Philip Glass in São Paulo, 2010. (Photography by João Milet Meirelles, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The great escape

Notes on an intellectual and musical journey.

As a high school sophomore in Baltimore, composer Philip Glass, AB’56, applied and was accepted into the College. Whether his parents would allow him to attend was another question. Over breakfast one morning in 1952, his mother announced, “We had a meeting last evening and it was decided you can go to Chicago.” In Glass’s new book, Words Without Music: A Memoir, which will be published April 7 by W. W. Norton, he recalls his arrival at age 15 and the first year of his UChicago education.

The overnight train to Chicago was run by the old B&O railroad, which left every day in the early evening from downtown Baltimore and arrived in the Loop in Chicago early the next morning. That, or the long drive through western Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, was the only road between Baltimore and Chicago. In 1952, very few people took planes, though commercial airlines were beginning to offer an alternative.

I was on my way to college with two friends from high school, Sidney Jacobs, AB’54, SB’58, SM’60, and Tom Steiner, AB’54, AB’58, AM’62, both of whom I actually knew quite well. But our going out to the Midwest together was unplanned, sheer chance. They were part of a local, self-made club they called the Phalanx—a group of superbright, geeky teenagers who banded together for mutual company and entertainment. I knew them from the Maryland Chess Club, though, being several years younger, I was tolerated to a degree but had never been a part of their highly introverted and intellectual group. But I liked them all—they and their friends: Irv Zucker, Malcolm Pivar, William Sullivan. Poets, mathematicians, and techno-visionaries of an order very early and remote from anything going on today.

The three of us were all on the train together, bonding easily for the first time. I was extremely excited to be on my way and had barely noticed the lectures, warnings, and assurances from Ben and Ida Glass that in the end came down to letting me know I could come home anytime I needed to if things at the University of Chicago didn’t work out.

“We can arrange with your school that if you come back from Chicago before Christmas, you can go back into your grade at the high school,” my mother said. Of course, I knew there was zero chance of that. They considered the three months until Christmas a trial run. For me, though, it was every kid’s dream—the Great Escape.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Soon after leaving the station, the lights were out. It was just an old passenger train from Dixie to the Midwest, with no amenities of any kind. No lights, no reading, nothing to do but make friends with the sounds of the night train. The wheels on the track made endless patterns, and I was caught up in it almost at once. Years later, studying with Alla Rakha, Ravi Shankar’s great tabla player and music partner, I practiced the endless cycles of twos and threes that form the heart of the Indian tal system. From this I learned the tools by which apparent chaos could be heard as an unending array of shifting beats and patterns. But on this memorable night, I was innocent of all that. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until almost 14 years later, when I was on my first voyage of discovery in India and trains were the only way to travel, that I did some serious train travel again, much as I had as a boy on my many journeys between Baltimore and Chicago. The facts of travel were similar, at times almost identical. But my way of hearing had been radically transformed in those years. One might think that the trains from Einstein on the Beach came from a similar place, but no, that wasn’t so. That train music came from quite a different place, which I’ll get to later. The point was that the world of music—its language, beauty, and mystery—was already urging itself on me. Some shift had already begun. Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The “out there” stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music. Night trains can make those things happen. The sounds of daily life were entering me almost unnoticed.

Right away, Chicago had much more of a big-city feel than Baltimore. It had modern architecture—not just Frank Lloyd Wright but the landmark Louis Sullivan buildings that were a little bit older. It had a first-class orchestra—the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner; the Chicago Art Institute, with its collection of Monet; and even art movie theaters. Chicago was a real city that could cater to intellectuals and people with serious cultural interests in a way that Baltimore couldn’t. Chicago was also a place where you’d hear jazz that you wouldn’t hear in Baltimore. (I didn’t even know where the jazz clubs were in my hometown.) If you wanted to go to a good Chinese restaurant in Baltimore, you had to drive to Washington, but in Chicago we had everything.

The University stretched from 55th Street to 61st Street on both sides of the Midway, which had been the center of amusements and sideshows at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Fifty-Seventh Street was built up with restaurants and bars, and the South Side jazz clubs, like the Beehive, were on 55th Street. Of course I was too young to go to some of the places I wanted to go, since I was 15 and looked 15. By the time I was 16 or 17, 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.

