Philip Glass

Einstein on the Beach


© GlassPages, 1997

Cover Picture

CD Cover (Milton Glaser)




Audio samples

Knee Play 1 (251Kb ).

Knee Play 4 (199Kb ).


"I remember reading a letter of Mozart's", Philip Glass mused. He was sitting at the kitchen table in the corner of a friend's loft in lower Manhattan, taking a break from rehearsing his ensemble of electric organs and woodwinds. He looked comfortable-craggy, engaging face, checkered shirt, jeans, white socks and battered loafers-and the music, part of his score for "Einstein On The Beach", felt comfortable, even though following its whirlwind of repetitions and pattern shifts required stamina and absolute attention from his musicians. The players-Dickie Landry, Jon Gibson, Richard Peck, Michael Riesman, Iris Hiskey, and Kurt Munkacsi-were scattered around the loft talking about new music, jazz, and what have you. And here was Glass, thinking out loud about the eighteenth century.

"In this letter", he continued, "Mozart commented that in every coffee shop, people were singing arias from 'The Marriage of Figaro'. There was a time when there wasn't this tremendous distance between the popular audience and concert music, and I think we're approaching that stage again. For a long while we had this very small band of practitioners of modern music who described themselves as mathematicians, doing theoretical work that would someday be understood. I don't think anyone takes that very seriously anymore. There was a time, too, when Paganini, Liszt, Berlioz made their living playing. I would like to think that we're entering a period again when concert musicians, people who are concerned in a progressive way with musical ideas, are involved with that".

If the interest of popular musicians is any indication, the era of the serious composer as performing musician and pop hero is already upon us. Ever since he performed at the Royal College of Art in London, in 1970, Glass has numbered David Bowie and Brian Eno among his fans. His kind of music-it has been called solid state, minimalist, and trance music, images from the world of electronic circuitry, the visual arts, and non-Western ritual music that may help illuminate what he does but do not quite define it-is a worldwide influence in progressive rock. You con hear some Glass, some Terry Riley, and some La Monte Young in Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and dozens of other rock bands. But as talk at the kitchen table veered from Mozart to rock, Glass insisted, "There's one important distinction between pop musicians and concert musicians; I think it's the only important distinction".

He shifted in his chair, running a hand through his short but tangled hair. "When you talk about concert musicians, you're talking about people who actually invent language. They create values, a value being a unit of meaning that is new and different. Pop musicians package language. I don't think there's anything wrong with packaging language; some of that can be very good music. I realized long ago that people were going to make money off my ideas in a way that I'm not capable of or interested in doing. It doesn't bother me; the two kinds of music are just different. One thing these English and German groups have done, though, they've taken the language of our music and made it much more accessible. It's been helpful. If people had only heard Fleetwood Mac this music would sound like music from outer space".

Ever since the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson opera "Einstein on the Beach" was given two sold-out performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, ever since a progressive rock label released Glass' album North Star, ever since he gave a concert at Carnegie Hall and sold the place out, critics have been saying that he is a "crossover" phenomenon (music business jargon for a minority appeal artist who suddenly connects with a mass audience).

Glass insists that this is not quite true. "The record companies are crossing over", he said, "the audience is crossing over, but I'm not. I began writing a certain way because I've always been interested in the grammar of music, in the way it fits together. I'm a serious composer, but I'm working at a time when audiences no longer assume strong and exclusive allegiances to one musical style. The significant thing isn't what's happening to me, it's what's happening to audiences".

What's happening is an important shift in the way Western concert music is composed, performed and appreciated. The roots of this shift can be traced back to John Cage, who turned the thoughts of American composers in an eastward direction and helped create an atmosphere in which anything that was possible might possibly be called music. But it began in earnest in the mid-sixties. Glass was studying with Allah Rakha, the Indian virtuoso of the tabla drums. Through this association he became involved with the Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who hired him to help in the scoring of a film. "My ideas wouldn't have developed the way they did if I hadn't started in that place", Glass says."Also, I travelled in Morocco, where I had my first contact with non-Western music and was influenced by the geometric repetitions in Islamic art. Then in Asia I would stay in Himalayan villages for two or three weeks without seeing another Westerner. Later I became interested in South Indian music and in West African drumming".

