DiscoGlassy

Philip Glass

Einstein on the Beach

1993

© GlassPages, 1997








Cover Picture

CD Cover (T. Charles Erickson)


References


Credits


Tracks


Audio samples

Introduction to Einstein on the Beach (1:10; 141.744 bytes ).

Introduction to Knee Play 5 (0:48; 96.176 bytes ).

Knee Play 5 (1:02; 124.200 bytes ).


Notes

Einstein on the Beach (1976) is a pivotal work in the oeuvre of Philip Glass. It is the first, longest, and most famous of the composer's operas, yet it is in almost every way unrepresentative of them. Einstein was, by design, a glorious "one-shot" - a work that invented its context, form and language, and then explored them so exhaustively that further development would have been redundant. But, by its own radical example, Einstein prepared the way - it gave permission - for much of what has happened in music theater since its premiere.

Einstein broke all the rules of opera. It was in four interconnected acts and five hours long, with no intermissions (the audience was invited to wander in and out at liberty during performances). The acts were intersticed by what Glass and Wilson called "knee plays" - brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes. The text consisted of numbers, solfege syllables and some cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, a young, neurologically-impaired man with whom Wilson had worked as an instructor of disturbed children for the New York public schools. To this were added short texts by choreographer Lucinda Childs and Samuel M. Johnson, an actor who played the Judge in the "Trial" scenes and the bus driver in the finale. There were references to the trial of Patricia Hearst (which was underway during the creation of the opera); to the mid-'70s radio lineup on New York's WABC; to the popular song "Mr. Bojangles"; to the Beatles and to teen idol David Cassidy. Einstein sometimes seemed a study in sensory overload, meaning everything and nothing.

A recording cannot capture the spectacular visual imagery that Robert Wilson devised for Einstein on the Beach but it should be said immediately that this was much more than the usual uneven collaboration between a librettist and composer. From its beginnings, worked out between Glass and Wilson over a series of luncheons at a restaurant on New York's Sullivan Street almost 20 years ago, this was truly a team effort.

At this time, Glass was writing long concert pieces for the Philip Glass Ensemble - most recently Music In Twelve Parts (1974) which might be considered Glass's "Art of the Repetition" - while working as a plumber and driving a taxi. "Foundation support was out of the question, of course," he recalled. "And most of my colleagues thought I'd gone completely off the wall." Still, by the mid-'70s, the Ensemble had built a cult following in the lofts and galleries of Manhattan's nascent Soho district, and Glass had begun amassing credits as a theater composer by providing scores for the experimental Mabou Mines Company (of which his first wife, JoAnne Akalaitis, was a founding member).

Glass, became aware of Wilson's stage work during an overnight performance of the twelve-hour Life and Times of Josef Stalin, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973. He was attracted to what he called Wilson's sense of "theatrical time, space and movement." The two men promptly determined to collaborate on a theatrical opus based on the life of a historic figure. Wilson proposed Chaplin, then Hitler; Glass countered with Gandhi. Finally, Glass and Wilson agreed upon Albert Einstein, and the name of the as-yet-unwritten work became "Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street." The title was later shortened; neither creator now remembers when or why.

"As a child, Einstein had been one of my heroes," the composer reflected in his book, Music By Philip Glass (Harper and Row, 1987). "Growing up just after World War II, as I had, it was impossible not to know who he was. The emphatic, if catastrophic, beginnings of the nuclear age had made atomic energy the most widely discussed issue of the day."

"Philip and I immediately agreed on the overall length of time we wanted to fill - four to five hours," Robert Wilson said in a recent interview. "We decided that each scene would be about 20 minutes long and that we would connect the scenes together with what I call 'knee plays' - the knee is a joint that links two similar elements, hence 'knee plays.' I did a series of drawings and Philip set them to music."

Wilson stresses that this marked a complete break with traditional theater. "In the past, theater has always been bound by literature. Einstein on the Beach is not. There is no plot - although there are many references to Einstein - and the visual book can stand on its own. We put together the opera the way an architect would build a building. The structure of the music was completely interwoven with the stage action and with the lighting. Everything was all of a piece."