The first day of freshman orientation, I walked into a room and the first thing I noticed was that there were black students. You have to look at it from the point of view of a kid who had grown up in the Dixie South—because that’s where Baltimore was. There hadn’t been any African American students in any school I’d ever attended. I had lived in a world where segregation was taken for granted and not even discussed. This was my conversion from being a kid from a border state, a Dixie state, whatever you want to call it, which was segregated top to bottom—its restaurants, movie houses, swimming pools, golf courses. I think it took me less than a minute to realize that I had lived my whole life in a place that was completely wrong. It was a revelation.

The College of the University of Chicago was quite small in those days—probably fewer than 500 undergraduates, counting all four years of the usual program. However, it fit into the larger University of professional schools—business, law, medicine—and divisions devoted to science, the humanities, social science, theology, and the arts, as well as the Oriental Institute. The relationship of the College to this large university was surprisingly intimate, and quite a number of the university faculty came to teach in the College. It was thought of then as a kind of European system, though I have no idea whether that was actually true or not. Classes were small, consisting of 12 or fewer students with one professor—we were never taught by graduate students. We sat together at a round table and talked through our reading lists—a classic seminar format. There were a few lecture classes, but not many, and in addition, there were experiment/lab classes for science.

Very often when the seminars were over in the classrooms, the debates that had begun initially with the teachers would be continued among ourselves in the coffee shops on the Quadrangles at the center of the campus. That actually was the idea. The seminar style was something that was easy to reproduce in a coffee shop, because it was practically the same thing.

There were some sports at the school, but at that time we didn’t have a football, basketball, or baseball team. I wanted to do something active so I went to the physical education board and found out they really needed some people for the wrestling team. I had wrestled in high school, so I volunteered, weighing in at about 116 pounds. I did pretty well with the team until my second or third year of competition with nearby schools. Then some farm boy from Iowa beat me so soundly and quickly that I gave it up for life.

The University of Chicago was renowned for its faculty members. I remember vividly my freshman course in chemistry. The lecturer was Harold C. Urey, who had won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He had chosen to teach the first-year chemistry class to maybe 70 or 80 students, and he brought an enthusiasm for his subject that was electrifying. We met at 8 a.m., but there were no sleepyheads in that class. Professor Urey looked exactly like Dr. Van Helsing from the Tod Browning 1931 movie Dracula—the doctor who examines Dracula’s victims and says, “And on the throat, the same two marks.” Now, when would a freshman or sophomore kid get to even be in the same room with a Nobel Prize winner, let alone being lectured on the periodic table? I think he must have thought, There must be young people out there who are going to become scientists.

Professor Urey lectured like an actor, striding back and forth in front of the big blackboard, making incomprehensible marks on the board (I couldn’t figure out what he was doing—I only knew it had to do with the periodic table). His teaching was like a performance. He was a man passionate about his subject, and he couldn’t wait until we could be there at eight in the morning. Scientists on that level are like artists in a way. They are intensely in love with their subject matter, and Urey was one of them. In fact, I don’t remember anything about chemistry. I just went to see his performances.

In my second year I had a small seminar class in sociology taught by David Riesman, who, along with Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer, was the author of The Lonely Crowd, a very famous book in those days. I suppose it might seem a little quaint today, but in the 1950s it was very new thinking. The thesis of the book was simple: there are three kinds of people, inner-directed, other-directed, and tradition-directed. These became personality types. The inner-directed is someone like Professor Urey, or like an artist—someone who doesn’t care about anything except the thing that he wants to do. The other-directed had no sense of his own identity other than that which came from the approval of the world around them. The tradition-directed are concerned with following the rules that have been handed down from the past. When you read these books, you immediately understand that the inner-directed people are the people that are the most interesting.

