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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: 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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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.

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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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At Years End: Our 2020 Favorites

The criteria for our 2020 favorites is simple.

What media did we revisit multiple times in 2020?

Let’s find out.

Interview:

Art of Manliness podcast #587:

How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading with Professor Alan Jacob and Brett Mckay.

This interview rejuvenated my reading life.

Here Professor Jacobs presents reading on a Whim. The idea that one should read what interests them, rather than what “you’re supposed to”.

Professor Jacobs argues reading shouldn’t be a chore, but rather a pleasurable experience.

You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

Professor Jacob’s reading advice to his students

YouTube Video:

Kevin Kelly’s 68 Bits of Unsolicited advice

Kevin wrote this as a letter on his 68th birthday as a gift to his son (He practices the Hobbit tradition of birthdays).

Thankfully, he recorded and shared the advice on his YouTube channel. It is a word of encouragement for us all:

There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.

– Kevin Kelly

Book:

On the Move: A Life By Oliver Sacks.

This book took 5 years to finish, not because Sacks’ memoir isn’t compulsively readable, but because there were other books I thought I should read instead.

Sack’s life is one to emulate. Not by becoming a neurologist and cultivating a British Accent. But rather by seeing life, all of life – love, career, hobbies travel, failure, success, as an adventure to pursue.

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. Sack’s on his father’s career

Article:

The life of Philip Glass, by Dan Wang

Dan Wang’s article on Philip Glass’ memoir –Words Without Music was inspiring.

Learning that Glass drove taxis, and was a self-taught plumber proves there’s no shame in taking day jobs to support one’s calling.

Learning that Glass didn’t succeed as a full time composer until his forties served as a reminder.

Stamina can take one to the impossible.

Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab.

Movie:

Paterson: written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Kylo Ren’s new life as a bus driver poet?

I’M IN.

I’m more and more captivated by movies where the stakes aren’t the end of civilization. Paterson is a entertaining example of this idea.

Paterson was also a gateway to the poet William Carlos Williams. Who somehow I’d never heard of before 2020.

Twitter Feed:

Ted Gioia, @tedgioia.

Who else can recommend 4 books they “consult often” on Duke Ellington? Next level stuff, that.

Gioia’s Annual 100 favorite albums list is a must read. Here’s 2020’s: