving a cab was never a problem for me.  I liked driving in New York and I got to know the city very well.  In the course of one night I easily drove a hundred miles: in Harlem, up to the Bronx, out to Queens, all over Brooklyn, and of course mostly in Manhattan…Usually, when I got home at 1:30, I would write music until 5:30 or 6:00, so I would be up all night, then take the kids to school.  After that, I would sleep until two in the afternoon and get over to the garage by three.”

            “Still, my perception was that I always did well.  I never thought I was doing poorly.  I thought, I’ve got a nice, two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on Fourteenth Street and Second Avenue.  I have two kids and they have food to eat.  They have clothes.  I’ve got a day job and a night job.  I have a band, an audience, and a record company.  I thought we were doing great, though my children were aware that they were living a different kind of life than most of their friends.  I was never embarrassed by our circumstances.”

            It wasn’t until Glass was in his forties that he became able to support himself as a composer.  Jerry Leiber, a longtime friend’s husband began to advise Glass in his business management, and eventually Dennis Russell Davies, the leader of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra became interested in Glass’ work.  “Over the next three decades he would commission operas, concertos, and symphonies from me.”

            Glass also began producing a number of film-scores.  “In my film work, I continued, to the degree it was permitted, the collaborative approach I had arrived at in my theater and opera work.  I made a point of being present through the entire process of making a film, and that included extensive visits on location as well as many hours watching the editing process…There are two ways that I could have composed the music: to comment on the image, or to make the music identical with the image.  I chose the latter.”             

For the film Powaqqatsi, Glass writes, “I had managed to completely change the traditional order of filmmaking.  Instead of waiting for the music to be added at the end, during post-production, I had moved it up to the front, before the cinematographer had even shot the film.  I wasn’t out to prove anything, except that the ‘normal’ conventions of filmmaking were just that- conventions.  Over the next ten years, I made all kinds of experiments of this kind.  I was, in a few rare instances, even able to carry over some of my procedures into commercial film work.”

            Glass discusses his work in Godfrey’s movies Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi“When you listen to a piece of music and you look at an image at the same time, you are metaphorically making a journey to that image.  It’s a metaphorical distance, but it’s a real one all the same, and it’s in that journey that the spectator forms a relationship to the music and the image.  Without that, it’s all made for us and we don’t have to invent anything…The journey that we make from the armchair to the image is the process by which we make the image and the music our own.  Without that, we have no personal connection.  The idea of a personal interpretation comes about through traversing that distance.”

            “I have often compared film scoring to opera composing.  I’ve done a fair amount of both.  More than other performance practice, films combine elements of image, music, movement, and text.  Skills acquired in one easily translate to the other.  I will add to these reflections about film work just a few points:

            “The first is quite simple.  If the movie or opera is actually telling a story, I’ve learned to leave it alone or, at least, not get in the way.  If there is no story, I will not impose one, but instead allow another of the performance elements to assume a larger role.”

            “Second, I’ve learned how to ‘underscore’ the voice- either spoken or sung- by letting the actor or singer assume the central role at the a moment.  Sometimes that requires the instrumental parts to play a secondary or tertiary part.  However, it’s also quite possible to double up the vocal parts with solo or accompanying instruments and, in this way, to actually extend the range and depth of the sung or spoken parts.”

            “The third point is the hardest to describe.  It has to do with that imaginary ‘distance’ I mentioned before that exists between the spectator-listener and the film or opera.  I’ve found that the music can absolutely define that space.  In the end, it is a psychological space.  The closer the spectator-listener is to the ’image’- sound or visual- the less choice he has in shaping the experience for himself.  When the music allows for a distance to exist between the spectator-listener and the image, then she will automatically bring her own interpretation to the work.  The spectator travels the distance to the image herself, and by moving to the image, she has now made it her own.  That is what John Cage meant when he said that the audience ‘completes’ the music.  Modulating that distance precisely is an acquirable skill.  Talent, experience, and some innate sensitivity will still be needed.”

