Words Without Music: Philip Glass offers an inspiring testimony

Philip Glass is not only one of my favorite composers, he’s also one of the musicians who inspires me the most. Everytime I read or listen to his interviews, I can’t help but feeling encouraged to follow my vocation -whatever that might be.

That been said, as soon as I heard he had published his memoirs, entitled Words Without Music, I felt the irresistible urge to read them. (My sister was kind enough to give it to me as a birthday gift.) And I literally devoured it. I found so much wisdom in his writing that I felt compelled  to share with you the wonderful lessons I received.

I really hope you can find this book and read it in its entirety. What I’m about to write is only a tiny preview of what this magnificent book has to offer for every musician or music lover.

The first thing that captivated me when I started reading Words Without Music was the warm and intimate voice in which it was written. While reading it, it felt almost as if I had Philip Glass telling me his amusing stories in front of me. This tone is fairly persistent throughout the entire book and it’s definitely one of its strongest assets.

One trait that I really admire of Philip Glass’ personality is his modesty. Whenever I hear him talk about his life I feel some sort of empathy, like he’s on your side, even when he’s one of the most celebrated, awarded and praised composers of our time. Reading this book made me feel like as if I were at his level -not below or out of his reach, which is something that I felt while reading John Adams’ memoir, for example.

Glass recounts the many jobs he had to undertake for many years until he “made it”, i.e. when he could finally make a living as a composer at the age of 41. This is certainly one of the most inspiring pieces of information I was able to obtain. Knowing that it took, someone as talented and prolific as Philip Glass, all those years to find success as an artist definitely inspired me to being patient in my quest for my own artistic success.

Philip Glass doesn’t sound at all embarrassed that he had to work at a record store or a factory; or plumbing, driving a cab, or moving furniture. All the opposite: he seemed to find pride of taking jobs at each one of those positions so he could cover his expenses and invest his talent in his art, which is humbling and totally exemplary.

Another thing that I found illuminating for understanding his journey was his revelation that, above all, he considers himself a “theater composer”: an artist that writes music for the stage. This shouldn’t be taken for granted given his vast catalog of works written for opera, dance and theater, but also as a very eloquent feature of his highly collaborative spirit.

Whenever Glass came to live at a different town (Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Paris) he made sure to meet and surround himself with talented people from various artistic disciplines. Every one of these liaisons and alliances nourished him immensely. Working all the time with artists from different fields must have surely enriched his voice.

The stories Glass tell about his classes with renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger are also heartwarming. The most important lesson he got from her was to cover the fundamentals of composition. She also taught him how to listen, which is the main pillar upon writing music is built. Glass emphasizes that writing music is, above all, about hearing.

While reading this delightfully instructive book, the main lesson that I got was that Philip Glass never seemed to have doubted about his calling: he decided to dedicate his life to writing music, in a pure and relentless way.

Throughout every harsh time he had to face as an young artist, there seemed to be an underlying confidence in his own talent as a musician. This is the most valuable gift I received from Glass’ writing: that no matters what happens, you should remain loyal to your calling.


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