Dr. Riesman would have eight or 10 students in the class—no more than that—and I liked him immediately. He was, like Urey, a brilliant man, part of a new generation of sociologists who, coming after anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, brought methods of anthropology to bear on an analysis of modern urban life. My connection to Dr. Riesman extended well beyond the classroom. Twenty-five years later, his son Michael Riesman, who was about five years old at the time I was taking his father’s course, became the music director of the Philip Glass Ensemble.

When the ensemble played at Harvard in the 1970s, Dr. Riesman was teaching there. Michael came to tell me, “My dad is here at the concert.”

“Oh, I’ve got to see Dr. Riesman,” I said.

“Dr. Riesman, do you remember me?” I asked when I met him.

“Of course I do,” my one-time professor said.

I didn’t really see any reason why he would have remembered me after all that time, though I had, in fact, caused a bit of a fuss with him once by challenging his ideas in the seminar. I had told him that I thought the three categories of people that he was suggesting were very much like the endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph types that had been proposed by an anthropologist who was studying the human body.

“Do you think so?” he had asked me.

“I think it’s absolutely the same,” I said.

He looked at me like I was nuts. It’s funny, whenever I got an idea, if I thought I was right, I could not be talked out of it, and maybe that’s why he remembered me. I was a sophomore in college, 16 years old, and he was in his mid-40s at the time. Why wouldn’t I keep my mouth shut? In truth, I never did. The same confrontation I had with David Riesman was repeated with Aaron Copland a number of years later, when he and I got into an argument about orchestration.

In the summer of 1960, four years after I had graduated from Chicago, Copland was a guest of the orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I had come from Juilliard to take a summer course with Darius Milhaud, a wonderful composer and teacher. The orchestra was playing some of Copland’s pieces at the festival, and through Milhaud’s class, he invited students to meet with him one-on-one to show him their compositions. I took him one of my pieces, a violin concerto for solo violin, winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones), and percussion.

Mr. Copland looked at the first page. What I had done was to pencil in a theme for the violin—it’s so similar to what I do today, I’m surprised that I had even thought of it then—and every low note of the theme, I had played on the French horn. So the violin went da-da, da-da, da-da, and the French horn outlined the bottom notes, which became the countermelody. I thought it was a very good idea.

Mr. Copland looked at it and said, “You’ll never hear the French horn.”

“Of course you will,” I said.

“Nope, you’ll never hear it.”

“I will hear it.”

“You’re not going to hear it.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Copland. I’m going to hear it.”

Mr. Copland got extremely annoyed with me, and that was pretty much the end of my lesson. He’d only seen the opening page of the piece! We never got beyond the first eight or 10 measures.

“What’s wrong with me?” I thought. Mr. Copland was much older than me. He was a real composer, a famous composer. He’d invited students to show him their compositions—a wonderful opportunity—and I had totally blown it. I had one lesson with Aaron Copland and we had a disagreement and he basically kicked me out.

As it turned out, I was right, at least that time. On a student recording the next year at Juilliard, sure enough, there was that French horn line, outlining the countermelody to the violin theme. You could hear it clear as a bell. I am sorry I didn’t keep in touch with Mr. Copland, for I would have sent him the recording.

The impact of such original and professional researchers and academicians on our young minds was enormous. This level of leadership was everywhere—in philosophy, mathematics, classical studies. Oddly, though, the performing arts were not represented at all. No dance, theater, or music performance training was to be found. On the other hand, there were parts of the University of Chicago that were involved in studies so radical that we barely knew what they were up to at all. One of its graduate programs, the Committee on Social Thought, was such a group. To graduate from the College and enter the committee as a graduate student—to be accepted, as it were, by the committee—would have been their greatest dream for some. Its faculty consisted of writers, scientists, thinkers. These were men and women that some in the College—including myself—deeply, almost fiercely admired and attempted to emulate as best we could: in those years they included names like Saul Bellow, EX’39; Hannah Arendt; and Mircea Eliade.

Bellow’s big novel at that time was The Adventures of Augie March, the story of a man’s life and search for identity from childhood to maturity. I was a big reader, and the two writers from Chicago who interested me were Bellow and Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm, about a heroin addict’s struggles to stay clean, and Walk on the Wild Side, in which Algren tells us, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

What was interesting about Bellow and Algren was that they took absolutely colloquial language—and not just colloquial language but vulgar language—and used it as a medium of expression. Until then, I had been very taken with writers like Joseph Conrad, who wrote in a very eloquent early-20th-century prose, but these new writers were using the vernacular of the street.

