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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.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas music

Composers and Copywork

Copywork has long been an essential practice for writers. Notable practitioners include Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, Hunter S. Thompson, Mary Karr

But copywork isn’t limited to writers. Composers too, have appreciated the benefits of copywork. In his memoir Words Without Music, Philip Glass shares how copying Gustav Mahler’s scores was vital to his development as a composer:

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.

Copywork, regardless of the discipline, helps you understand how a “thing” is constructed. A piece of art, music, a car engine, can all be better understood by taking each piece apart and reassembling it in the same manner of its original creator.

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ideas interviews Thinkers writer's inspiration

Kevin Kelly’s 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice, with context.


When Kevin Kelly posted 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice for his 68th birthday, I was like worrrrrdddd.

But I was also left wanting more.

I needed context.

What do you mean Trust me: There is no “them” ?

How likely am I to get in a land war in Asia?

Are you sure the universe is conspiring behind my back to make me a success? I’m not sure I believe in pronoia Mr. Kelly.


Then Freakonomics dropped podcast episode #419: 68 Ways to Be Better at Life. Stephen Dubner had Mr. Kelly expand on his timeless list of wisdom biscuits.

Listen below:

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Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Camille Paglia on Writing



Toor: How did you learn to write?

Paglia: Like a medieval monk, I laboriously copied out passages that I admired from books and articles — I filled notebooks like that in college. And I made word lists to study later. Old-style bound dictionaries contained intricate etymologies that proved crucial to my mastery of English, one of the world’s richest languages.

From: Rachel Toor’s interview with Paglia in The Chronicle of Higher Education

And from her Conversations with Tyler interview:

I feel that the basis of my work is not only the care I take with writing, with my quality controls, my prose, but also my observation. It’s 24/7. I’m always observing. I don’t sit in a university. I never go to conferences. That is a terrible mistake. A conference is like overlaying the same insular ideology on top of it. I am always listening to conversations at the shopping mall.

COWEN: My last question before they get to ask you, but I know there are many people in this audience, or at least some, who are considering some kind of life or career in the world of ideas. If you were to offer them a piece of advice based on your years struggling with the infrastructure, and the number of chairs, and whatever else, what would that be?

PAGLIA: Get a job. Have a job. Again, that’s the real job. Every time you have frustrations with the real job, you say, “This is good.” This is good, because this is reality. This is reality as everybody lives it. This thing of withdrawing from the world to be a writer, I think, is a terrible mistake.

Number one thing is constantly observing. My whole life, I’m constantly jotting things down. Constantly. Just jot, jot, jot, jot. I’ll have an idea. I’m cooking, and I have an idea, “Whoa, whoa.” I have a lot of pieces of paper with tomato sauce on them or whatever. I transfer these to cards or I transfer them to notes.

I’m just constantly open. Everything’s on all the time. I never say, “This is important. This is not important.” That’s why I got into popular culture at a time when popular culture was — .

In fact, there’s absolutely no doubt that at Yale Graduate School, I lost huge credibility with the professors because of my endorsement of not only film but Hollywood. When Hollywood was considered crass entertainment and so on. Now, the media studies came in very strongly after that, although highly theoretical. Not the way I teach media studies.

I also believe in following your own instincts and intuition, like there’s something meaningful here. You don’t know what it is, but you just keep it on the back burner. That’s basically how I work is this, the constant observation. Also, I try to tell my students, they never get the message really, but what I try to say to them is nothing is boring. Nothing is boring. If you’re bored, you’re boring.


Watch the full interview below:

Check out the transcript as well.