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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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Favorite Passages: Juilliard pt.1

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

How does one learn to compose?

They enroll in trade-school of course. At least, this is how Philip Glass described Juilliard.

He applied to Juilliard after graduating from the University of Chicago. He wanted the best music school in America. And he wanted New York.

But his path to Julliard was crooked. His parents still questioned his musical ambitions. He would need to spend one year in Stanley Wolfe‘s composition class, and then re-audition as a composition student. Oh, and he needed to pay for all this. So he’d work an overhead crane at the Bethlehem Steel nail mill.

Glass knew he wanted a life in music, but a chance encounter at a small diner near Eighty-Eighth Street confirmed composing music was his calling.

One night I noticed an older man, perhaps in his sixties, in another booth doing the same thing-writing music! He was often there when I arrived and remained when I left. I don’t think he ever noticed me, so absorbed was he in his own work. After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I quietly approached him, looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. It was a piano quintet (piano plus string quartet) and, from my few quick glances, it looked very well thought out and “professional.” That was a most remarkable thing for me to stumble on-an older man composing in a coffee shop exactly as I was doing.

Now, here is perhaps the most remarkable part of the story, and something I didn’t understand until many years later: I wasn’t at all upset by this nonencounter. It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings. I never knew who he was. Perhaps he was there, escaping from noisy domestic scene-wife kids running around, too many guests at home. Or, like me, perhaps he was simply living alone in a single room. The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.

Words Without Music: A Memoir, pgs 62,63

This glimpse into a possible future asked asked Glass the question:

If 40 years from now you were an old, unknown composer, still writing music in a coffee shop, would you still choose composing?

Glass didn’t hesitate. Composing was his path.

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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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Favorite Passages: Home

All quotes are from: On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

In the final pages, of the final chapter of On the Move, Sacks returns to one of his favorite topics – writing.

Journaling was essential for Sacks. He always kept a notebook close:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

On using journals as method for talking to one’s self:

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Sacks strays away from the tortured writer narrative. His attitude towards writing is similar to Ray Bradbury.

It’s a pleasure. It’s a joy. It’s an elixir to the chaos of life.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject-where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

And after seventy years writing is still fun!

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

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Favorite Passages: A New Vision of the Mind

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks describing his meeting with the Noble Prize winning physical chemist Gerald M. Edelman:

He then abruptly took his leave, and looking out the window, I could see him walking rapidly down York Avenue, looking to neither side. “That is the walk of a genius, a monomaniac,” I thought to myself. “He is like a man possessed.” I had a sense of awe and envy-how I should like such a ferocious power of concentration! But then I thought that life might not be entirely easy with such a brain, indeed, Edelman, I was to find, took no holidays, slept little, and was driven, almost bullied, by nonstop thinking; he would often phone Rosenfield in the middle of the night. Perhaps I was better off with my own, more modest endowment.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

While Edelman’s drive and single focus is admirable. Sacks goes further, admitting his envy for Edelman. Sacks recognized that while Edelman’s abilities were desirable, there was a freedom in his less “focused” life.

Sack’s intellectual work, a combination of working with patients, writing books, traveling, love for cephalopods, taking piano lessons in his seventies wasn’t “focused”. But it was rich.

A more modest endowment can have benefits.

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Favorite Passages: Voyages

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks opens the chapter – Voyages with a reflection on his father’s work ethic and subtle career advice.

At one time, my father had thought of a career in neurology but then decided that general practice would be “more real,” “more fun,” because it would bring him into deeper contact with people and their lives.

This intense human interest he preserved to the last: when he reached the age of ninety, David and I entreated him to retire-or at least, to stop his house calls. He replied that home visits were “the heart” of medical practice and that he would sooner stop anything else. From the age of ninety to almost ninety-four, he would charter a mini-cap for the day to continue house calls.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

After reading this passage Paul Graham’s essay How to Do What You Love came to mind. In that essay, Graham argues one should build a career (I’d argue a life) based on genuine interests, rather than prestige.

Sack’s father intuitively understood this. A neurologist does hold a higher status in society than a general practice doctor. And certainly more than a general practice doctor making house calls. But it was in that general practice, meeting the needs of his fellow man, that Sack’s father built a meaningful life.

I wonder if Dr. Sacks (sr.) had chosen Neurology, would he have had the same enthusiasm and stamina to continue working into his ninety’s?

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Favorite Passages: City Island

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

After 3 months, I’ve returned to Dr. Oliver Sacks’ memoir – On the Move: A Life.

Reading each page is skiing downhill. A smooth, lightning shot of a journey that slaloms through Dr. Sacks’ curious life.

It’s been a joy.

From the chapter, City Island:

Especially in our early days, I sometimes felt terrified of his directness – terrified in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse. I had feared his criticisms at the beginning, but from 1971 on, when I sent him Migraine, I was eager for his reactions, depended on them, and gave more weight than those of anyone else.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Even Dr. Sacks feared critique of his writing. Especially from his friend and correspondent the poet Thom Gunn.

But as much as Gunn’s directness terrified Dr. Sacks, he valued Gunn’s feedback of his writing more than anyone else’s.

Sacks understood Gunn’s feedback would improve his writing.

Sacks also describes Gunn in the opening of the City Island chapter as a tremendous walker:

Thom was always a tremendous walker, striding up and down the hills of San Francisco. I never saw him with a car or a bicycle; he was quintessentially a walker, a walker like Dickens, who observed everything, took it in, and used it sooner or later in what he wrote.

Throughout On The Move, Sacks introduces us to new characters as if you’d be joining them for a Friday dinner party.

Sacks’ detailed descriptions of their character quirks reveal their humanity.

P.S. I want to be considered a tremendous walker!