            Giving more thought to the process of composing music, “When a composer is asked, ‘Is this the right note, or is it not the right note?’ or if a painter or a dancer is asked ‘Did you mean that?’ the artist will try to go back to the moment of creation to find out.  ‘If I can remember what I did,’ he might say, ‘I can tell you the answer.’…What I do is to take all my sketches and number them, like an archivist, or almost like a scientist, so that I can look into my own past and find out what I was thinking.  Although these notes provide me with evidence of a thought, they don’t, however, provide me with the thought itself.  Sometimes a player will say to me, ‘Is this an A or an A flat?’ and I’ll say to him, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘How can you not know?  You wrote it.’  Well, that’s the point.  I wrote it, but I wasn’t there.  The ‘I’ that was watching wasn’t there.  The witness of my life at that moment had been sacrificed.  The witness had to go, because I needed every increment of attention that I could muster in order to visualize the music.  I believe that what happens at that moment is that I’ve lost awareness of myself.  That awareness in now part of the attention and with that attention I can continue the work.”

            “Recently I’ve been thinking about music in yet another way, less allegorical and more in terms of what really happens.  Now when I’m writing music, I’m not thinking of structure; I’m not thinking of harmony; I’m not thinking of counterpoint.  I’m not thinking of any of the things I have learned.” 

“I’m not thinking about music, I’m thinking music.  My brain thinks music.  It doesn’t think words.  If I were thinking words, then I would try to find music to fit the words.  But I’m not doing that, either.  In working with mixed media, I have to find music to go with the dance; I have to find music to go with the play; I have to find music to go with the image or music to go with the words.  And I have to find the music from music itself.”

“The only way to do that, I eventually learned, was that, instead of trying to do it from the outside, I would have to work form the inside.  I would have to hear the music in the place.  In other words, when I’m looking for what that music would be, I find the music by looking at the subject itself.”

“When someone says, ‘How do you write music for a film?’  I way to them very truthfully, ‘I look at the film and I write the music.’  I don’t make the music to go with the film, I write the music that is the film.”

“When I’m writing music for a theater scene, film, or dance event, I can truly say ‘Why wouldn’t it be this?’  One can only say that from a place of understanding or even of knowledge about one’s relation to that particular scene, film, or dance event.  This alignment is made through a conscious, nonverbal, contemplative activity.  Once the alignment between oneself and the dramatic material is established, a link is made on a deep, non-conceptual level between the material and one’s inner musical voice.  That link is the key, and when it is achieved, it is no longer necessary to make the music fit the scene, because the scene will fit the music automatically.”

“In other words, the specifics of the scene will naturally accommodate themselves to the music because the music is already there.”


Perhaps lessons one can take from Glass' life are the importance of having: 1) A solid technique, 2) An openness and even deep appreciation for the contemporary styles, 3) An inquisitiveness to other cultural expressions (whether through expanding one’s own culture or looking beyond one’s own culture), and 4) A strong and disciplined work-ethic.

In my opinion, one of the best uses for ‘minimalist’ music is in its attachment to other art-forms (i.e. film, theater, opera, etc.)  This kind of music begs for articulate thought, and could almost be considered the antithesis of such.

It is interesting that Electronic Dance Music (which surfaced slightly later in contemporary Pop music around the same geographical regions) underwent the same journey towards mindfulness.  It started out as ‘mindless’ dance-music at drug-infested parties and ended up becoming background music to nearly every current-day pop-radio song, used in movies as well.  In effect Phillip Glass (and his other Minimalist compatriots) started EDM a couple decades before it became mainstream pop-culture. 

In listening to a film-score Glass has recently composed, it is hardly distinguishable from the computer-generated music composers now create using looping software.  Glass’ music easily fits generationally into today’s pop-culture.

Whatever one’s view, Phillip Glass is an amazing and perfect synthesis of Contemporary Classical music with Contemporary Pop music.  He struck gold!  I suppose only history itself will tell us how far-reaching the effect will be.