By 1966 Glass was composing music in a nascent version of the style that flowers in "Einstein on the Beach". He didn't know it at the time, but some other composers who were then living in California were working on similarly influenced music. La Monte Young had developed earlier and was already well along on a personal path, more involved with the perception of harmonic resonances than with the repetition or rhythm. Nevertheless, he would emerge as something of a father figure to the movement. Terry Riley, an early associate of Young's, had composed "In C", the first orchestral work in the new idiom, in 1964, and he attracted more attention than any of the other young composers working in the field later in the sixties, when Columbia Masterworks recorded both "In C" and his "A Rainbow in Curved Air".

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that some of the brightest young minds in American music would have been profoundly affected by the cultural currents of the mid-sixties. After all, superficial influences from lndian music were already creeping into pop through the Beatle's experiments, and Cage and a number of artists working in other media had been saying for some time that so-called primitivism often proves highly sophisticated while Western complexity often masks banality or simplemindedness. But at the time, the development of a trance or minimalist or solid state school of American composers did not seem to be a foregone conclusion at all. In fact, it was unimaginable. Classical music changes at a glacial pace compared to pop music and jazz, and in the mid-sixties its progressive wing fell rather neatly into two opposing camps. On the one hand, the serialists were in the process of reducing every element in music -melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and so on-to a series of mathematical formulae. On the other hand, Cage and his followers and successors were championing indeterminacy, happenstance, improvisation. And never the twain did meet.

Glass could easily have ended up in one camp or the other. Certainly he started conventionally enough. He was a precocious student, beginning his studies at the Peabody Conservatory in his native Baltimore when he was eight and entering the University of Chicago at fifteen. Between 1957 and 1961 he was a composition student at Juilliard, and after graduation he received a grant from the Ford Foundation to be composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh public school system. His grant was renewed in 1963-64, and by this time he was writing pieces in the accepted academic serialist manner that found ready publishers in America and Europe. In 1964 Glass was awarded a Fulbright Grant for study in Paris with Boulanger.

But Allah Rakha, who taught Glass the additive principles of Indian rhythmic structure that he has drawn on in his subsequent compositions, and Ravi Shankar had more effect on the budding composer than Boulanger, and when he returned to New York in 1967 Glass began performing his new music of hypnotically repeating rhythmic modules and cool, spare textures. In the fall of 1968 he formed his first ensemble of amplified keyboards and winds, with Jon Gibson and Dickie Landry. Unfortunately, the foundations that had helped him when he was composing conventional music were profoundly uninterested in these new developments. The support he had enjoyed dried up, but he stuck to his guns, working days and rehearsing in lofts in downtown Manhattan at night. The word that he was making a mesmerizing new music spread, but it spread slowly. He formed his own record company, Chatham Square Productions, in 1971, issuing two albums of his own music and several others by the members of his group, most of whom are accomplished and individual composers as well as performers. It wasn't until 1974 that a "real" record company, Virgin Records of England, developed an interest in his work. Eventually, Virgin released Parts One and Two of his "Music in Twelve Parts" and an album of short pieces for a film about the sculptor Mark di Suvero, "North Star".

Glass and his ensemble have toured Europe a dozen times since 1970; this goes a long way toward explaining his influence on European progressive rock. Recognition has not been as rapid in U. S. For a long time Glass' supporters were mainly allied with the visual arts, and it is easy enough to find similarities between his music and, say, the painting of Kenneth Noland. But Glass' music is not at all difficult to listen to or to comprehend, quite the opposite in fact. "It's a music that has consciously reduced its means harmonically and melodically in favor of a structural clarity," he says, "a music that tends to be fairly consistent in terms of meter and tempo". Its harmonies are simpler than the harmonies used by your average pop songwriter. The music does seem to repeat a few ideas for a very long time, but as Andrew Porter noted in a review of "Einstein On The Beach" that appeared in The New Yorker "Glass' score may be incantatory, but it is not lulling... A listener to his music usually reaches a point, quite early on, of rebellion at the needle-stuck-in-the-groove quality, but a minute or two later he realizes that the needle has not stuck; something has happened. Once that point has passed, Glass' music-or so I find-becomes easy to listen to for hours on end. The mind may wander now and again, but it wanders within a new sound world that the composer has created".

