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After living overseas since 1964, studying with Ravi Shankar and Nadia Boulanger, Philip Glass returned to New York in april 1967. He was 30 years old and he discovered that the creative people around him at that time, in the energy system that was known as New York – painters and sculptors like Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra – all just listened to rock ’n’ roll. ‘Stockhausen, Boulez, or Milton Babbitt – forget it,’ he writes.

Why was there such a disconnect? Consciously, or to some degree unconsciously, Glass began looking for the music that should be in their record collections. He asked himself: ‘What is the music that goes with what art?’ In Manhattan, he began going to the Fillmore East, then the current hip venue. He writes that he felt like an old man going there to hear bands such as Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa. But he became totally enamoured with the sight and sound of a wall of speakers vibrating. simultaneously, he was aware that rock ’n’ roll was anathema to classical music people.

Glass did not make a living working full-time as a musician-composer until 1978 when, at the age of 41, he was commissioned to compose Satyagraha for the Netherlands Opera. His 24 years of day jobs had included loading trucks, moving furniture, running an overhead crane at Bethlehem steel near to Baltimore, working as a plumber in Manhattan and, famously, driving a taxi. In the meantime, he had also been an indefatigable student, with 40 years of studying yoga, 30 years of Mahayana Buddhist studies, a qigong programme, various languages, and much more.

Glass’s broad overview leads him to the conclusion that music and the arts have moved in a direction far from what one might have expected 30 to 50 years ago. The way that things changed during his professional lifetime is, in part, the subject of Words Without Music. Martin Scorsese, who worked with Glass on the 1997 epic biographical film Kundun, has remarked that Glass is as good a writer as he is a composer. I agree; I couldn’t put the book down. This is a splendid memoir and essential reading for anyone interested in the contemporary scene.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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