The Glass-Wilson opera was intended as a metaphorical look at Einstein: scientist, humanist, amateur musician - and the man whose theories, for better and for worse, led to the splitting of the atom. Although it is difficult to discern a "plot" in Einstein, the climactic scene clearly depicted nuclear holocaust: with its renaissance-pure vocal lines, the blast of amplified instruments, a steady eighth-note pulse and the hysterical chorus chanting numerals as quickly and frantically as possible, it seemed to many a musical reflection of the anxious, fin-de-siècle late '70s.

Einstein on the Beach brought the composer fame - and notoriety. It was presented throughout Europe in the summer of 1976, then brought to the Metropolitan Opera House for two sold-out performances in November 1976. Then, as later, audience response was mixed; Glass's works were presented to boos and bravos.

Jane Herman, the presenter responsible for bringing Einstein to the Met, has vivid memories of her first encounter with the Glass/Wilson opera. "Anthony Bliss had just taken over as the Met's general manager and he wanted something to fill the house when the company wasn't performing," she said. "Jean Rigg, the administrative director of the Merce Cunningham troupe, told me about Einstein and I went to see a runthrough in downtown Manhattan - five full hours, without break - and I liked it very much. So I reported back to Tony and he called [director] John Dexter in London who said if Robert Wilson wanted to do it, we should do it. So I flew over and we arranged a contract. And that, as they say, was that.

"I'll never forget that first night at the Met and the standing ovation after the 'Bed.' I'd never seen an audience rise to its feet just because it took something twenty minutes ascend from the stage! This was clearly something now."

The flutist Ransom Wilson, who would later conduct and record some of Glass's music, has left a vivid impression of a New York performance of Einstein on the Beach, one worth recounting because it summarizes the reactions of many initiates: "As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored - very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental."

For the 1978 recording of Einstein on the Beach, Glass abridged the score to fit on to four LP discs. The opening scene, for example, was cut from some forty minutes to a little more than twenty by reducing the number of repeats. (Glass likened the process to a friend after a diet: "It's the same person before and after; there's just a little less of him.") Still, that first recording, issued on Tomato and then CBS Masterworks (later SONY), won considerable attention and was long considered definitive. Why, then, a new version?

There are several reasons, according to Glass. "To begin with, the new recording is almost 190 minutes long, as opposed to some 160 minutes in 1978," he said. "We were prisoners of the technology of the time and could only fit so much music on an LP side. The CD has changed everything. And length is not a trivial matter in a performance of Einstein but very much a part of the total experience."

"And we just play the music so much more skilfully today than we could back in the 1970s. Back then, we were just learning the style. I imagine that the first performance of Einstein [at Avignon in 1976] was probably a total mess but everything was so unusual and so new that nobody noticed. We were on a limited budget, so we had to hire singers who could also move and dancers who could also sing. Our chorus this time around is far superior to that on the first recording. Moreover, synthesizer technology has improved so enormously that we are able to create a more beautiful, sensual sound than we could have dreamed of in 1978."

Little has changed in the music itself. Richard Peck's squalling sax improvisation in the "Building" movement has been replaced by what Glass calls a "very lyrical, bluesy solo." There is a new violinist (Gregory Fulkerson) on this recording and a new soprano (Patricia Schuman). Most of the speeches are the same, (the late Samuel Johnson's "All Men Are Equal" replaces his original "Paris" text, and a new actor, Jasper McGruder, has taken over Johnson's small but crucial roles), and Lucinda Childs and Sheryl Sutton are back to recreate their speaking parts.

The score has many beauties: the pulsing, inevitable forward motion of "Train" (with its climactic exploration of a tricky, elegant modulation between F minor and E major, reprised throughout the opera); the slow, droning, quasi-hypnotic use of additive process in "Trial"; the furious, rhythmical reiterations of the dances; the sweet, gently rocking, solfege in the duet, "Night Train"; the loopy "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket" speech in "Trial 2/Prison" that leads, finally, to one of the most ecstatic outbursts of ensemble playing in the opera; the curious, detaché, aria for solo electric organ and soprano ("Bed"); and then the apocalyptic "Spaceship" movement. Ultimately, "Knee Play 5" brings it all back home and the mammoth opera ends rather as it began.

