Here are my clippings from a profile of composer Philip Glass in the Sunday NYTimes. (Whenever you publish a book, you can be sure that in the years following you’ll find several tons of stuff that should’ve gone into it.)
Glass had the right spirit from his beginning: “I had the naïve but probably correct idea that if I wrote enough music, I would start to get better,” he wrote in his excellent 2015 memoir, Words Without Music.
The online version of the profile has the headline, “Philip Glass Is Too Busy to Care About Legacy,” but he’s spoken at length about the subject before. In a 2015 interview, Terry Gross asked Glass about his experiences with death. “What kind of afterlife do you want for your body? Do you want to be buried? Do you want to be cremated?” He answered:
I’m not so interested in that so much. But I’ve had other thoughts about that lately, which are quite interesting ones. I’ve thought of the lineage of music that goes way into the past and the future of music, which we hope will go into the future, and where does my life fit into that? I think just expressing it that way: What is the meaning of an artist’s life? Or of anybody’s life? A doctor’s life, a teacher’s life, or a radio interviewer’s life — what is the meaning of that? I’m more and more coming to the idea that it’s the lineage and the connection to the past and the connection to the future — that is the real connection. Everything else, I think, is kind of imaginary. Is there a heaven that is waiting for us or some afterlife of some kind? We have no idea. In fact, it’s not even important.
The important thing is how [you are] connected to the past. Does that represent not only continuity, but does it bring us closer to something that’s richer, that’s more interesting? What have we brought to the world and what do we leave behind us and what does the future have for us? The future … is in our children. It’s in our friends. It’s in our work. It’s all around us.
I find that the most reassuring when we contemplate living and dying, that [it] really misses the point: It’s not the living and dying, it’s the continuity of the lives that’s important.
Emphasis mine. Glass has made the point that when it comes to artistic lineage, it “is often something chosen. Before choosing it, we have to become aware that there’s something to choose. When I first began writing music, I really didn’t know where to begin…. The lineage is something that became revealed to me through several remarkable teachers.”
Here’s Jay-Z in Decoded (quoted in Steal Like An Artist):
We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.
I like this idea of thinking about lineage vs. legacy, because it means you can sort of reframe any worrying about immortality and how you’re going to project yourself into the future, and think more about what you’re taking from the past and what you’re adding to it that creates a more interesting and helpful present. Whatever you keep alive or re-animate from the past in the present has that much better chance of surviving into the future. (This also explodes your options as an artist: perhaps, for example, your part isn’t to invent so much as it is to preserve?)
See also: Climbing your own family tree.