Excerpted from 'Words Without Music: A Memoir' by Philip Glass | Photo copyright Getty Images
As a high school sophomore in Baltimore, composer Philip Glass, AB’56, applied and was accepted into the College. Whether his parents would allow him to attend was another question. Over breakfast one morning in 1952, his mother announced, “We had a meeting last evening and it was decided you can go to Chicago.” In Glass’s new book, Words Without Music: A Memoir, published by W. W. Norton, he recalls his arrival at age 15 and the first year of his UChicago education.
The overnight train to Chicago was run by the old B&O railroad, which left every day in the early evening from downtown Baltimore and arrived in the Loop in Chicago early the next morning. That, or the long drive through western Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, was the only road between Baltimore and Chicago. In 1952, very few people took planes, though commercial airlines were beginning to offer an alternative.
I was on my way to college with two friends from high school, Sidney Jacobs, AB’54, SB’58, SM’60, and Tom Steiner, AB’54, AB’58, AM’62, both of whom I actually knew quite well. But our going out to the Midwest together was unplanned, sheer chance. They were part of a local, self-made club they called the Phalanx—a group of superbright, geeky teenagers who banded together for mutual company and entertainment. I knew them from the Maryland Chess Club, though, being several years younger, I was tolerated to a degree but had never been a part of their highly introverted and intellectual group. But I liked them all—they and their friends: Irv Zucker, Malcolm Pivar, William Sullivan. Poets, mathematicians, and techno-visionaries of an order very early and remote from anything going on today.
The three of us were all on the train together, bonding easily for the first time. I was extremely excited to be on my way and had barely noticed the lectures, warnings, and assurances from Ben and Ida Glass that in the end came down to letting me know I could come home anytime I needed to if things at the University of Chicago didn’t work out.“We can arrange with your school that if you come back from Chicago before Christmas, you can go back into your grade at the high school,” my mother said. Of course, I knew there was zero chance of that. They considered the three months until Christmas a trial run. For me, though, it was every kid’s dream—the Great Escape.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. Soon after leaving the station, the lights were out. It was just an old passenger train from Dixie to the Midwest, with no amenities of any kind. No lights, no reading, nothing to do but make friends with the sounds of the night train. The wheels on the track made endless patterns, and I was caught up in it almost at once. Years later, studying with Alla Rakha, Ravi Shankar’s great tabla player and music partner, I practiced the endless cycles of twos and threes that form the heart of the Indian talsystem. From this I learned the tools by which apparent chaos could be heard as an unending array of shifting beats and patterns. But on this memorable night, I was innocent of all that. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until almost 14 years later, when I was on my first voyage of discovery in India and trains were the only way to travel, that I did some serious train travel again, much as I had as a boy on my many journeys between Baltimore and Chicago. The facts of travel were similar, at times almost identical. But my way of hearing had been radically transformed in those years. One might think that the trains from Einstein on the Beach came from a similar place, but no, that wasn’t so. That train music came from quite a different place, which I’ll get to later. The point was that the world of music—its language, beauty, and mystery—was already urging itself on me. Some shift had already begun. Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The “out there” stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music. Night trains can make those things happen. The sounds of daily life were entering me almost unnoticed.
Right away, Chicago had much more of a big-city feel than Baltimore. It had modern architecture—not just Frank Lloyd Wright but the landmark Louis Sullivan buildings that were a little bit older. It had a first-class orchestra—the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner; the Chicago Art Institute, with its collection of Monet; and even art movie theaters. Chicago was a real city that could cater to intellectuals and people with serious cultural interests in a way that Baltimore couldn’t. Chicago was also a place where you’d hear jazz that you wouldn’t hear in Baltimore. (I didn’t even know where the jazz clubs were in my hometown.) If you wanted to go to a good Chinese restaurant in Baltimore, you had to drive to Washington, but in Chicago we had everything.
