The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Work of Wonder: Phillip Glass on Art, Science, and the Most Important Quality of a Visionary

The Work of Wonder: Phillip Glass on Art, Science, and the Most Important Quality of a Visionary

Epoch after epoch, we humans have tried to raise ourselves above other animals with distinctions that have turned out false — consciousness is not ours alone, nor is grief, nor is play. If there is anything singular about us, it is our capacity to be wonder-smitten by the world and to invent languages for channeling that wonder — the wonder of the inner world, the language for which is art, and the wonder of the outer world, the language of which is science. Binding the two and translating between them is the crowning glory of our consciousness: music.

How these two languages mirror and inform each other is what Philip Glass explores some lovely passages from his memoir Words Without Music (public library).

Celestial harmonics of the planets, from The Harmony of the World (1619) by Johannes Kepler, based on the Pythagorean concept of the Music of the Spheres.

Glass — who was grinding lenses and building telescopes at age eleven, and who has written more operas about science than any other composer — recounts the enchantment science cast upon him as a freshman at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, studying chemistry under a Nobel laureate who had chosen to teach eighty teenagers with electrifying enthusiasm for the subject — a testament to how one great teacher can shape a life, can set into motion the orrery of wonder from which all creative work springs. Looking back on these lectures, Glass recognizes the parallels of passion that great artists and great scientists share:

Professor Urey lectured like an actor, striding back and forth in front of the big blackboard, making incomprehensible marks on the board… 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.

What also shaped Glass’s creative spirit and his understanding of creativity was the school’s rather unusual choice to teach students from primary sources — the voices and visions of great artists, writers, and scientists rising from the page directly, unmediated by a biographer’s interpretation or a critic’s commentary. Not yet twenty, Glass and his classmates read Schrödinger and Dalton, Newton’s Principia and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, replicated Mendel’s fruit fly experiments and restaged Galileo’s rolling balls. Something more than learning emerged from this immersion — something radiant with understanding, a way of seeing how individual ideas fit in a larger framework of knowledge, the framework we call culture. Glass reflects on how this imprinted his imagination:

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 forty-five 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 the operas about Galileo, Kepler, and Einstein pay tribute to everything I learned about scientists and science that came out of those years.

With an eye to the singular power of this primary-source method of learning, he adds:

The effect on me was to cultivate and understand in a firsthand way the lineage of culture. 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… 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, those early operas were, as I see it, an homage to the power, strength, and inspiration of the lineage of culture.

Looking back on his own creative trajectory, he reflects:

Music and science have been my great loves. I see scientists as visionaries, as poets… What interests me is how similar these visionaries’ way of seeing is to that of an artist. Einstein clearly visualized his work. In one of his books on relativity, trying to explain it to people, he wrote that he imagined himself sitting on a beam of light, and the beam of light was traveling through the universe at 186,000 miles per second. What he saw was himself sitting still and the world flashing by him at a really high speed. His conclusion was that all he had to do — as if it were a minor matter — was to invent the mathematics to describe what he had seen.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Glass adds:

What I have to do when I compose is not that different. All I have to do after I have the vision is to find the language of music to describe what I have heard, which can take a certain amount of time. I’ve been working in the language of music all my life, and it’s within that language that I’ve learned how ideas can unfold.

Complement with physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe and the shared psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit the neurophysiology of how music enchants us and the story of how Pythagoras and Sappho revolutionized music.

Published November 10, 2023




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