With a few word changes, Porter's observation will serve as an introduction to the world of Robert Wilson, whose theatrical spectacles seem on the surface to be as repetitious as Glass' music and which one ends up wandering within rather than watching. Of course, it is Glass' music one hears on these records, but "Einstein on the Beach" as experienced on the stage is a true collaboration between Glass and the man Eugene lonesco recently called America's most important dramatist. Like Glass, Wilson developed his methods during the middle and late sixties. Like Glass, Wilson is concerned with apparent motionlessness and endless durations during which dreams are dreamed and significant matters are understood. Like Glass, Wilson has found a group of dedicated performers to help him bring his vision to life.

Robert Wilson's pre-theatrical background was in painting and architecture, and as The New York Times's John RockwelI has observed, "his stage works are massive, hypnotic theatrical pictures". The first of Wilson's major pieces, "The King of Spain", began its life in 1969 at New York's Anderson Theatre. It was absorbed into a longer work, "The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud," and Wilson went on to explore extremely long durations. "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin," which was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, ran for twelve hours, and "Ka Mountain and Guardenia Terrace; a Story about Some People Changing" ran continuously for seven days and nights at the 1972 Shiraz festival in Iran.

Wilson's other works have included "A Letter to Queen Victoria", "The $ Value of Man", and the celebrated "Deafman's Glance", but his examinations of seminal twentieth century figures-Freud, Stalin, and Einstein-have seemed to cluster in a class by themselves. Actually, they are not examinations in any conventional sense; they are not historical nor even particularly analytical. "Wilson's Einstein", wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek, "is, like his Freud and Stalin, not so much a historical figure as a resonator, a magnetic catalyst creating a new gravitational field in human experience". Another way of looking at Wilson's operas is as meditations, with their central figures serving as mantras. However one conceives them, the event is only partly on stage. Part of it, perhaps the most significant part, is triggered by Wilson's images but takes place in the viewer's mind.

"Einstein on the Beach" is the tightest and most visually striking of Wilson's operas. (It may strike some readers that calling them operas is stretching the point, but this is what Wilson calls them, and technically, "opera" simply means "work".) It revolves around three recurring visual images, each of which has its corresponding music. There are trains, recalling the toy trains Einstein played with as a child and the trains he later used as analogies to illustrate his theory of relativity. A trial scene that includes a bed seems to resonate with the awesome implications of Einstein's discoveries. Did he ponder, while in bed at night, the threat of atomic catastrophe that his work had helped unleash? Might he have imagined himself, or modern science, on trial? The third image, representing, perhaps, the potential for liberation and transcendence that Einstein also unleashed, is a spaceship. But all the images are really more complex than these descriptions indicate, as dreams tend to be. The trial bogs down in the banalities muttered by an old judge, and the spaceship is linked in some way to the nuclear apocalypse suggested by the opera's title-a reference to Nevil Shute's novel of nuclear holocaust, On The Beach. And then there is a fourth image, Einstein himself. The real Einstein often played the violin for relaxation, and in Wilson's opera he is seen periodically, standing apart from the action, observing it while fiddling like a thoughtful, tousle-headed Nero.

"Einstein", wrote Andrew Porter, "is precisely organized, tautly patterned, economical in its forces, and austere in its decor". The organization, the patterning, the decor, along with the images themselves, make up the content of Wilson's work, serving the functions that plot, characterization and narrative exposition serve in more conventional operas. This non-didactic approach means that Wilson's staging, direction and design and Glass' music can fuse into a single experience, an experience in which structure and substance ore one and the same and the "picture" is completed by the listener/ viewer.

Glass indicates in his notes to "Einstein on the Beach", reprinted elsewhere in this booklet, that the music grew out of a series of works called "Another Look At Harmony" which he began composing in 1975. "In my earlier work," he explained one afternoon shortly before his first Carnegie Hall concert, "I took rhythmic structure and made it more or less the subject of the work. In 'Music in 12 Parts', for example, each part is almost a catalogue of rhythmic techniques that create overall structure. But in 'Another Look at Harmony', I tried to find a way of linking rhythmic structure with harmonic structures and rhythmic 'interest'." In other words, the music is still "about" its own structure, but the language is richer than in Glass' earlier work. Using relatively austere means, the composer has created a music of remarkable color and depth.

