Philip Glass' first lessons: Behind the scenes at Juilliard with a soon-to-be modern master

Exclusive: The acclaimed composer's first stories of John Cage, PDQ Bach and "Einstein on the Beach"

Published April 12, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

Cover photograph of "Words Without Music: A Memoir" by Philip Glass       (W.W. Norton)
Cover photograph of "Words Without Music: A Memoir" by Philip Glass (W.W. Norton)

Excerpted from "Words Without Music: A Memoir"

The cafeteria at Juilliard was the place to meet people and make new friends. My fellow student composers were all young men—at this point, there were scarcely any women composers around, in or out of school.

Peter Schickele, a year older than me, was one of my best friends there. He was a hilariously funny guy as well as being a very talented composer. It was at Juilliard that he developed his alter ego, P. D. Q. Bach, the illegitimate twenty-second son of J. S. Bach. Every spring at the Juilliard end-of-the-year concert Peter would appear on stage in period costume and wig and play his baroque, Bachesque compositions.

He always made sure that they were well written and well thought out, and if you knew anything about music, they were doubly funny because he did it so perfectly. It wasn’t just that he sounded like Bach, or like a version of Bach—P. D. Q. Bach was clearly gifted, and Peter was P. D. Q. Bach.

Peter’s brother, David, was a filmmaker, and David and I would help build the invented instruments Peter used in his concerts. Peter would come up with the title of a piece and then write the piece. For example, in New York there used to be a chain of automats called Horn & Hardart, where the food was dispensed from behind small coin-operated glass doors. You’d put in a nickel or a dime, you’d turn the handle, the glass door would open up, and you would take out your coffee, sandwich, or dessert. I ate there all the time because they had a thirty-five-cent lunch special.

Well, Peter wrote a Concerto for Horn & Hardart. We knew what the Horn was, but no one knew what a Hardart was, so David and I had to build the Hardart. Peter decided that the Hardart looked like a keyboard, but the keyboard would be made of toy instruments: little whistles and harmonicas and accordions and triangles—whatever could make pitches. Each note would be made from a different toy, but Peter could look at the keyboard and see what the note was: it would be an F or a G or a C, but it might be coming through a whistle or a claxon or a horn.

“Okay, you guys,” he said. “You build the Hardart. I’m going to be in this room over here writing the piece for it.” He would run in and look at what we were building, and then he would run back and write in the other room.

Peter was full of such jokes, but we were full of jokes, too. We made a two-octave chromatic instrument that looked like a keyboard, but we didn’t tell Peter that it was a transposing instrument. We did not use a common transposition, like a French horn in F, or a trumpet in B flat. We chose a transposition to an imaginary instrument in E. That meant a C would sound as an E, and an F would sound as an A, and so on.

“It doesn’t work!” Peter exclaimed when he finally tried to play the Hardart.

“Peter!” I said. “You didn’t ask us. It’s a transposing instrument. It’s in E.”

“Oh my god,” he exclaimed.

So not only did he have to play the Hardart, he had to transpose it at sight, during the performance. That was one of the funnier things that we did with him.

Peter later developed P. D. Q. Bach into full-length concerts, and he toured the country. Within two years, he was actually making a living with it. Long past our Juilliard days, after my opera Einstein on the Beach had appeared in New York, Peter called me up and said, “Look, Phil, would you be offended if I did a piece called Einstein on the Fritz?”

“No, no, Peter, absolutely not. Go ahead and do it.”

“Would you come and hear it?”

“Of course.”

What I didn’t reckon on was that Peter reserved me a seat in the center of the audience at Carnegie Hall, where everyone could see me. And then he had a spotlight on me. So not only did he do Einstein on the Fritz, but I was there, and everybody knew I was there, and everyone was watching. The music turned out to be a concerto in three movements that Peter made sound like P. D. Q. Bach’s music, but a minimalist version of it. And the piece itself—would you believe it—kept repeating itself. It seemed to never be able to get past the first measure.

* * *

The student body at Juilliard was not very large, numbering perhaps five hundred students. This included instrumentalists, pianists, singers (mainly in the opera program), and conductors. The dance department was not that large, with certainly no more than sixty students at any time. The composers never numbered more than eight in any year and the conductors perhaps a few less. There were always enough players for several orchestras, and the chorus was made up of singers, composers, pianists, and conductors.

For us, the chorus was a two-year requirement. That meant there was a pretty good-sized regular chorus available every year, and it allowed the school to prepare three or four large choral works with chorus and orchestra. This could, and did, include complete performances of the Verdi Requiem, Masses by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, and usually several modern pieces. I also first heard and performed the music of Luigi Nono, the son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, and Luigi Dallapiccola, both Italian modernists. As well, we often read through new works by the faculty composers and even William Schuman, the school’s president.

