NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

Phillip Glass Chuck Close

Artwork by CHUCK CLOSE



When composer Philip Glass started performing his own music, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. Some people thought it sounded like the needle of a record was stuck in a groove, repeating over and over again. Some people thought it was simplistic. Some thought it was a joke. Glass says that in the ’70s, audience members threw things at him while he was performing. “If they threw an egg, that wasn’t so bad, because the eggs would just break,” Glass tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “There was no danger from egg throwing, unless they boiled the eggs first, which they sometimes did.” But those who loved it realized something new was happening — a new musical language he was developing in parallel Phillip Glass Words Without Musicwith composers like Steve Reich and La Monte Young. It was described as minimalist, even though Glass would tell you it was anything but. “What’s interesting about this so-called ‘minimalist music’ is how rich it is,” Glass says. “The description doesn’t come close to telling you what you hear.” Glass, 78, has written a new book, Words Without Music: A Memoir, that’s filled with insights into his work. It has stories about his childhood in Baltimore, his father’s record store, his travels listening to music throughout Central Asia and India, his day jobs and his study of meditative practices and esoteric traditions. Although Glass studied at the Peabody Conservatory of music as a child, was a Juilliard graduate, and studied in Paris with renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, his music was initially shunned by the classical music world. “There was a time when I was not even allowed to play at music schools, and if I played in a music school I was usually invited by the dance department or some other department,” the composer says. “If I happened to be in the music building practicing, for example, I could see a notice on the board assuring the students that there was no need at all to come hear me play that night. That went on for years. That has stopped simply because the young people who like me — or learned to like me — are now the professors teaching in the schools.” But Glass’ music was embraced in the worlds of avant-garde art and theater and experimental music. He’s now considered one of the most important composers of his generation. MORE