It was 1964 when the young Philip Glass found himself in Paris. He was on a Fulbright scholarship to study with the revered pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. It was a career move carefully planned. Glass wanted to be a composer and he knew Boulanger's rigorous lessons in traditional Western harmony and counterpoint would sharpen his skills. But a completely unplanned event in Paris led Glass to discover a very different kind of music — music that would influence his life and his compositions.
"The door to world music for me was opened by Ravi Shankar," Glass tells NPR's Arun Rath, who spoke with the composer about his new memoir, Words Without Music. In Paris, through a series of chance encounters, Glass became Shankar's assistant, learning to notate Indian music the sitar master was composing for a film, Chappaqua. Before they met, Glass says, he knew practically nothing about music from India.
"I had never heard any," Glass recalls. "I went out and I bought a record of Indian classical music and I couldn't make heads or tails of it." But soon the music would make a deep impression on Glass, sparking a lifelong interest in music from other cultures.
"India was the first place," Glass says, "but in the course of time I've worked with musicians from Africa, from all parts of South America, from Australia, from China, from Tibet. Those encounters were the most stimulating parts of my music education. There were no books that would prepare me for those kinds of things. I was really on my own. Finding my way into other people's music was a way of learning about music. And of course it had an impact on the way I compose music. It became the engine of change for me."
By throwing himself into music of other cultures, Glass also became attracted to their spiritual traditions.
"What they all have in common — and we're talking about the Taoist tradition of China, or the Shinto traditions of Japan, what you find in the indigenous people in Australia — is that they are not us," Glass says. "I was taught to see the world in a certain way because that is what I learned. That is what every culture does. Our description of the world is beaten into our heads when we are children. And to get out of that is very difficult. I found out that the Tibetan description was different, the Taoist was different, the aboriginal Australian was different. And I became, I would say, an addict of that kind of thing."
Glass says one of the reasons he's written so much music in his life was that he met so many interesting people all over the world. But where does the music really come from? It's a question the young Philip Glass once asked Ravi Shankar.
"I said to him, 'Raviji, where does music come from?' He turned to a table by his bedside and there was a picture of an Indian gentleman in what we would call a Nehru coat. He did a complete bowing down to the picture and said, 'By the grace of my guru the music has come through him to me.' And I thought that was as good an answer as you're ever going to get."
Glass' current view of the question, one that students have asked him about, reflects his fascination with the world and its people. "Music is a place," he told them. "As real as Chicago or New Delhi."
It's not literally a place, Glass says, "but when you write music you go there."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Let me keep this simple. One of the greatest and most important composers of the past 100 years is our next guest - Philip Glass.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS COMPOSITION)
RATH: Philip Glass has written a remarkable memoir about his remarkable life. It's called "Words Without Music." One big impression I took away from the book was how his immersion in other cultures shaped his development - trips to places like India, Australia, Tibet, Mexico, where he found the brightest minds - musical or otherwise - to teach him. He says those relationships shaped how he thought about music and life.
PHILIP GLASS: Let's say the door to world music was opened for me by Ravi Shankar because I became his assistant, and I had to learn enough about the music so I could notate what he was playing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GLASS: And that led to an interest in India. And so I was able to get a very deep connection with that music. I found that the encounters I made with indigenous musicians, whether they were from Mexico or from Australia or from China, from Tibet - those encounters were the most stimulating parts of my education.
RATH: I felt like my ears were best prepared for your music by listening to Indian classical music, the rhythms in particular.
GLASS: That helped me, too.
GLASS: I had the same experience, Arun. It wasn't that easy to hear at first, though. You have to remember, I was working with Ravi Shankar in 1963. But at the beginning, when I first went to work with him - and I knew I was going to be working with a master of Indian classical music - I had never heard any. And I was in Paris; I went out and bought a record of Indian classical music. I couldn't make heads or tails of it.
RATH: Can you talk about not just Ravi Shankar, but you really learned about Indian rhythm with his accompanist...