John Phillip Sousa- American Phenomenon (Paul E. Bierley)

John Phillip Sousa- American Phenomenon (Paul E. Bierley)

As I went through this beautifully written book, I highlighted passages that stood out to me, so I could refer back quickly.  There is obviously much more to glean by obtaining the book, which I highly encourage. 

This book chronicles the life, works and symphonic band of John Phillip Sousa, revealing much about his personal life and the times in which he lived, as well as his meteoric rise to fame in American culture around the first few decades of the 20th century.

He was known as the ‘march king’ and “was the symbol of an era and was known as the man who did one particular thing better than any other.  He was to the march what Johann Strauss was to the waltz, and he has been described as the ‘Dickens of Music,’ the ‘Kipling’ of Music,’ the ‘Berlioz of the Military Band’...He came along at precisely the right moment in history, and his marches are an imperishable reflection of his country’s spirit.”

“Sousa made his mark in the world not only as a composer but also as an entertainer.  He spurned the opportunity for a musical education in Europe and chose instead the world of entertainment…By the late 1890s Sousa was recognized as much more than a popular composer; he was considered one of the most polished conductors of the Western world…It can be said that he developed his natural gifts to the greatest degree.  He composed without a piano or the aid of any other musical instrument or device, something which the layman might think impossible.  Throughout his life he emphatically stated that his music came not from within, but from another source.”

“There were four major turning points in Sousa’s life.  The first was at the age of thirteen, when his plans for running away with a circus band were interrupted by his father, who enrolled him as an apprentice in the U.S. Marine Band.  The second, at age twenty, was when he decided against a European musical education after his release from the Marine Corps.  The third was when he was appointed to the leadership of the Marine Band at the age of twenty-five, after seemingly being headed for a career in theater music.  The fourth came after twelve years as leader of the Marine Band, when he resigned to organize his own band.”

As a composer, “His total production dwarfs that of nearly every other American composer…He was one of the few American composers who could present a varied program entirely from his own compositions.”

“Sousa made an indelible impression abroad, moving the Old World toward recognition of America’s progress in the arts.  The Sousa Band made four tours of Europe between 1900 and 1905, and then a tour around the world in 1910-1911.  The band’s excellence caught Europe by surprise, and in all probability it did more to further American prestige than any other organization of its time, musical or otherwise…At home the influence of Sousa and the Sousa Band was even greater.  The band was on a par with the country’s leading symphony orchestras, partly because Sousa had enticed some of the finest symphony and opera musicians to his own band.  Together they made more of a contribution to the advancement of good music that any symphony orchestra in the New World before the advent of radio.  As a touring organization they brought classics to remote areas of the country and to hundreds of towns where people had never heard a symphony orchestra.  By bringing a first-class musical organization to the American people, Sousa was dissolving the long-held notion that only European musicians could be competent…when the Sousa band came to town, other activities ceased.”

“His style of programming was unique, and no one has since duplicated it with such astounding success…The Sousa band was not a marching band, as people are prone to imagine, but rather a concert band.  In fact, it marched only seven times in its history.  It was a band of artists.”

Sousa, himself, was originally trained as a violinist, and held several leading positions in theater orchestras.  As he continued in his career, he shifted to becoming a band-leader.  “Why did John Phillip Sousa, a reasonably accomplished violinist and orchestra leader with a promising future, choose the band as his career?  Simply because he chose to entertain rather than to educate.”

Sousa once wrote, “I had before me four distinct bodies, comprising the instrumental combinations, to select from.  First, the purely brass band.  Second, the so-called military band, differing in its composition in every country…Thirdly, the beer hall or casino string band…and fourthly, the symphony orchestra, containing all the essentials for a perfect performance of the classical writers.  I realized that each of these musical bodies was hemmed in by hide-bound tradition and certain laws as unchanging as those of the Medes and Persians.  I carefully weighed the conditions surrounding these musical bodies and their governing influences and concluded to form a fresh combination in which I would be untrammeled by tradition and in a position to cater for the millions rather than the few…”

“The Sousa band was in actuality a compromise between a band and a symphony orchestra.  Sousa’s demonstration that a concert band could play many classical selections as well as a symphony orchestra was a revelation to those who heard his band.”