The New York Times's John Rockwell hears in this music a "mixture of mathematical clarity and mystical allure", and this mixture is the source of its great fascination and power. Any music that ignores the principles of order and simply expresses raw emotions must seem inadequate for this scientific age, and yet the contemplation of the transcendent probably plays a greater part in our lives than at any time since the dawn of the age of rationalism. So one listens to the music, just as one watches Wilson's shifting tableaux, and somehow, without quite knowing it, one crosses the line from being puzzled or irritated to being absolutely bewitched. The experience is inexplicable but utterly satisfying, and one could not ask for anything more than that.

-Robert Palmer

Philip Glass, Robert Wilson (Robert Mapplethorpe)

Notes on




The music for "Einstein on the Beach" was written in the spring, summer and fall of 1975. Bob Wilson and I worked directly from a series of his drawings which eventually formed the designs for the sets. Prior to that period, we had reached agreement on the general thematic content, the overall length, its divisions into 4 acts, 9 scenes and 5 connecting "knee plays". We also determined the makeup of the company-4 principal actors, 12 singers, doubling when possible as dancers and actors, a solo violinist, and the amplified ensemble of keyboards, winds and voices with which my music is usually associated.

The three main recurring visual themes of the opera (Train/Trial/Field with Spaceship) are linked to three main musical themes. The overall thematic divisions of the opera are as follows:

KNEE PLAY 1 (Chorus and electric organ)

  Act I   Scene 1   TRAIN

(ensemble with solo voice and chorus joining at the end)

          Scene II  TRIAL

(chorus, violin, electric organ and flutes)

KNEE PLAY 2 (Violin solo)

  Act II  Scene 1   DANCE 1-Field with Spaceship

(ensemble with solo voice/dancers)

          Scene 2   NIGHT TRAIN

(2 voices, chorus and small ensemble)

KNEE PLAY 3 (Chorus a capella)

  Act III Scene 1   TRIAL/PRISON

(chorus and electric organ, ensemble at the end)

          Scene 2   DANCE 2-Field with Spaceship

(6 voices, violin, electric organ)

KNEE PLAY 4 (Chorus and violin)

  Act IV  Scene 1   BUILDING/TRAIN

(chorus and ensemble)

          Scene 2   BED

(solo electric organ and voice)

          Scene 3   SPACESHIP

(chorus and ensemble)

KNEE PLAY 5 (Women's chorus, violin and electric organ)

The most important musical material appears in the knee plays and features the violin. Dramatically speaking, the violinist (dressed as Einstein, as are the performers on stage) appears as a soloist as well as a character in the opera. His playing position-midway between the orchestra and the stage performers-offers a clue to his role. He is seen then, perhaps as Einstein himself, or simply as a witness to the stage events; but, in any case, as a musical touchstone to the work as a whole.

It might be useful to delineate some of the visual/musical transformation of the material which makes up the opera:

The image of the train appears three times-first in Act I, Scene 1, then in Act II, Scene 2 (as the Night Train), and finally in Act IV, Scene 1, where it appears in the same perspective as the Night Train, but this time transformed into a building. The music for the first train is in three parts, or "themes". The first theme (based on the super-imposition of two shifting rhythmic patterns, one changing and one fixed) makes up most of the music of this scene.

The second appearance of the train image, the Night Train, is a reworking of the first theme, this time with a larger complement of voices. The music for the Building is a development of the second theme, recognizable by its highly accented rhythmic profile, in which the repeated figures form simple arithmetic progressions.

The third theme is a rhythmic expansion of a traditional cadential formula. This "cadence" theme forms the principal material of the opera, being used for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Knee Plays, as well as almost the entire music for Act IV Scene 3, the Spaceship.

The second major visual image, the Trial, also appears three times in the opera-first in Act I, Scene 2, then in Act Ill, Scene I where, after the first few minutes, the stage divides, becoming half-trial/half-prison, and finally in Act IV, Scene 2, where the bed which has been in the center of the trial, and in half of the trial/prison, now occupies the entire stage. Here again the trial music is in three parts, or "themes". After the opening of the first trial we hear the violin, accompanied by men's voices, playing a simple, harmonically stable rhythmic pattern which, through an additive process, slowly expands and contracts.

Later, the women's voices join in, producing a somewhat thicker texture. Toward the end of this scene, during the judge's speech, the second theme is heard, more chordal in nature, for solo electric organ.

