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Editor’s Choice: Philip Glass’ ‘Words Without Music’

Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass, Liveright, 416 pages ($29.95). Not only is this what a self-respecting academic might call “an essential text in the history of post-modern music,” it’s also so extraordinarily readable that it’s one that might rather be burned at the stake than be thought a desiccated “text” of any kind. But you have to be very careful with it. It was both carelessly written and carelessly edited which makes a good deal of its information suspect. Facts are often shaky; narrative embroidery seems relatively common.

Glass – who has long been THE representative of what we’ve long called “minimalism” in music – was born in 1937, which would make him only 18 years old when Charlie Parker died in the New York apartment of the Baroness Nica De Koenigswarter and yet if you read the memoir of Chicagoan Glass you’d think that appearances by Parker, who’d long been a junkie in need of a stable heroin supply, were a constant fixture in Glass’ early teens at Chicago’s Beehive Club. Let’s just wink and say “maybe” and leave it at that.

Forget the wink, though, when he says that, for instance, the instrument alto saxophonist Jackie McLean played was the tenor saxophone, though, in his defense, the way McLean played it was, in both sound and register, similar to a tenor. We also know that Ornette Coleman came from Fort Worth, Texas, not Louisiana as Glass says. (Classical musicians have a devil of a time getting facts straight about great jazz saxophonists. Virgil Thomson could never admit that Coleman almost always played alto.)

But, in a way, that’s the bad news about this memoir that comes with the good news of its readability: It is so bursting with culture and anecdote that names and stories virtually explode out of it – Glass, for instance, arguing over one of his very early pieces with Aaron Copland and being dismissed in disgust from Copland’s company, which he never enjoyed that way again.

My thought is that teams of scholars should re-edit this, with Glass taking a month at least to correct errors and exaggerations. The book is too important – and just too gloriously readable not to make it the best it can be. – Jeff Simon