The University stretched from 55th Street to 61st Street on both sides of the Midway, which had been the center of amusements and sideshows at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Fifty-Seventh Street was built up with restaurants and bars, and the South Side jazz clubs, like the Beehive, were on 55th Street. Of course I was too young to go to some of the places I wanted to go, since I was 15 and looked 15. By the time I was 16 or 17, I had gotten a little bit bigger, so I was able to go to the Cotton Club, nearby on Cottage Grove, and also the clubs downtown. Eventually, the people at the door got to know me because I would stand there—just listening—looking through the window. Finally, they would say, “Hey, c’mon kid, you come on in.” I couldn’t buy a drink, but they would let me sit by the door and listen to the music.
The first day of freshman orientation, I walked into a room and the first thing I noticed was that there were black students. You have to look at it from the point of view of a kid who had grown up in the Dixie South—because that’s where Baltimore was. There hadn’t been any African American students in any school I’d ever attended. I had lived in a world where segregation was taken for granted and not even discussed. This was my conversion from being a kid from a border state, a Dixie state, whatever you want to call it, which was segregated top to bottom—its restaurants, movie houses, swimming pools, golf courses. I think it took me less than a minute to realize that I had lived my whole life in a place that was completely wrong. It was a revelation.
The College of the University of Chicago was quite small in those days—probably fewer than 500 undergraduates, counting all four years of the usual program. However, it fit into the larger University of professional schools—business, law, medicine—and divisions devoted to science, the humanities, social science, theology, and the arts, as well as the Oriental Institute. The relationship of the College to this large university was surprisingly intimate, and quite a number of the university faculty came to teach in the College. It was thought of then as a kind of European system, though I have no idea whether that was actually true or not. Classes were small, consisting of 12 or fewer students with one professor—we were never taught by graduate students. We sat together at a round table and talked through our reading lists—a classic seminar format. There were a few lecture classes, but not many, and in addition, there were experiment/lab classes for science.
Very often when the seminars were over in the classrooms, the debates that had begun initially with the teachers would be continued among ourselves in the coffee shops on the Quadrangles at the center of the campus. That actually was the idea. The seminar style was something that was easy to reproduce in a coffee shop, because it was practically the same thing.
There were some sports at the school, but at that time we didn’t have a football, basketball, or baseball team. I wanted to do something active so I went to the physical education board and found out they really needed some people for the wrestling team. I had wrestled in high school, so I volunteered, weighing in at about 116 pounds. I did pretty well with the team until my second or third year of competition with nearby schools. Then some farm boy from Iowa beat me so soundly and quickly that I gave it up for life.
The University of Chicago was renowned for its faculty members. I remember vividly my freshman course in chemistry. The lecturer was Harold C. Urey, who had won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He had chosen to teach the first-year chemistry class to maybe 70 or 80 students, and he brought an enthusiasm for his subject that was electrifying. We met at 8 a.m., but there were no sleepyheads in that class. Professor Urey looked exactly like Dr. Van Helsing from the Tod Browning 1931 movie Dracula—the doctor who examines Dracula’s victims and says, “And on the throat, the same two marks.” Now, when would a freshman or sophomore kid get to even be in the same room with a Nobel Prize winner, let alone being lectured on the periodic table? I think he must have thought, There must be young people out there who are going to become scientists.
Professor Urey lectured like an actor, striding back and forth in front of the big blackboard, making incomprehensible marks on the board (I couldn’t figure out what he was doing—I only knew it had to do with the periodic table). His teaching was like a performance. He was a man passionate about his subject, and he couldn’t wait until we could be there at eight in the morning. Scientists on that level are like artists in a way. They are intensely in love with their subject matter, and Urey was one of them. In fact, I don’t remember anything about chemistry. I just went to see his performances.
In my second year I had a small seminar class in sociology taught by David Riesman, who, along with Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer, was the author of The Lonely Crowd, a very famous book in those days. I suppose it might seem a little quaint today, but in the 1950s it was very new thinking. The thesis of the book was simple: there are three kinds of people, inner-directed, other-directed, and tradition-directed. These became personality types. The inner-directed is someone like Professor Urey, or like an artist—someone who doesn’t care about anything except the thing that he wants to do. The other-directed had no sense of his own identity other than that which came from the approval of the world around them. The tradition-directed are concerned with following the rules that have been handed down from the past. When you read these books, you immediately understand that the inner-directed people are the people that are the most interesting.