Though he loathes the term, Glass is often classified as a "minimalist" composer. Much of his mature work is based on the extended repetition of brief, elegant melodic fragments that weave in and out of an aural tapestry. Listening to his music has been compared to watching a modern painting that initially appears static but metamorphoses slowly as one concentrates. Particularly in his early works, Glass limited compositional material to a few elements, which were then subjected to a variety of transformational processes. A listener quickly learned not to expect Western musical events -sforzandos, sudden diminuendos. Instead, one was immersed in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.

"I first saw Philip Glass playing with his ensemble at the Royal College of Art in 1969 or 1970," Brian Eno recently recalled. "This was one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life - sound made completely physical and as dense as concrete by sheer volume and repetition. For me it was like a viscous bath of pure, thick energy. Though he was at that time described as a minimalist, this was actually one of the most detailed musics I'd ever heard. It was all intricacy and exotic harmonics."

Since the mid-1960s, Glass had based much of his music on two central techniques: additive process and cyclic structures. Additive process involved the expansion and contraction of tiny musical modules; a grouping of five notes might be played several times, then followed by a measure containing six notes (similarly repeated) then by seven notes, and so on. "A simple figure can expand and then contract in many different ways, maintaining the same general melodic configuration but, because of the addition or subtraction of one note, it takes on a very different rhythmic shape," Glass explained.

Glass defines rhythmic cycles as the simultaneous repetition of two or more different rhythmic patterns, which, depending on the length of the pattern, will eventually arrive together back at the starting points, making for one complete cycle. "This has been described by some writers as sounding like wheels inside wheels," Glass explained, "a rather fanciful but not wholly inaccurate way of evoking the resulting effect."

With these two techniques as the basis of his style, Glass had already begun to build a music of increasing richness and complexity. Einstein added a new functional harmony that set it aside from the early conceptual works. (Indeed, some of the music in Einstein had been originally written for a long series of concert pieces called, appropriately, Another Look at Harmony.)

Einstein on the Beach may be said to represent the apogee of Glass's modernism. As the composer observed in Music by Philip Glass: "In its own way, the pre-Einstein music, rigorous and highly reductive, was more 'radical' in its departure from the received tradition of Western music than what I have written since. But as I had been preoccupied at that point with that more radical-sounding music for over ten years, I felt I could add little more to what I had already done. Again, it is surely no coincidence that it was at the moment that I was embarking upon a major shift in my music to large-scale theater works that I began to develop a new, more expressive language for myself."

Indeed, it is not Einstein but Satyagraha (1980) that marks the first of Glass's more-or-less "traditional" operas (insofar as an opera without linear narrative, with a text in Sanskrit and based directly on the Bhagavad Gita may be considered "traditional"). As opposed to the spartan Einstein, composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble, Satyagraha was scored for more conventional forces: strings, woodwinds in threes, organ, six solo singers and chorus of forty. While Einstein challenged ideas about what an opera - even an avant-garde opera - should be, Satyagraha neatly fit Glass into the operatic continuum. Einstein threw out the rules with modernist zeal: Satyagraha adapted the rules to the composer's own esthetic. It was difficult to find any historical precedent for Einstein; in Satyagraha one may find references to many of the composer's predecessors.

And yet Glass insists there is a strong connection between Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten (1983). "Each of the three operas of this portrait trilogy has its own distinctive sound world," Glass said. "Einstein on the Beach, an opera about a great mathematician who loved music, is for amplified ensemble and small chorus singing a text comprised of numbers (actually the beats of the music) and solfege syllables. Satyagraha, a work about one man leading his people to freedom, is a large choral opera with text taken directly from Gandhi's philosophical guidebook in the actual language in which he read it. In Akhnaten, my emphasis is orchestral, with choral and solo voices sharing common ground with the orchestra.... Should the three operas be performed within a fairly narrow time span (within the same week, for example) I believe their internal connection will become increasingly obvious and provide the audience with a coherent musical and theatrical experience."