At first I resented the three chorus rehearsals every week. I soon got over that and began to take a keen interest in the music we were singing. I was in the bass section but, as there was plenty of rehearsal time, I passed the hours also singing the soprano, alto, and tenor parts, displaced by an octave as necessary. Nobody seemed to mind, and in this way I came to have a complete understanding of vocal writing for a full chorus.

Abraham Kaplan was our young, charismatic conductor. As he often segregated vocal parts when working on the intonation (pitch), I was able to hear very clearly how the voice movement and part writing was realized. These were the great choral classics, mind you, and all in all some of the best training to be had at Juilliard. However, you had to know this and pay attention to benefit from the rehearsals.

Almost twenty years later, when I was composing the choral music for Satyagraha, I became gratefully aware of those lessons. By then I knew absolutely how to make a chorus “sound,” where to “divisi” the voices, how to support them with the orchestra—all manner of techniques of a necessary and deeply musical nature. All the choral music I made for operas—Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten—symphonies, and a cappella (voices alone) choruses grew out of those experiences during my Juilliard chorus years. I had acquired, without intending to, an early and reliable knowledge of basic vocal writing.

The skills and craft of writing for solo voices was something I learned later and with the help of the singers I worked with. Vocal writing is not easily learned. Time and quite a lot of coaching and practice were necessary for me to arrive at a reasonable degree of ability.

I began another lifelong study—writing for orchestral instruments as soloists or as players in chamber or full orchestra. In this case, I did have personal experiences playing in orchestras, from playing in church orchestras or in high school musicals. Most of that was flute-playing, which I could handle pretty well. During my two years of high school, I had also played in marching bands—my way of getting into football games and having a very good seat at the games themselves. I was not big enough to make the team, so music was my form of participation. In the marching bands I sometimes played a bass trumpet—a one-valve instrument probably only used in bands of that kind. However, that did give me a physical, real-life experience of playing in a brass ensemble. That kind of firsthand contact with an instrument is invaluable and really can’t be deeply learned or duplicated in any other way. Writing for percussion instruments, all of them, came easily to me, as I had been part of a percussion ensemble from the age of eight, when I was studying flute at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. That left the string sections—double bass to violin. Being able to write well for string instruments was high on my list of skills I needed to acquire, though this list was made by and for myself.

At that juncture, I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become. My instinct was to cover everything I might need. As it turned out, that broad training I was seeking eventually proved to be essential. For string writing, there was only one solution. I borrowed a violin from the school and began to take violin lessons. By accident or, perhaps, by design, I found myself sitting next to a pleasant, beautiful young woman in my L & M class. Her name was Dorothy Pixley, soon to become Dorothy Pixley-Rothschild, as she was engaged to be married the next year. We soon became friends and I asked her for violin lessons, to which she happily and easily agreed.

I found, in general, that my fellow students at Juilliard were always very kind in matters like this. It was easy to get help and I often consulted friends for any information or assistance I might need. So, I began playing scales, developing some rudimentary skills in fingering and bowing. I also started writing music for Dorothy—string quartets, a trio, and even the concerto for solo violin, winds, brass, and percussion that I composed when I was at the Aspen Music School studying with Darius Milhaud in 1960.

Though I never became even a decent violinist, I learned what I needed to write well for the instrument. Since then I have composed seven string quartets, two violin concertos, two cello concertos, and a double concerto for violin and cello. Of course, all ten symphonies and almost all the operas have string parts. Like the voice, string writing is a study of a lifetime. I’ve always worked closely with string players and feel confident now when I compose for them. Still, there are plenty of challenges left. Writing solo music for the double bass, for example, is not easy. The finger positions on the fingerboard are very far apart, as required because of the range and size of the instrument.

Double-stops—playing two notes together—have to be understood very well when including them in double bass parts. Composing skillfully for any instrument is full of such details, all of which have to be learned and mastered through application and practice. Fortunately, that was the kind of thing I liked to do.

In the end, the biggest subject for me was the orchestra itself. Oddly enough, we had no separate orchestration class when I was a student at Juilliard. Details like this, as well as a real understanding of counterpoint, harmony, and analysis, were left to the L & M course. For pianists, singers, and instrumentalists, that could be fine. For composers and conductors, it was simply inadequate. The benefit of studies in the actual technique of music composition is not acquired through the casual absorption of information, but through rigorous practice. For me, that kind of study would have to wait until 1964, when I went to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger. In the meantime, I found several ways of improving my technique and understanding.

