Philip Glass, winner of 2016 Tribune Literary Award, reflects on a life well composed – Chicago Tribune
Philip Glass finds it a nifty coincidence that both he and Bob Dylan won major literary prizes this year — remarkable, considering that neither American music icon considers himself a writer.
Glass, 79, is the 2016 winner of the Chicago Tribune Literary Award, the Tribune announced in August. Last month the Swedish Academy announced it was awarding Dylan, 75, the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature.
“I was so happy for him,” Glass said by phone from his home in New York. “Considering song lyrics from a literary point of view may be unprecedented on the part of the Nobel people. He didn’t turn his poetry into books — he turned it into songs. I don’t know Bob Dylan personally at all, but I’ve always kept an eye on what he was doing, how he navigated the music business and how much he learned from other people.
“I’ve always learned from a lot of other people myself,” he added.
This most Promethean of contemporary classical musicians isn’t kidding.
And a lot of other people in the field have learned from Glass, perhaps the best-known, most successful, most widely imitated composer of classical music today.
He was given the Literary Award for his 2015 memoir “Words Without Music” (Liveright), an autobiographical follow-up to his first book, a 1987 collection of essays, “Music by Philip Glass” (Harper & Row).
Glass will receive the Tribune Literary Award on Nov. 2 at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago, as part of a program of conversation and music presented by the Tribune and the Chicago Humanities Festival. The prolific, Baltimore-born composer will talk with Tribune arts critic Howard Reich about his life and work, and Glass will play one of his piano pieces.
Writers Jane Smiley and Margo Jefferson will be awarded the Tribune’s Heartland Prizes for fiction and nonfiction, respectively, on Nov. 12 at 10 to 11 a.m. (Smiley) and 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. (Jefferson) at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St.
Glass is not the first major music figure to win the Tribune Literary Award — in 2014, it went to Patti Smith, and in 2011 to Stephen Sondheim — but he is the first classical composer and musician to do so, and that’s a very big deal.
Unlike Dylan (at least thus far), Glass is only too happy to talk about his reaction to receiving his literary award.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a writer. But I was interested in autobiography and I appreciate what other people have done in that regard, particularly those who write about what it’s like to live in the music world. I thought that maybe I could contribute something informative and interesting.
“I’m good at talking about myself, so I decided I would just write like myself. In my first book, I was trying to write well. In my second, I was just trying to tell a story.”
He does so with flair and plainspoken common sense in the 418 pages of “Words Without Music.” It is essentially a memoir about the making of a composer.
It is only fitting that his Tribune Literary Award should originate in Chicago, Glass observed, since it was here, during the 1950s, that he studied math and philosophy at the University of Chicago, and availed himself of as much of the city’s cultural life as your average college student could afford in those days. Following his graduation, at 19, he was able to make up his mind as to what he wanted to do with his life and how to do it.
One of the book’s most fascinating chapters finds the impressionable young man experiencing, for the first time, the works of writers Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren, jazz legends Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Fritz Reiner, all of whom helped shape his destiny, he writes.
“My greatest takeaway was not what I got from the University of Chicago but from Chicago music of that period,” Glass recalled. “Back then, the music school was one of those little three-story houses on the South Side. When I was there, we studied the arts in the form of the humanities. I would check scores out of the library. In that way I got to know the music of Schoenberg and Charles Ives.
“I absorbed a lot of music that was being played around me. I would hop the IC and go hear Reiner conduct the CSO on Friday afternoons, for 50 cents a ticket. For a teenager, it was profoundly inspiring. There was all this music in the Loop and on the South Side. I heard Holiday sing. As a favor, a guy let me sit inside the door of a jazz club where Parker played. In those hard-bop days of the ’50s and ’60s, their works were a form of art music, performed for a small audience.”
Chicago turned out to be a steppingstone for Glass. New York was where the real artistic action was, and it was to the Big Apple where he soon relocated. The composer in fact lives in the same East Village brownstone he acquired in the ’60s, a house he now shares with Marlowe and Cameron, his two young sons by his marriage to his fourth wife, Holly Critchlow, from whom he is divorced.
The book traces, step by step, how Glass, the son of struggling Jewish middle-class immigrants from Lithuania, worked his way up to become a purveyor of a musical alternative to what he famously called “crazy, creepy” modernism, leading the charge alongside his Juilliard School classmate Steve Reich and other young composers working in the minimalist aesthetic. That aesthetic exerted a profound impact, as well, on New York visual art, dance and theater beginning in the ’60s. (Glass today distances himself from the term minimalism, preferring to call himself a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”)
Particularly vivid is his accounting of his years of struggle, before the breakout success of his revolutionary “portrait” operas “Einstein on the Beach” (1976), “Satyagraha” (1980) and “Akhnaten” (1983). We read of his daily routine, composing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., practicing piano for several hours each afternoon, loading trucks in the evening.