I never saw Bellow on campus, but we all knew about him. Both he and Algren were idolized by the young people in Chicago because they were Chicago. They were not New York, they were not San Francisco. When I went to Chicago, I picked up Chicago writers, I picked up Chicago jazz, I picked up Chicago folk music—people like Big Bill Broonzy and Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. All these people worked in Chicago.

As often happens around a great school or university, the University of Chicago projected its aura well beyond its Hyde Park neighborhood and, for that matter, the rest of the South Side. Writers, poets, and thinkers would come to live in the shadow of the university. This larger world included theater groups and cutting-edge bebop jazz clubs like the Beehive or the Cotton Club on Cottage Grove. There was even a rumor, but perhaps a true one, that Alfred Korzybski, the scholar and author of Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity, had lived and worked in Hyde Park. He was an early proponent of the study of semantics and a radical thinker who, for some reason, appealed to me. Perhaps it was his ideas about history, time, and our human nature I was drawn to—he originated the concept of time-binding, that human culture is the result of the transmission of knowledge through time. I haven’t seen his books in years or even heard tell of him. Perhaps just another great soul, an American Mahatma, if you will, to be found somewhere in our libraries and collective memories.

As I learned early on, the academic arrangements made for the College were especially striking. We were assigned to courses and classes (there were, famously, 14 courses, each three quarters long—fall, winter, spring). However, attendance was not required or even noted. There were quarterly exams that students could take. These exams were strictly optional, and the grades given were not counted toward failure or success in the course. The courses that were considered the core of the curriculum consisted of three levels each in science, sociology, and the humanities. Five other courses made up the 14. Completion of these was the only requirement for graduation.

There would be, though, a “comprehensive” exam for whatever courses the student had registered for at the end of the year, in May. Each of these exams would take an entire day and include at least one essay to be written in the examination room. Needless to say, the subject of the essay would be unknown to the students before the exam, so of course this could be, and often was, a terrifying experience. However, the reading list for each course was available at the beginning of the academic year. The readings themselves were to be found at the U of C bookstore, either as individual books or as a collection of readings in a syllabus.

Now, the simplest and most straightforward way to prepare for the comprehensive was to buy the books and syllabus for each course and simply attend the seminars, lectures, or laboratory classes in the normal unfolding of a three-quarter course. To be truthful, I never once followed that path. Perhaps there were some who did so, but in all my years there I never met them.

There were several problems that made the ideal plan difficult to follow. The biggest problem was embedded in the culture of the university itself. It was like this: though we were assigned to specific seminars, we were free to “audit” any course in the College we liked and even many courses in the university. To audit a class you simply asked the professor for permission to attend. I never heard of a request being refused. Of course, we were encouraged to attend our registered courses, but it was not required, and in the end, the only grade earned and which actually counted was the comprehensive exam. So, in theory, one could skip all the classes and exams and just take the comprehensive. But almost no one did that either. I think many of us took a middle road. We emphasized our regular course work, but freely “grazed” through much of the university curriculum.

Along around late March or April, when we discovered we had fallen behind in our reading lists, we started frantically reading the missing texts. It could be helpful, too, if you could find someone who had taken good notes of classes missed and was willing to share them, but this was not likely. Basically, I did a lockdown. I would go to the bookstore and buy the books, and I began reading them slowly. I read everything. The advantage was that when I went into the exams, everything was fresh in my mind; I hadn’t forgotten anything because I had barely learned it to begin with. So I never failed the exams. My very first year, I had four exams, and I got an A, B, C, and a D. My mother was horrified, but I pointed out that actually that was a B-minus average.