The Trial/Prison begins musically in the same way as the first Trial. After the stage divides, the third theme is heard-numbers sung by the men and women in the jury box and lightly accompanied by harmonically shifting arpeggios on electric organ. Toward the end of the scene, the witness remaining alone on the stage speaks and, as the scenery is removed, the second (chordal) theme appears-this time in soprano saxophone and bass clarinet.

The Bed scene begins with a cadenza for electric organ. As the bed lifts to a vertical position and flies upwards, we hear the first theme again. Then, for the last time, the second (chordal) theme is heard, now accompanied by a solo singing voice.

Act I, Scene 2    Act III, Scene 1   Act IV, Scene 2
    (TRIAL)        (TRIAL/PRISON)         (BED)
Theme 1                   1                 1
                    Theme 3
Theme 2                   2                 2

The first two appearances of the Field image are given over to dance and can be heard as similar reflections of the same musical material. For me they are two pillars equidistant from either end of the opera, sharing only superficial features with the musical content of the other scenes. During the first dance in Act II, Scene 1, a spaceship is seen in the distance. In the second dance, Act Ill, Scene 2, the spaceship appears closer. The third appearance of the Field, Act IV, Scene 3 takes place inside the spaceship and, as indicated earlier, the music comes from the third theme of the train music.

The Knee Plays are the short connecting pieces which appear throughout the work much as prelude, interludes and postlude. Taken together, they form a play in themselves. They can also be seen as the seeds which flower and take form in the larger scenes. In the first four Knee Plays, two characters are seen in a room, sitting at two tables, then sitting side-by-side in two chairs, next standing together in front of a large control board and then lying on top of two large glass tables. In the final knee play, the last moment of the opera, they are seen sitting on a bench waiting for a bus.

The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Knee Plays share the same form-first theme, second theme and return to first theme. The "cadence" theme of the first train (Act I, Scene 1) makes up the first theme in all of these Knee Plays, either expressed as violin arpeggios, in a chorale setting for voices, or, in the 4th Knee Play, as a combination of the two. The middle theme of the 2nd Knee Play, based on simple scale passages, reappears during the second dance and in the middle section of the Spaceship music. The middle themes of the 3rd Knee Play and the 4th Knee Play are different arrangements of the same material, easily recognizable by its highly lyrical character.

The root movement (implied bass line) of this material is A-G-C. This becomes, in the pedal of an electric organ, the opening descending bass line of the 1st knee play.

After a very extended beginning, during which the audience enters, the first vocal setting of these harmonies appears. The descending bass line reappears for the 5th Knee Play, joined shortly thereafter by women's voices singing the vocal music of the 1st Knee Play, and then by the violin, playing the middle theme of the 4th Knee Play.

The vocal texts used throughout the opera are based on numbers and solfege ("do, re, mi . . .") syllables. When numbers are used, they represent the rhythmic structure of the music. When solfege is used, the syllables represent the pitch structure of the music. In either case, the text is not secondary or supplementary, but is a description of the music itself.

To conclude this part of the notes, one might say that, in a general way, the opera begins with a 19th Century train and ends with a 20th Century spaceship. Events occur en route-trials, prison, dances-and throughout, the continuity of the Knee Plays. A number of principal characters appear and reappear in different combinations, often carrying with them an identifying gesture. The violinist, one of the Einsteins of the opera, remains (even during the final scene, the Spaceship, when the entire company is on stage) seated apart, a witness.


"Einstein on the Beach" is part of an ongoing musical project begun with "Another Look at Harmony" in the spring of 1975. This, in turn, is based on "Music in 12 Parts" (completed 1974) which developed a vocabulary of techniques (additive processes, cyclic structure and combinations of the two) to apply to problems of rhythmic structure. "Another Look at Harmony" turns to problems of harmonic structure or, more accurately, structural harmony-new solutions to problems of harmonic usage, where the evolution of material can become the basis of an overall formal structure intrinsic to the music itself (and without the harmonic language giving up its moment-to-moment content and "flavor").

My main approach throughout has been to link harmonic structure directly to rhythmic structure, using the latter as a base. In doing so, easily perceptible "root movement" (chords or "changes") was chosen in order that the clarity of this relationship could be easily heard. Melodic material is for the most part a function, or result, of the harmony, as is true in earlier periods of Western music. However, it is clear that some of the priorities of Western music (harmony/melody first, then rhythm) have been reversed. Here we have rhythmic structure first, then harmony/melody. The result has been a reintegration of rhythm, harmony and melody into an idiom which is, hopefully, accessible to a general public, although, admittedly, somewhat unusual at first hearing.