Einstein on the Beach was revived in 1984, and then again in 1992, by International Production Associates for extended tours, culminating in residencies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1989, Achim Fryer attempted a new visual interpretation of the Glass music at the Stuttgart State Opera, which was generally judged unsuccessful. It is in its original form - as a joint venture between Glass and Wilson - that Einstein has become one of the most famous operatic events of the century.

Virgil Thomson, whom Glass admired and considered one of his few genuine forerunners, wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein after the first production of their Four Saints in Three Acts: "Of course there were some who didn't like the music and some who didn't like the words and even some who didn't like the decors or the choreography but there wasn't anybody who didn't see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful..."

Much the same may be said for Glass and Wilson's collaboration, Einstein on the Beach. Its influence has been extensive - to a degree that Lucinda Childs, the dancer and choreographer, thinks may not be entirely healthy. "It's wonderful that people take it seriously and are influenced by it, but I see so much lifted out of context and it's hard for me to be positive about that."

"I don't think Einstein has lost a bit of its fascination," Harvey Lichtenstein, the director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, said in 1993. "Indeed, I think I'm more interested in it today than I've ever been. In the past I'd watch some of a performance, then get up and walk around for a while. The last few performances I've seen, I couldn't budge from my seat. I wish we were presenting it tomorrow night."

"It's had an enormous impact," Jane Herman says. "There have been rafts of material in the dance world, in theater, in music, that come directly out of Einstein. Every so often, I'll be in a theater and I'll recognize some gesture and think -'Aha! Here we are again.' "

-Tim Page.


GlassPages Review

There has been very, very much written about "Einstein on the Beach" since its world-premiere (1976 in Avignon, France). It is surely not one of the most radical works of Philip Glass, but surely one of his best-known, and it is the work, that made him and Robert Wilson, who was responsible for the whole non- musical part of this "opera", famous in the whole world of arts. But this introduction addresses itself especially to those people, who had no or only a few contacts with the music by Philip Glass.

Of course, "Einstein on the Beach" is no opera in the common sense. It is true that there are singers and dancers, performing on the stage, and that there is also an "orchestra" (the Philip Glass Ensemble). But the work has no narrative action, it consists only of "living pictures", which however have no relation to the real life of Albert Einstein. But nothing more shall be said here about what happens on the stage; finally it is a question of listening to one of the two recordings (CBS/Sony and Nonesuch).

Philip Glass is a master in creating very much from very few musical material. That is shown especially in "Einstein on the Beach". The principle of addition

and subtraction of notes of musical "patterns" (a keyword for every so-called "minimal music") is used here very frequently. Basically the whole opera, which after all has a live-duration of about five hours, consists of only a few themes or patterns, which appear again and again. There are only little changes of these patterns, e.g. the length, the instrumentation or the complexity. At the beginning, at the end and between every of the four acts, there is a so-called "knee-play", which functions as a connection. Right at the beginning it becomes clear that it is not an opera in the normal sense: There is a slow bass-line with only three notes, played by the electronic organ, and the singing starts with repetitions of numbers "one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four...". The instrumentation of each scene is changing through the whole spectrum: From solo-violin (Einstein himself used to play violin sometimes), choir a-capella, solo-singing with organ, up to the whole Philip Glass Ensemble with Choir. Together with this, sometimes there are spoken words, which sense does not open up before the listener during the first time (and perhaps they stay obscure).

"Einstein on the Beach" will be a very special hearing-event for everyone, who gets involved in it, also without the impression of the stage-performance.

Mathias Sträßer
May, 1998
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Links

  • Musical themes of Ensntein on the Beach pages by Nicolas Sceaux (in English and French).
  • Einstein on the Beach pages by Jeff Smith.
  • Albert Einstein Online.

  • Pictures





    GlassPages - Philip Glass on the Web
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    http://www.glasspages.org/