Dr. Riesman would have eight or 10 students in the class—no more than that—and I liked him immediately. He was, like Urey, a brilliant man, part of a new generation of sociologists who, coming after anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, brought methods of anthropology to bear on an analysis of modern urban life. My connection to Dr. Riesman extended well beyond the classroom. Twenty-five years later, his son Michael Riesman, who was about five years old at the time I was taking his father’s course, became the music director of the Philip Glass Ensemble.
When the ensemble played at Harvard in the 1970s, Dr. Riesman was teaching there. Michael came to tell me, “My dad is here at the concert.”
“Oh, I’ve got to see Dr. Riesman,” I said.
“Dr. Riesman, do you remember me?” I asked when I met him.
“Of course I do,” my one-time professor said.
I didn’t really see any reason why he would have remembered me after all that time, though I had, in fact, caused a bit of a fuss with him once by challenging his ideas in the seminar. I had told him that I thought the three categories of people that he was suggesting were very much like the endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph types that had been proposed by an anthropologist who was studying the human body.
“Do you think so?” he had asked me.
“I think it’s absolutely the same,” I said.
He looked at me like I was nuts. It’s funny, whenever I got an idea, if I thought I was right, I could not be talked out of it, and maybe that’s why he remembered me. I was a sophomore in college, 16 years old, and he was in his mid-40s at the time. Why wouldn’t I keep my mouth shut? In truth, I never did. The same confrontation I had with David Riesman was repeated with Aaron Copland a number of years later, when he and I got into an argument about orchestration.
In the summer of 1960, four years after I had graduated from Chicago, Copland was a guest of the orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I had come from Juilliard to take a summer course with Darius Milhaud, a wonderful composer and teacher. The orchestra was playing some of Copland’s pieces at the festival, and through Milhaud’s class, he invited students to meet with him one-on-one to show him their compositions. I took him one of my pieces, a violin concerto for solo violin, winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones), and percussion.
Mr. Copland looked at the first page. What I had done was to pencil in a theme for the violin—it’s so similar to what I do today, I’m surprised that I had even thought of it then—and every low note of the theme, I had played on the French horn. So the violin went da-da, da-da, da-da, and the French horn outlined the bottom notes, which became the countermelody. I thought it was a very good idea.
Mr. Copland looked at it and said, “You’ll never hear the French horn.”
“Of course you will,” I said.
“Nope, you’ll never hear it.”
“I will hear it.”
“You’re not going to hear it.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Copland. I’m going to hear it.”
Mr. Copland got extremely annoyed with me, and that was pretty much the end of my lesson. He’d only seen the opening page of the piece! We never got beyond the first eight or 10 measures.
“What’s wrong with me?” I thought. Mr. Copland was much older than me. He was a real composer, a famous composer. He’d invited students to show him their compositions—a wonderful opportunity—and I had totally blown it. I had one lesson with Aaron Copland and we had a disagreement and he basically kicked me out.
As it turned out, I was right, at least that time. On a student recording the next year at Juilliard, sure enough, there was that French horn line, outlining the countermelody to the violin theme. You could hear it clear as a bell. I am sorry I didn’t keep in touch with Mr. Copland, for I would have sent him the recording.
Born in Baltimore in 1937, Philip Glass, AB’56, studied at the Juilliard School after graduating from the College. The widely celebrated composer of operas, film scores, and symphonies, he performs regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble and lives in New York. Philip Glass will be on campus as a Presidential Arts Fellow in February 2016. His residency will include a concert with UChicago Presents, a film screening and a public talk at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, and conversations with UChicago students and faculty.
Excerpted from Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass. Copyright © 2015 by Philip Glass. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation Inc. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 13, 2015.