I began attending the orchestra rehearsals led by Jean Morel. He himself had been thoroughly trained in the French system of solfège, figured bass, and harmony, and I assume, being French, he had also had the usual studies in strict and free counterpoint, analysis, and orchestration. He was a fine conductor and an excellent musician who was a tremendous inspiration and influence on the many Juilliard students who came his way. In my case, I asked him if I could audit his conducting class as well as attend his rehearsals, to which he agreed. He was kind to me, and he conducted and recorded my graduation piece with the Juilliard orchestra. I did find that my ideas about orchestration sometimes differed from Morel’s, but, unlike my previous experience with Aaron Copland, I kept my mouth shut.

During my years at Juilliard, Morel covered the standard repertoire as well as early modern and contemporary music. I would arrive at the rehearsals with the scores borrowed from the library and follow the rehearsals, paying particular attention to his many comments to the players as well as to his own conducting students. His instructions were clear and illuminating. I attended these rehearsals many, many times. Besides the orchestra players, all of his own students were there, but surprisingly very few composers (apart from the occasional faculty member who happened to have a work of their own being performed).

The conductor Dennis Russell Davies became a student of Morel’s about the time I was leaving Juilliard. Since his first performance of Satyagraha in Stuttgart in 1980, Dennis has been a constant supporter of the music I have been composing, and I don’t doubt that our very close music collaboration was facilitated by his deep connection to Morel.

My second 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.

This is exactly how painters in the past and present study painting—even today, some can be seen in museums making copies of traditional paintings. It works the same way in music. This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid orchestration technique.

The person who set up this task was, for me, the most influential musician whom I met at Juilliard, a fellow student named Albert Fine. It was he who interceded so that I was allowed into Morel’s class, something very rarely done. Morel permitted it because I was a friend of Albert’s—Morel preferred to speak French when he could, and he and Albert talked about Proust together. It was Albert’s encouragement that got me to the rehearsals, and he also started me on the detailed study of Mahler that was at the core of the copying exercise.

One could easily wonder how such a young man could have made such an impression on me. The answer is that he was simply the most highly developed musician I met at Juilliard. The fact that he was close to my age made no difference at all. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. One evening, Albert and I were having a dinner at the Tien Tsin, then a popular Chinese restaurant at 125th Street and Broadway. At one moment William Schuman who was also dining there, approached our table and said to Albert, “Hi, Albert, I have a question for you regarding the bass clarinet part in a new symphony of mine. Do you think you would have time to look at it for me?” I was totally shocked to discover that Albert’s opinion would be so openly solicited by the president of Juilliard.

Another time, once I was a regular student of his and had a private lesson from him every week, I was in Albert’s apartment and saw a score by Vincent Persichetti on his kitchen table. I remember very clearly it was his Symphony no. 5. I knew this would be Vincent’s new symphony, only recently completed. I asked Albert how it came to be in his house. Albert told me that it was being prepared for publication and that Vincent had asked him to “look it over” before it went to press. I asked Albert whether he had found anything amiss. He said it was fine but he had found one mistake: in the last movement a theme from the first movement had been incorrectly quoted by either Vincent or the copyist. He also told me that the editor later confirmed that it was an error.

I had met Albert when I was first registered as a composer. He was in his early twenties then, a very striking young man, with a round face and long blond hair brushed to one side. He was always elegantly dressed, in a jacket and ascot, and always had a volume of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in his hand. He conversed with Morel only in French and he quickly became a friend of Michel’s after I introduced them. Once I became aware of his very high level of musicianship, I begged him for lessons. He agreed to give me a weekly lesson at no charge, provided I followed his teaching regimen to the letter. “Of course,” I agreed. None of my other teachers knew about this. But I soon discovered he had one other “secret” student in the school. It was the singer Shirley Verrett, soon to be a famous opera singer in her own right. I saw Albert regularly for several years and one day asked where he got his training. He was born in Boston, where his mother was a music teacher, but his real training came from Nadia Boulanger.

I discovered later, when I was her pupil, that many of the exercises that I had learned from Albert were a regular part of her teaching.

Among my Juilliard friends, Albert was the only one who shared my interest in the downtown art world. Indeed, he would in time become known as one of the founders of the Fluxus movement that was then taking shape. He eventually developed his own circle of friends that overlapped with mine. He knew John Rouson and Bob Janz quite well, and through him I met a host of interesting and unusual people. Among the most striking was Norman Solomon, a very unusual painter, not well-known today, who specialized in a personal kind of calligraphy, making large black and white paintings, but not at all like Franz Kline.

The most memorable of Albert’s friends was Ray Johnson, who is still known today as the founder of the New York Correspondence School. Then, and again in the late 1960s, when I was back from Paris, Albert would bring Ray to visit me. He was a most enigmatic character and very quiet. You might almost think he was shy. He was slim,
of medium height, and completely bald, with bright clear eyes. When he did speak, he would make puzzling, outrageous pronouncements, which I have never forgotten.