The next year everything resolved into As, Bs, and Cs. I got rid of the Ds, but I never got all As, I wasn’t that kind of student. I wasn’t concerned with having a good grade point average. I wasn’t going to medical school—what did I care? I didn’t think the grades mattered. They weren’t a systematic appraisal of what I knew. I was more interested in hanging out with someone like Aristotle Skalides, a wandering intellectual and would-be academic who wasn’t a student but who liked to engage young people in the coffee shop in discussions about philosophy. Spending an hour with him at the coffee shop was like going and spending an hour in the classroom. I was more interested in my general education than the courses. It almost didn’t matter to me whom I studied with, as long as I found the right teacher, and that was pretty much my attitude. In fact, I think that has persisted all through my life. I’ve found teachers all through my life, people I knew who were otherwise unknown.

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 was 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, and 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 itself probably accounted for their appeal.

A third distraction, and perhaps the biggest one of all, was Chicago itself. For example, during its season the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered Friday afternoon concerts to students for a 50-cent admission price. From the South Side, it was a quick ride on the Illinois Central Train to downtown Chicago. I had been a regular concertgoer to the Baltimore Symphony practically from childhood. The editor of the Baltimore Symphony concert program, Mr. Greenwald, taught at my mother’s high school, and he often gave us free tickets to concerts. The Baltimore Symphony was quite good, but the Chicago Symphony was in a class by itself.

Fritz Reiner, the famous Hungarian conductor, was fascinating to watch. He was somewhat stout, hunched over with round shoulders, and his arm and baton movements were tiny—you almost had to look at him with a telescope to see what he was doing. But those tiny movements forced the players to peer in at him intently, and then he would suddenly raise his arms up over his head and the entire orchestra would go crazy. Reiner knew the classical repertoire, of course, but he was an outstanding interpreter of Bartók and Kodály, both countrymen of his. Of course, Bartók’s music was already familiar to me through my father. There was also the Art Institute of Chicago, the Opera House, which I only occasionally visited, and the downtown jazz clubs, which, for a time, were still off-limits to me because of my age.

I mentioned earlier the influence of the Great Books of the curriculum, but it extended far beyond that. Whenever possible, which turned out to be all the time, the books we studied would be firsthand, primary sources. We were never given summaries to read or even commentaries, unless they themselves rose to the level of a primary source. So, for example, we read Darwin’s The Origin of Species in the biological sciences, and we reperformed Mandel’s fruit fly experiments. In physics we reenacted the experiments of Galileo with rolling balls and inclined planes. We also read Newton and followed physics up to and including Schrödinger, while, in chemistry, we read Avogadro and Dalton.

So the study of science became the study of the history of science, and I began to understand what a scientific personality could be like. This early exposure would be reflected in Galileo Galilei, which I composed 45 years later, in which his experiments become a dance piece—the balls and inclined planes are there. I found the biographical aspects of scientists intensely interesting, and my operas about Galileo and Kepler and Einstein pay tribute to everything I learned about scientists and science that came out of those years.

The same primary-source method was carried out in social science, history, and philosophy. Learning American history meant reading the Federalist Papers and other late-18th-century essays by the men who wrote the Constitution. Of course, humanities meant theater and literature from ancient to modern. Poetry, same thing. The effect on me was to cultivate and understand in a firsthand way the lineage of culture. In this way, the men and women who created the stepping-stones from earliest times became familiar to us—not something “handed down” but actually known in a most immediate and personal way.

At this time, I slowly became comfortable with the University’s Harper Library, where I learned to research events and people. The work I later took up in opera and theater would not have been possible without all that preparation and training. My first three full-scale operas—Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten—were made with collaborators—Robert Wilson, Constance DeJong, and Shalom Goldman, respectively—but I fully participated in the writing and shaping of the librettos for all three. I could do this with complete confidence in my academic abilities. In fact, I now see clearly that a lot of the work I chose was inspired by men and women whom I first met in the pages of books. In this way, these early operas were, as I see it, an homage to the power, strength, and inspiration of the lineage of culture.

Born in Baltimore in 1937, Philip Glass, AB’56, studied at the Juilliard School after graduating from the College. The widely celebrated composer of operas, film scores, and symphonies, he performs regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble and lives in New York. Excerpted from Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass. Copyright © 2015 by Philip Glass. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation Inc. All rights reserved.