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How Philip Glass tamed the muse.

From our series Favorite Passages: Juilliard pt.2

All quotes are from: Words Without Music: A Memoir. By Philip Glass

Glass wanted to tame his muse.

To accomplish this he set himself a simple goal. Sit at the piano for three hours everyday. He didn’t have to write any music. But he couldn’t leave his piano bench either.

Those were the two options he gave himself. Do nothing. Or write music.

The discipline needed for composing was a different matter altogether and required more ingenuity. My first goal was to be able to sit at a piano or desk for three hours. I thought that was a reasonable amount of time and, once accomplished, could be easily extended as needed. I picked a period of time that would work most days, ten a.m. to one in the afternoon. This allowed for my music classes and also my part-time work at Yale Trucking.

The exercise was this: I set a clock on the piano, put some music paper on the table nearby, and sat at the piano from ten until one. It didn’t matter whether I composed a note of music or not. The other part of the exercise was that I didn’t write music at an other time of the day or night. The strategy was to tame my muse, encouraging it to be active at the time I had set and at no other times. A strange idea, perhaps, undertaken as an experiment. I had no idea whether it would work.

It’s encouraging to learn that one of the world’s foremost composers had to build up their discipline. Passion will get you sitting on the piano bench, but discipline will keep you there.

Glass is honest when describing his early method. The boredom beat him down.

The first week was painful-brutal, actually. At first I did nothing at all during those three hours. I sat like an idiot without any idea of what to do. When the three hours were up I bolted for the door and practically ran out into the street, so relieved was I to be away from the piano. Then, slowly, things began to change. I started writing music, just to have something to do. It didn’t really matter whether it was good, bad, boring , or interesting. And eventually, it was interesting. So I had tricked myself into composing…something.

Here Glass is an excellent example of independent thinking. Before the days of productivity coaches and time management blogs. Before the term “deliberate practice” was coined, Glass devised his own practice schedule to coax his muse into action.

How worthwhile could it be if we tried something similar? Instead of rushing to the internet for guidance we thought through what specific skill we were trying to learn and devised our own plans to execute?

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas music Thinkers

Favorite Passages: Chicago

All quotes are from: Words Without Music: A Memoir. By Philip Glass

The chapter Chicago – expands upon Glass’ time at the University of Chicago.

He was accepted there young (15 years old). Despite his age, he adapted to his new surroundings well. His formal education was first class. Primary sources were studied. The faculty – Harold C. Urey, David Reiesman, were top of their fields. This was the University of Chicago after all.

But what this chapter presents is, Glass’ education outside the classroom, was as important as his formal one.

His hunger to absorb the local music was relentless. Too young to get into Jazz clubs, Glass would stand outside to listen to the music:

Fifty-Seventh Street was built up with restaurants and bars, and the South Side jazz clubs, like the Beehive, were on Fifty-Fifth Street. Of course I was too young to get into some of the places I wanted to go, since I was fifteen and looked fifteen. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen 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.

Throughout the chapter he mentions “distractions”. These were gatherings, meetups, and informal classes which would contribute to his his lifelong education.

Another distraction from the regular course work was that there were some professors who offered informal classes, usually in their homes, on specific books or subjects. For these classes, no registration was required, no exam given, and no student was turned away. This practice was, I believe, understood and tolerated by the university itself. Now, why would you spend your time as a student (or professor, for that matter) this way, when there were reading lists that needed to be completed? Well, the answer is that some of the classes were unique and otherwise not available. They were not offered officially, were known by word of mouth, but were quite well attended. I went to an evening class entirely on one book – Homer’s The Odyssey-once a week for at least two quarters, taught by a classics professor named Charles Bell. These kinds of “private” courses given within the university community, though not generally known, could be sought after and found. That in itself probably accounted for their appeal.

This theme of independent study continues. Glass reflects on his music-listening club that formed. He and his buddies gathered to seriously listen to obscure classical music. The group included buddies from Baltimore, but also somehow Carl Sagan?! Yes that Carl Sagan. Things that aren’t prestigious

An informal group of us spent significant time just listening to music. This might have merely been causal listening, but it turned out to be surprisingly significant later on. My listening companions were, among others, Tom Steiner and Sidney Jacobs-my pals from Baltimore-as well as Carl Sagan, the future astrophysicist and cosmologist. This group undertook a superserious study of recordings of Bruckner and Mahleer. It should be remembered that in the early 1950s, this school of music was virtually unknown outside of Europe. In the next decade conductors-especially Leonard Bernstein-would make their work widely popular in the States, but that was yet to come. In any event, we spent hours and hours together listening to recordings-often difficult to obtain even in Chicago-by Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and Wilhelm Furtwangler.

The University of Chicago provided Glass with an environment to explore. There he could to go deeper on his niche tastes in music. He could absorb the classics outside of the lecture hall. He could cultivate friendships with fellow brilliant weirdos. For a world without the internet, this was vital to his development as a composer.