As an American Patriot, “he endeavored to write music which would make people stand erect and be proud to be called Americans, with such compositions as ‘Hail to the Spirit of Liberty’, ‘The invincible Eagle’, ‘The Liberty Bell’ and ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’.  “In times of war, the pulse of Sousa’s marches fired the hearts of his countrymen.”  Sousa, himself “spent over nineteen years in military service, serving the Marine Corps and the navy and twice attempting to enlist in the army.  During World War I, he shortened his highly profitable band tours to enlist in the U.S. Navy at the grand salary of one dollar per month.  He was sixty-two years old at the time.”

Sousa had a profound impact on other art-forms in his generation.  In the field of the operetta, he was one of the pioneers of the American musical theater.  Nine of his fifteen operettas were produced, and eight were published.  ‘El Capitan’ (1895) was very successful until after the turn of the century.  All of his later operettas fared well, but they could not replace the perennial Gilbert and Sullivan favorites…Another of Sousa’s contributions to the world of music, strange as it may seem was in the field of jazz- not so much because of his original compositions as because of his use of jazz material in his band programming.  His interest began with one of jazz’s forerunners, ragtime…It was Sousa…who was initially responsible for the popularity of ragtime in Europe.”

Regarding the burgeoning recording industry, “it was Sousa who first coined the term ‘canned music’ in 1906 when he was waging a campaign against the phonograph industry’s abuses of composers’ rights.  He was reconciled with the recording industry in time, but only because the industry yielded to what he considered a composer’s constitutional guarantee of his privileges.”

Although Sousa’s main ambition with his music was to make it acceptable to the public, “by no stretch of the imagination could Sousa be called a commercial composer, because he seldom composed music on order.” 

Sousa summarized his experience in the Marine Corps as follows: “Apart from the musical opportunities, it was a great experience for the development of character.  In official life a man has to stand right up to the job.  He makes his mark or he fails.  The temperamental ‘flowing-tie variety’ of musician could not exist under these circumstances, and sometimes I think it would be a very good thing for the world if he couldn’t exist anyway.  The discipline is invaluable.  One learns that whether he will or not, he has to adjust to the workings of a great organization, and I don’t know any experience that better enables a man to find himself, if he hasn’t already done so, than just that…”

Sousa, however, ultimately left the organization.  “The salary he was to receive as conductor of his own band was certainly an incentive for leaving, but there were other reasons as well.  One thing that disturbed him was the fact that he was never made a commissioned officer.  He thought his position was worthy of a commission and resented those who outranked him ordering him to play their own preferred numbers at any time.  His successors did receive commissions.  He was also anxious to have the pay of his musicians increased and was especially provoked at ambiguous legislation which inadequately defined the salaries of the bandsmen.  When he asked for clarification, no action was taken.  These things were doubtlessly considered when he made the decision to separate.”

Sousa had become a well-known name in America, and used his influence politically to influence the direction of legislation for American composers.  Victor Herbert and Sousa were good friends and twice joined forces to fight for composers’ rights when important bills were before Congress.

Towards the end of his life, Sousa “became increasingly interested in the development of school bands and orchestras.  He was much in demand as a guest conductor and did not refuse a request if conditions permitted.  It was a joy to him to see the founding of the National High School Orchestra and Band Camp at Interlochen, Michigan.  He was guest conductor there during the last two summers of his life and dedicated the march ‘The Northern Pines’ to them.”

The last two weeks of his life were eventful, as he would have wished.  On February 22, 1932, he conducted the combined bands of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps in front of the Capitol building in a performance of the “George Washington Bicentennial,” a march written for the 200th anniversary celebration of George Washington’s birth.  In Philadelphia, March 6, 1932, he was to direct a concert.  As he was there, visiting a close friend, James Francis Cooke, he made comments that “suggested that he might have a presentiment of death.  Upon arriving he asked Cooke if he believed in God.  He then complained that much modern music would fail; it lacked inspiration because many foolish composers did not believe in God.  He made declarations of his own beliefs and elaborated on his oft-expressed statement that he composed only with the help of a ‘higher power.’  In the following twenty-four hours he returned to this subject four more times.  Each time he went into greater depth, as though he were making one last effort to clarify his innermost religions convictions.  That evening he died in Cooke’s home.”