Once, during one of those strange visits, and after not having spoken at all, he said, “There is so much time, and so little to do.” The New York Correspondence School seemed to be mainly Ray Johnson himself. He would send out postcards to his friends, usually just images or some enigmatic remarks. Really, it could be most anything. I didn’t reply to him, I just collected the postcards, and they would arrive always unexpectedly.

Ray died in 1995, an apparent suicide. He was last seen swimming out to sea off of Sag Harbor, Long Island. I heard about his death and was very surprised to hear he had taken his life. I knew him as a good friend of Albert’s, a latter-day Dadaist and one of the founders of the Fluxus movement. Though I didn’t know his art all that well, I thought of him as a quintessential artist of our time.

Albert had also developed a taste for the most avant-garde, cutting-edge work. He was well versed in John Cage’s writings and music, both of which had made a deep impression on my circle of friends. Albert, John Rouson, Michel, and I had all been immersed in Cage’s Silence, the Wesleyan University Press collection of writings published in 1961. This was a very important book to us in terms of the theory and aesthetics of postmodernism. Cage especially was able to develop a very clear and lucid presentation of the idea that the listener completes the work. It wasn’t just his idea: he attributed it to Marcel Duchamp, with whom he was associated. Duchamp was a bit older but he seemed to have been very close to John. They played chess together, they talked about things together, and if you think about it that way, the Dadaism of Europe took root in America through Cage. He was the one who made it understandable for people through a clear exposition of how the creative process works, vis-à-vis the audience.

Take John’s famous piece 4' 33". John, or anyone, sits at the piano for four minutes thirty-three seconds and during that time, whatever you hear is the piece. It could be people walking through the corridor, it could be the traffic, it could be the hum of the electricity in the building—it doesn’t matter. The idea was that John simply took this space and this prescribed period of time and by framing it, announced, “This is what you’re going to pay attention to. What you see and what you hear is the art.” When he got up, it ended.

The book Silence was in my hands not long after it came out, and I would spend time with John Rouson and Michel talking and thinking about it. As it turned out, it became a way that we could look at what Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, or almost anybody from our generation or the generation just before us did, and we could understand it in terms of how the work existed in the world. The important point is that a work of art has no independent existence. It has a conventional identity and a conventional reality and it comes into being through an interdependence of other events with people. Later on, when I would be talking with students, I would ask them, “What do you have in the library here?”

“Music books,” they would say.

“No, but what is it?” I would ask again.

“It’s music,” they’d say.

“No, it isn’t music. It’s pages with lines and dots on them, that’s what it is. Music is what you hear. Those books aren’t music, they’re just the evidence of somebody else’s idea. Or you can use them as a way of making music. But they’re not actually music.”

The accepted idea when I was growing up was that the late Beethoven quartets or The Art of the Fugue or any of the great masterpieces had a platonic identity—that they had an actual, independent existence. What Cage was saying is that there is no such thing as an independent existence. The music exists between you—the listener— and the object that you’re listening to. The transaction of it coming into being happens through the effort you make in the presence of that work. The cognitive activity is the content of the work. This is the root of postmodernism, really, and John was wonderful at not only articulating it, but demonstrating it in his work and his life.

I immediately abandoned any idea I had that music had some kind of eternal existence, an existence that was independent of the transaction that happens between the performer and the listener. What John was focusing on was that transaction. Later on I understood that the performer has a unique function in terms of what I call this transactional reality which comes from being in the presence of the work: that the interpreter/player of the music becomes part of that. Until then, I had really thought of the interpreter as a secondary creative person. I never thought he was on the same level with Beethoven or Bach. But after I had spent some time thinking about all that and began playing myself, 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.

When I’m playing a concert now, I know that what I must do is to listen to the music. Now, here are some curious questions: When does that listening take place? Does it take place in the present? Do you listen to what you’re playing, or do you listen to what you’re about to play? I don’t really have a prepared answer, except my intuition is this: the best-case situation is that I’m playing, and I’m almost hearing what I’m about to play. And my playing follows that image. In other words, it’s like a shadow that precedes the object, rather than follows it. If you start playing the piano, and you’re thinking that way, and you’re hearing that way, you have a very different engagement. You’re not just playing a piece because you practice it—there are pieces that your fingers can play for you, everybody knows that. You can train your fingers so that you can even find yourself thinking about something else, which is not a good way to perform. The ideal way of performing, to my way of thinking, would be when the performer allows the activity of playing to be shaped by the activity of listening, and perhaps even by the activity of imagining listening.

Excerpted from "Words Without Music: A Memoir" by Philip Glass. Published by Liveright a division of W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. Copyright 2015 by Philip Glass. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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