By Benjamin Preston
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Philip Glass may be a famous composer now, but at one time, he had to make ends meet by driving a taxicab. On one occasion, he told the audience at a talk promoting his new book — “Words Without Music” — at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Monday night, an elderly lady looked at the identification tag in his cab and told him he shared a name with a famous composer.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said. “Fate is a strange thing. You play the cards you’re dealt.”
For Glass, his hand included a record store owned by his father, Ben Glass. The elder Glass had dived into the venture after working as an auto mechanic and a radio repairman. With his profession, young Philip Glass had access to a trove of modern classical music — material that, at the time, didn’t tend to sell well in Baltimore, Md. As a result, Glass listed to work by composers including Hindemith, Bartók, Schoenberg and Shostakovich.
By most people’s reckoning, Glass is a prodigy. He went to the University of Chicago at 15, and by the time he was 25, had a master’s degree from the Julliard School of Music. Later, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright grant. It stands as an impressive academic resume.
In the 1970s, when he formed and began performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble, Glass said he considered himself a successful musician. But despite the academic pedigree and musical success, he still had to hold a “day job,” as he called it, working manual labor gigs and driving a taxi, among other jobs that didn’t necessarily require much complex thought.
“I had better things to think about,” he said. “I worked well in an environment where I would go on tour, then come back and get a day job to pay for it all.”
He said he would rent venues like Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, but that he didn’t like to rely upon grants for funding. The independence his father had shown running the record store when he was growing up was, he said, a big influence on him.
“One time I asked him, ‘Ben, what are you doing in this store?’ and he said, ‘Well, I want to see how good I can make it,'” Glass recalled.
A big influence on his music, Glass said, was his time in Paris. Boulanger was a tough teacher, but she imparted lessons about content, form and style that would have been difficult to grasp without a guiding hand.
“All those things are wishy-washy until you get with someone who knows how to work with them,” he said.
Rock ’n’ roll was also influential, Glass said, and its loudness and power impressed him. He recalled seeing acts like Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa, with speakers stacked up high on either side of the stage.
In his early days, Glass got a few bad reviews, including one from the New York Daily News that Kurt Andersen, the BAM event’s moderator, brought up Monday — “Glass Invents New Sonic Torture.” After having a chuckle at the cleverly worded barb, Glass said the bad press never fazed him.
“I never had self-doubt because I had an audience,” he said.
Years later, with a tome of music to his credit, including symphonies, operas and film scores, Glass’ confidence appears to have paid off.
But throughout the years, the musician said his experience helped him appreciate all walks of life, a notion that chipped away at his belief that artists were some higher form of humanity.
“Quality of life has to do with how you approach it,” he said, adding that a factory worker or plumber is just as likely to appreciate something beautiful as any creative person. “I have a house in Cape Breton [Nova Scotia], and know farmers and a local priest there, and we don’t know any more than they do. Quite the opposite in some cases.”
After finishing his book, he said he has a newfound respect for writers, too.
“Writing a book is not easy,” he said. “I’m not doing another.”