Sousa, was known to be “basically a simple, unassuming man with an unbounded optimism…from his earliest years he was exceedingly active, making efficient use of his time.  Each day was judiciously planned, including times of leisure.  He always kept himself physically fit, even when on tour; conducting four to six hours per day was physically exhausting, and he certainly did his share of walking between train stations, concert halls, and hotels.  Morally, Sousa was a man of the highest of ideals.  This was revealingly and succinctly stated by one of his former managers, who observed that Sousa gave the general impression of one trying diligently to be the most honorable man who ever walked on the face of the earth.  Obscenities were repulsive to him.  He would not tell an off-color story and would simply leave the company of those who did.  He often just stared them down.  He disliked profanity…it should be noted that he wore a white uniform on Sunday, while on weekdays he usually wore black.  He sincerely believed that, facilitated by music’s universal appeal, a sermon could be preached with music as well as with words.  He not only believed that his own melodies were divinely inspired but that the ‘unseen helper’ also prepared the way for them by touching the public heart.”

Sousa was a determined man.  “There were countless examples of his making scheduled appearances in spite of sickness and many other personal hardships.  The supreme example of his grim will occurred when he appeared before the public only ten weeks after he had broken his neck in 1921- while leading the public to believe that he had suffered only a broken arm or collarbone.  It was with great pain that he stood erect.  Audiences did not see the perspiration streaming down his face as he conducted, and they were not aware of his state of near exhaustion after leaving the stage.  Yet during this period he was composing some of his liveliest music.”

“Punctuality was another of his virtues.  When a Sousa Band concert was scheduled for eight o’clock, it began promptly at eight o’clock, and when the train pulled out of the station, Sousa had been there waiting for half an hour.”

“The most amazing thing about this relationship (with his band members) was that Sousa never criticized his musicians either publicly or privately.  A musician seldom made the same mistake repeatedly.  If he did, he was often approached by Sousa inconspicuously and in a polite manner.  Sousa would immediately put the errant musician at ease by pleasant small talk and, like a master psychologist, methodically steer the conversation to the man’s own personal problems while making no mention of any dissatisfaction in his playing.  He was paternalistic in these interviews.  Upon determining the source of trouble, he would attempt to offer friendly advice or else give the man a few days off with pay so he could resolve his problems.  This indirect method of correction was highly effective and was much appreciated by the bandsmen…he was more than fair in the matter of salaries and would generally grant increases when personally requested by the bandsmen.  Even when the musicians’ union established minimum scales, Sousa’s salaries would often exceed the scale.”

Sousa’s opinion of music was that “music for entertainment was of more value to the world than music for education.  This concept, which evolved during his early career as a theater musician, led him away from a possible career as a composer or conductor of more serious music.  In 1910 he wrote of his ‘mission in music’: “It seemed to me, in my early life, that the principles of this type of music might be so far elaborated and utilized as to reach the entire world directly and effectively…My theory was, by insensible degrees, first to reach every heart by simple, stirring music; secondly, to lift the unmusical mind to a still higher form of musical art.  This was my mission.  The point was to move all America, while busied in its various pursuits, by the power of direct and simple music.  I wanted to make a music for the people, a music to be grasped at once.”

Sousa had a profound understanding of the classics…He vigorously studied great music all his life…To him, Bach was the greatest of all composers, and he often facetiously remarked that Bach would have thought of him as a lazy apprentice…Strangely, his greatest influence came from two men whom he seldom credited with being a controlling element in his own musical cultivation- Gilbert and Sullivan…It was Sousa’s firm belief that lasting music could come only from inspiration…felt that a composer must lead a contented life.  He once wrote: “The music that becomes valuable in the world’s repertoire is formed by the combination of a man with a power beyond himself…First compositions almost invariably show the influence of tradition or environment.  It is not until the composer feels that his work must be done with no thought of what others have done that he arrives at the fruition of his genius.  Then it will be found that the Unseen Helper not only guides the composer’s mind to a successful effort but prepares the ears of the world for its advent…Somebody helps me and sends me a musical idea, and that Somebody helps the public to lay hold of my meaning.”

Sousa had ‘perfect pitch’ “He could identify notes of the musical scale in any register, at any time.  combined with his ability to mentally re-create a score, this pitch orientation enabled him to compose and arrange with uncanny speed…His combined talents of ‘perfect pitch’ and being able to hear what he saw enabled him to compose without the aid of a piano or any other musical instrument.  Some composers would think this impractical or even impossible, but with Sousa it was a way of life.  A piano was totally unnecessary…Sousa was also aided by an uncommon, but peculiar, power of concentration.  He could compose in nearly any environment- on trains, in hotels, in backstage dressing rooms- but a single note of music in the background would seriously distract him.  He was known to have composed in his study at the Sands Point home with many guests milling around and was undisturbed until someone drifted to the piano of hummed a melody within the range of his hearing.  This broke his concentration.”

As a conductor, he once told a reporter, “Is it not the business of a conductor to convey to the public in its most dramatic form the central idea of a composition?  And how can he convey that idea successfully if he does not enter heart and soul into the life and story of the music?  How, otherwise, can he give the performers...the spirit they require?...what I am endeavoring to do all the time- to make my musicians and myself a one-man band.  Only, instead of having actual metallic wires to work the instruments, I strike the magnetic ones.  I have to work so that I feel every one of my…musicians is linked up with me by a cable of magnetism.”

“Sousa compared the role of a conductor with the role of an orator.  Whereas good orators capture audiences by believing in the parts they are acting, Sousa reasoned that conductors must reinforce their own feelings in order to keep the interest of the audiences.”

In his programming, he combined skill, variety, and showmanship.  “Showmanship was essential to every Sousa program, and the Sousa Band was an aggregation of showmen.  ‘The man who does not exercise showmanship is dead,’ he said many times.”

“It was Sousa’s observation that life was more hurried in the United States than in most other countries.  Being restless, audiences expected more in the way of showmanship.”

He once wrote, “I learned very early in life that if musicians depended upon musicians for their support there would be no musicians.  The support of all art depends entirely upon those who love art for art’s sake, and as music is universal, it becomes necessary to heed the wishes of the masses if one hopes to succeed.  It is not incongruous to me to see a comedy scene immediately following a tragic scene in Shakespeare or any other of the master dramatists, or laughter following tears in the romantic drama.  Therefore, as I have nature and the best examples of men as my champions, I have no hesitation in combining in my program clever comedy with symphonic tragedy, rhythmic march or waltz with sentimental tone pictures.”

“The Sousa Band was totally dependent upon public approval for its survival, and it was something of a miracle in show business for a musical organization of its size to have played to capacity houses for thirty-nine years.  In a single season it presented formal concerts to approximately two million people.  And no other musical organization of its time- or perhaps any other time- under a single conductor, traveled so extensively.  One of Sousa’s ambitions was to travel a million miles with his band, an ambition realized in 1927.”

Travelling with the Sousa band, were well-known soloists on his programs.  Among these were Arthur Pryor, known as the Paganini of the trombone, the legendary euphonium player Simone Mantia, Maud Powel, one of the most distinguished women violinists in America, and vocalists Marcella Lindh, Marjorie Moody, Nora Fauchald, and Estelle Liebling.  “Of the Sousa alumni entering the field of education, a number taught on the university level.  Anton Horner, regarded as America’s top French Horn player during the forty years he was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was also on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music.”

Conclusion:  I didn’t know much about John Phillip Sousa.  As I read through this book, I became increasingly aware of similarities to my own personal journey.  This was a truly great man who exhibited self-discipline and strong leadership, bringing joy and a spirit of patriotism to his country.  His unassuming reverence for God and his strong moral character provide an excellent example for today’s artist.