Parts 1 and 2 of "Another look at Harmony" become the basis of Act I, Scene 1, (Train) and Act II, Scene 1 (Field) of the opera and were the starting points from which additional material and devices were developed.

The musical material of the opera is made up of series of 5 chords, 4 chords, 3 chords, 2 chords and 1 chord. Following is a brief description of each series and the techniques relevant to its use.

The most prominent "theme" of the opera is made from the following progression of 5 chords:

  key of f
(i) (VI) (IVb)

(IV) (V) (I)
  key of E

This combines both a familiar cadence and a modulation in one formula. What makes the formula distinctive and even useful is, of course, the way in which the IVb (Bbb) becomes IV (A) of the new key, thereby making the phrase resolve a half step lower. This, in turn, provides the leading tone for the original i (f). As it is a formula which invites repetition, it is particularly suited to my kind of musical thinking. It can be heard in the opera as the third theme of the Train music (Act I, Scene 1), with ensemble and chorus, then in arpeggio form as a violin solo in Knee Play 2, next in chorale form for chorus a capella in Knee Play 3, then in both arpeggio form and chorale form in Knee Play 4, and finally combining all the previous arrangements in the Spaceship (Act IV Scene 3).

The progression of 4 chords appears at the end of the Trial (Act I, Scene 2), Trial/Prison (Act III, Scene 1) and Bed (Act IV, Scene 2). It is a rhythmic expansion of the 4 chords:


As indicated, the f and C harmonies are "paired" rhythmically, as are the Eb and D harmonies. Beginning with a simple pattern of eighth notes,

(f) (Eb) (C) (D)

the phrase gradually expands, each new phrase being played twice, until quite a long and elaborate final figure is produced. An example of the rhythmic/harmonic expansion in its early stage is as follows:

   (f)     (Eb)    (C)     (D)
(1) 4       3       4       3
(2)(4+3)    4      (4+3)    4
(3)(4+3)   (4+3)   (4+3)   (4+3)
(4)(4+3+2) (4+3)   (4+3+2) (4+3)

The material involving the series of 3 chords makes up the music of the two dance sections (Act II, Scene 1 and Act Ill, Scene 2). The procedure here is quite different, setting three key centers (A, e7 and Bb) "around" a central key of d. At the beginning, each of the key centers is associated with its own meter and all are played over a common rhythmic pattern of 6/8. (This, incidentally, creates a secondary polymetric "flavor" throughout the music.) The key of A appears in dotted quarters, e7 in eighth notes (a substitute key of C7 appears later) and Bb in half notes. After an excursion into one of these key centers the music returns, always, to the central key of d. As the music develops, the key centers begin to exchange metrical character. Later, these form complex accumulations of meters in the same key before returning to the central key, d. This accumulative process continues until the original key/meter associations are lost in an overall texture of harmonies and meters.

The sequence of two chords is found in the Trail/Prison music. The two harmonies, a7 and g7 , are first heard as two alternating arpeggiated figures in 6/8 (played on electric organ with voices chanting numbers representing the rhythmic patterns). The music develops as each "half" of the figure undergoes a process of rhythmic fragmentation (wherein small increments of the original figure are added to itself). At first the process occurs equally in both halves (represented by the two harmonies) of the figure, thereby maintaining an exact overall symmetry. Gradually, the two halves begin to differ rhythmically, reaching a point where they are completely different and the figure is asymmetrical. At this point two successive asymmetrical figures in the music begin to act as mirror images of each other, thereby seeming to form one doubly-long symmetrical pattern.

The music based on one chord is first heard in the Trial (Act I, Scene 2). The violin, playing a figure in 7/8, outlines an a7 harmony. A simple additive process begins as each successive figure adds a single eight note, thereby changing its overall rhythmic character and causing the figure to gradually expand. The figure later contracts when the process is reversed, returning finally to its original form. The same process is heard later at the beginning of the Trial/Prison (Act III, Scene 1) and finally in the Bed (Act IV, Scene 2).

Copyright © 1976 Philip Glass

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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  • Musical themes of Einstein 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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