GLASS: Alla Rakha...
RATH: Yeah, master percussionist.
GLASS: With Alla Rakha, I could really study the details of the rhythmic structure of Indian music because with that, everything can fit in.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALLA RAKHA: I played this which is a rhythmic cycle of 14. It's like this (playing tabla) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, one. (Playing tabla).
RATH: You write about the rhythmic aspect as something that maybe has been a bit neglected in the West. And I think about what you write about how your early compositions people treated you in some ways - the bad reactions, they thought you were just a musical dunce, in your words. And I feel like well...
GLASS: That's true.
RATH: Were they not hearing the rhythms, you know? Were they not seeing, you know, feeling the complexity that was there?
GLASS: You know, here's a funny thing - I realized this years later when I was notating this music, I found everything fell into patterns based on twos and threes, odds and evens. Basically, it's a binary structure. It's a binary language. And this is 1963, '64. I didn't even hear about binary music until - well, I mean, it could've been 35, 40 years later. In fact, that was the basis of Indian classical music for hundreds of years. And so I had - by the time I did "Einstein On The Beach," that piece is completely written in a binary form.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH")
UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE: (Singing) One-two-three, one-two-three, one- two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three...
GLASS: It's how those twos and threes fit together in overall structures that make the larger form of the music happen.
RATH: It was interesting - and later on when you came to work with Ravi Shankar again, I think it was in 1990 when you did an album together called "Passages" - it's - unless you look over the liner notes, you have a hard time telling who wrote which piece.
GLASS: That's right. We had a hard time, too. But the way it was done was this way - we alternated. He started with a melody of mine and I started with a melody of his. And then we basically composed music along each other's music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "PASSAGES")
RATH: You haven't just thrown yourself into other musical cultures. You've thrown yourself into other spiritual traditions in - both in India and in Tibet and other parts of the world. I'm curious because you write about growing up as basically an atheist Jew. What were you after from these yogis and llamas?
GLASS: I was interested at what they all have in common. And we're talking about the Daoist tradition of China or the Shinto traditions of Japan, what you find in the indigenous people in Australia. What they have in common is that they're not us. (Laughter) And I very early recognized that my view of the world was a - I was taught to see the world in a certain way because that's what I learned and that's what - that's what every culture does. Our description of the world is embedded in this - is beaten into our heads by the - when we're children. And to get out of that is very, very difficult. I found out that the Tibetan description was different, that the Daoist was different, that the aboriginal Australian was different. And I became - I would say an addict of that kind of thing. And having that foundation made it, to be truthful, much easier. When you start applying that to music, it becomes extremely interesting. I guess one of the reasons I wrote so much music in my life is that I met so many interesting people.
RATH: I want to finally ask you a question, which is your own question as a young man in the book. Where does the music come from?
GLASS: That's right. That's right. That was - that's when I became a composer actually, when I was 15. I thought if I began writing music, I would find out - of course, I didn't find out. But I asked other people that question. I remember once in the 1960s and I was visiting Ravi Shankar. He was doing some concerts in London, and I was nearby in Paris so I came over to see him. And I said to him Ravi, where does the music come from? He turned to a table on his bedside and there was a picture of an Indian gentleman in a kind of - what we would call a Nehru coat. And he did a complete bow - bowing down to the picture, and he said that by the grace of my guru, the music has come through him to me. And I thought that was as good an answer as you're ever going to get. My current view of it - and it came about through one of those talks I have with students - and they asked me the same question that you asked. And I said with - spontaneously and without reflection and without intending to, I said music is a place. It's as real as Chicago and New Delhi. And musicians, generally speaking, have their foot - one foot in that world and another foot in the world of everyday life. And any musician can tell you that that's true. And it turns out that that does resonate with people. They say yes, place - is a place, they understand that.
RATH: Philip Glass, his new memoir is called "Words Without Music." Thank you so much.
GLASS: Oh, happy to talk with you, Arun.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS COMPOSITION) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.