The man who repeats himself

Classical composer Philip Glass.
Classical composer Philip Glass.PHOTO: EYEB

As with his hypnotic music, the life of American composer Philip Glass has been characterised by repetition.

Glass, 78, is the prodigious youngest son of working-class Jews in Baltimore. At age eight, he was studying the violin and flute at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute. At age 15, he was studying mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. And at age 27, he got his wish to study at New York's vaunted music school Juilliard - on three Fulbright fellowships.

But even in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, it was hard to make ends meet by making music. So in between composing and performing, he took on menial jobs - operating cranes, maintaining buildings, driving cabs and plumbing. He once shocked Time magazine's art critic Robert Hughes by turning up at Hughes' home to install a dishwasher. Glass was in turn shocked when the artist Salvador Dali once boarded his cab to go to a hotel.

From his 20s, Glass made himself write music, every day without fail, between only breakfast and lunchtime.

In matters of faith, he has visited India about 20 times since 1966 and has long embraced aspects of Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism, including doing hatha yoga, taiji and qigong.

In romance, he has been married four times in the past 50 years, first to dramatist JoAnne Akalaitis, then to doctor Luba Burtyk, then painter Candy Jernigan and restaurant manager Holly Critchlow. All but Akalaitis were much younger than him. He divorced all but Jernigan, who died from liver cancer in 1991. He has a daughter and a son with Akalaitis and two sons with Critchlow.

Just a minute

•The good

Philip Glass' bread and butter may be musical notes, but he proves perhaps an even better writer than composer. He writes as plainly, clearly and simply as he talks; you can judge this for yourself by clicking on YouTube and viewing the 2007 documentary Glass: A Portrait Of Philip In Twelve Parts by Australian film director Scott Hicks. Glass' beguiling storytelling is especially impressive when you consider that, for the most part, he is describing such abstract joys as music, mastering various techniques and spirituality.

His ability to recall the minutiae of his life enables readers to get under the skin of his 30 years of struggles for art. You can almost hear the crunch of coal he hauls nightly for his potbelly stove and taste the crumbs of cheese that he survived on in Paris.

He has worked and hobnobbed with a galaxy of global superstars in the past 60 years and, in this book, he proffers fresh insights into how they thought and lived. They include the late sitar master Ravi Shankar, the late Nobel literary laureate Doris Lessing and the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Lessing, for example, persuaded the vegetarian Glass to eat eggs, at least, so as not to lose bone density.

•The bad

This book suffers from inattentive editing in places. For example, on page 1, Glass says: "I was rather looking forward eagerly to that..." He would have made his point with either the word "rather" or "eagerly".

•The iffy

While the art of writing an autobiography is knowing what to leave out, Glass has curiously omitted any reference to his second and fourth wives, namely internal diseases doctor Luba Burtyk and restaurant manager Holly Critchlow. He even dispenses with his two sons by Critchlow - Cameron and Marlowe - via a passing mention on page 185.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Fact File The man who repeats himself'. Print Edition | Subscribe